Chicago magazine ran a lion-in-winter profile of Mike Royko a year and a half ago, in the course of which Royko was asked to pass judgment on some of the other columnists in town. Of young Richard Roeper of the Sun-Times, Royko declared, "The kid can't do it."
Roeper had already heard worse. Worse had been said behind his back at the Sun-Times. A column is a grail from which few reporters get to sip. Roeper began writing his back in 1986 as a mere free-lancer. It ran once a week, buried too deep in the Sunday features section to be found without a guide, and could safely be dismissed as a pathetic sop to youth. But then Roeper was hired and assigned to the city desk, and he began to be despised. It became immediately apparent that Roeper was a favorite of the paper's then editor, Ken Towers. Between Roeper and Towers flashed all the telltale signs, unmistakable to the journeyman, of the one who is chosen.
We soon heard from Roeper's new colleagues.
"He kind of writes like he's 12," a reporter told us. Someone else said, "His columns are all, totally, 'I - I - I.' Sort of like a teenage Bob Greene." "I don't see where he's got any substance" was a third opinion.
Guided by these sentiments and by our own perusal of his output, we wrote in mid-'88 that Roeper had one special talent: "The capacity to mine, in clear and simple words, the deeper recesses of his own callowness."
So Royko merely stated the conventional wisdom about Richard Roeper. What's significant is that this wisdom was becoming dated as he spoke. Roeper managed to shrug off the slap. He tells us now, "I was kind of flattered that I was mentioned with other columnists who'd been around 10 or 20 years. I thought it was kind of neat. As far as 'The kid can't do it'--people thought I should have been devastated. But my response was, 'What did Mike Tyson always say about the next challenger?'"
And Roeper says that when he ran into Royko a couple of months later, Royko told him he didn't really mean it. "He was pretty encouraging, actually," Roeper says.
Maybe Roeper can do it. We've been wondering since Dennis Britton succeeded Towers in 1989 whether he'd name a heavyweight--someone who could take on Royko--to serve as the heart on the paper's sleeve. Britton hasn't. But while we weren't looking, Roeper quietly moved to page 11 and began writing two, then four, and now five columns a week.
Today Roeper seems to be the guy.
A few weeks ago he even turned 30.
"I think a lot of things happened that made him more accepted," said one of the reporters who didn't have much use for Roeper back in '88.
Such as? we asked.
"That he's grown up. That he's tackling more substantial topics. . . . A year and a half ago I remember thinking, 'Has he gotten much, much better lately!' I found myself compelled to read him, where I had not before. He just suddenly made great strides. He got off the plateau."
Roeper tells us he sensed a sea change in late 1989, when he shifted from a city-side reporter also writing two columns a week to a full-time columnist writing four. The city suddenly noticed him. "That was the point when I started getting calls from radio stations--'Hey! Who are you? Where did you come from?' I started hearing my column mentioned on the air."
The amount of mail he got more than quadrupled.
Roeper's been doing five a week for about a year now. Writing a column every day is either impossible or pretty easy. Roeper is young and fresh and single, and not much else is assailing his nervous system. "If you're going to be a daily columnist, you should be in the paper five days a week," he says. "It's frustrating the days between Thursday and Sunday when something happens and I have to wait for my turn to say something about it. People think it puts a lot of pressure on me. When you write two times a week there's a tendency to overwrite, to overwork, to overthink. Writing five days you can tell yourself, well, maybe today wasn't a home run. But I can go right back into the batter's box tomorrow. I like it."
Roeper remains young. He would rather write about the funny way the mayor speaks than whatever it is the mayor happens to be talking about. When Royko was tormenting the mayor's dad, he did both. Says Roeper, "I think the average person isn't interested in what the mayor says. It doesn't affect his or her life directly"--which is probably true at least for the average person with no property taxes to pay or children in public schools, still the basis of Roeper's readership. But give him credit. Roeper had to come miles from his '88 classic, "Yep, Stupid Girls make great dates," to be able to write "When the changing neighborhood is yours," a bitter July column that put him exactly where a columnist needs to be from time to time, flooded with angry letters for saying some difficult things plainly and well.
In our conversation, Roeper didn't pretend to be Royko's next challenger. "Reporters here always talk about, why doesn't the Sun-Times have someone on page three?" Roeper said. The rule of thumb is that the farther from page one a columnist is put, the softer he or she is. Royko's on three. Page 11 is getting sort of squishy.
"A part of me says 'Yeah, why don't we?'" Roeper went on. "That'll take the onus off me."
It's not Royko whom Roeper frequently hears himself being compared with but Bob Greene, his distant Sun-Times predecessor as the voice of youth. Greene, who was far more outwardly ambitious, not only wanted to be a famous columnist by the time he was 30 but also wanted to have published five books. Which he did.
"It happened again last night at the White Sox game," said Roeper. "Someone said, 'Gee, I like your column and I can't stand Bob Greene--he's so lame.' People seem to think they need to tell me how much they don't like Bob Greene. And I don't see how that's supposed to benefit me.
"I've been reading him since he started, when I was about 12 years old. I respect his accomplishments."
Have Attitude, Will Travel
Readers feel a special bond with writers they've discovered. It's proprietary, almost familial, and when it has to be, boundlessly forgiving. The name Mike Royko meant nothing to us the first time we read one of his columns, which came rat-a-tat-tatting in over a teletype in a newspaper office in Saint Louis. The column was funny and moral, and it took the side of some kid against the president of a bank.
Nobody wrote like Royko in Saint Louis. Nobody called bankers jerks. It was terrific to find out that somebody in Chicago did. "Attitude" wasn't a street term back then, but Royko clearly had one. He didn't like assholes who threw their weight around, and he said so.
Back in the 60s, when Royko started writing his column--two a week on page 14--the Chicago Daily News didn't ring its bells and blow its whistles. As Royko found himself, the paper's readers found Royko, just like we did. "You can't force yourself on the reader," Royko once told us.
Bob Greene began the same way in 1971--two columns a week in the features section and no fanfare. But times changed.
Richard Roeper joined the Sun-Times in time to see what happened to Lynda Gorov. Gorov had never written a column anywhere--which didn't keep the Sun-Times from signing her up in 1987 and shouting from the rooftops, "Find out why everyone's talking about Lynda Gorov." But no one was talking about Lynda Gorov except other reporters who hoped she'd fail.
A year later she was gone. "I just thought the buildup was the first step in the eventual demise of the column," Roeper told us the other day. "It's pretty tough going out onstage after a buildup like that. She was supposed to come right out of the box and blow people away."
Roeper was lucky enough to escape all that. He's promoted heavily now, but he can handle it.
But now the Sun-Times is blowing its trumpets over another brand-new columnist. "Sports With an ATTITUDE"--so say the full-page ads about Jay Mariotti, who had the good grace in his opening column to laugh about the "neo-punk promotional blitz that paints me as a cross between Axl Rose, Howard Cosell and Charlie Manson."
We asked Roeper what he thinks of the treatment Mariotti is getting. "That poor guy," said Roeper. "I'm glad they didn't do that to me."
Mariotti doesn't care. "I've been a columnist six and a half years," he said. "I've done these before. In Denver they did one for me. In Cincinnati they did a campaign. I'm pretty much used to these."
He said, "Some people walked up to me in the newsroom and said in all honesty, 'Wow, I wouldn't want that kind of pressure!' To me it's nothing but a positive to have that kind of anticipation of your first column before you write it."
Mariotti comes to the Sun-Times from the National, which folded. He told us he hopes he's here forever. We'll see. He's 32 years old. The Sun-Times is his sixth newspaper.
Whatever the attitude is that's supposed to make Mariotti irresistible, he clearly has an attitude about his career.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.