The 600-Pound Gorilla of the 43rd Ward
In the past year and a half, nightclub comedian Aaron Freeman has submitted about 15 pieces to the Tribune's op-ed page. Almost all of them have been published. "A few of them we didn't publish," says the page's editor, Richard Leifer, "because basically they just didn't strike me as funny."
Last week, on the MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour, Freeman delivered a manic, twisted commentary on the demise of the boom box. This week he'll read another essay, comparing polo ponies to project kids. "Aaron deviates from our usual format," says MacNeil/Lehrer correspondent Elizabeth Brackett, who produces his segments. "He's a great essayist, though. He's submitted three or four ideas to the show. God knows why they rejected any of them."
Freeman writes his essays the same way he concocts his nightclub routines: he sits in front of an Apple Macintosh and filters the day's events through his warped and ruthlessly funny mind. Politicians exist, it seems, to provide this man with material. "I don't write the jokes," he says, "I just vote for them, same as everybody else. The system mocks itself."
Which brings us to a punch line of sorts: Aaron Freeman wants to be a politician. He's thinking of running for alderman of the 43rd Ward.
We asked Freeman if this was another one of his jokes. "Not at all," he said. "I'm very serious abut politics. Anyone who knows anything about me knows that. The people who don't will learn. I want to be the guy for the 43rd Ward."
Freeman hasn't yet taken the big stop of formally announcing his candidacy. The race, against a growing field of strong contenders, is going to be a grinding one. Freeman says he isn't sure he can commit to the long, tough campaign. "You've got to put up a big chunk of your soul to run, and a lot of time and money," he says. "But in strict PR terms, I'm the 600-pound gorilla: I can announce and make my splash whenever I feel like it."
Just to air out all the skeletons in his closet, we asked Freeman, darling of the left, why he's been such a vigorous supporter of Reagan. "Ronald Wilson Reagan is the best thing to happen to Black America since the advent of loose-fitting shoes, precisely to the extent that he's eradicated the notion that the government will save you," Freeman answered. "Black America desperately needs someone like him to dissuade that segment of the population that looks to white people to save them. Forget white people! They're not going to do it. Black America will prosper when Black America gets its own act together.
"Reagan has been a great rallying point for all of us on the left. We're much more articulate and organized for having to fight him. Remember, the U.S. was formed by guys who believed that government is at best a necessary evil. I'd certainly rather have my evils out in the open, where I can look at them. I mean, there aren't big differences between Carter, Mondale, and Reagan—or Gorbachev for that matter. They're just a bunch of white guys—promilitary and pro-big business—who aren't concerned about us. Most of us being women, for example. I back Reagan because I'd rather have my contradictions right up there, so I can look at them and organized against them.
"You should always look at the government invidiously," concludes the man who would be alderman. "I think that's what the framers of the constitution had in mind: you're supposed to no trust the government."
We asked Freeman if the progression from comedian to columnist to alderman was a logical one. He laughed. "I guess I like pontificating," he said. "I'm just another schmuck with opinions."
In January of 1982, after nine years of spinning its wheels, the Chicago Public Library Board agreed to move our central library to the vacant South Loop Goldblatt's store. The Sun-Times concluded that Goldblatt's wasn't such a wonderful site after all. In fact it was "a colossal blunder," "a cultural abyss that would doom [our] library system for the next half century." They promised to oppose it "with unflagging commitment." A flurry of news stories followed, shooting a barrage of questions—about everything from the building's acquisition costs to its carpet colors—at the architects, engineers, and administrators who supported the site.
Like most people, Hot Type was put in a quandary. We relish the Sun-Times's aggressive, enterprising news campaigns, which often spur reform. But we weren't sure that the Goldblatt building was such a bad library site. We needed more information. The Sun-Times's coverage was one-sided—even vitriolic—but when we turned to the Tribune, we grew even more confused.
In the Tribune, we've counted only 18 articles and editorials about the library issue since March (the Sun-Times has printed 67), and most of those have come in the last few weeks. In those 18 stories, the Tribune has hinted that its rival is an inaccurate obstructionist: they quoted Library Commissioner John Duff, who called the Sun-Times coverage "hysterical," "fatuous," and based on "falsehood and innuendo." But they didn't mount an inquiry into the specific charges leveled against the Goldblatt Building by the Sun-Times. If the Sun-Times was wrong, what was right? Were Goldblatt's floors solid? Were the aisles wide enough? Were the pillars unwieldy? Would asbestos removal cost $1 million? On these points, the Tribune was conspicuously silent. Since they still supported the Goldblatt building—and since the average reader obviously lacked information—why didn't the Tribune speak up?
"Because then you would have the Tribune covering the Sun-Times," explains Tribune reporter John Camper. "This paper's not going to let the Sun-Times dictate what it should be covering."
Tribune editorial writer Lois Wille says, "my own feeling is that the Tribune gave Goldblatt's the proper amount of coverage. For months there was no genuine story—you had nothing but the Sun-Times manufacturing things. It became genuine when the Library Board and the city administration began to wave. That's when the Tribune began covering it. Until then, it wasn't worth much space—it was one newspaper's crusade that didn't amount to much."
Tribune editor Jim Squires puts it this way: "I don't want to be goaded into a fight over which newspaper tells you where the library should be. They're on this look-at-me campaign, trying to goad us into a contest. It's like the little guy walking across the street and punching the big guy in the nose in hope that he will fight and get arrested. Things like that are usually done by newspapers that can't get anyone to take them seriously."
Wille and Squires are dreaming if they really think nobody takes the Sun-Times seriously. Obviously the Library Board has found the Sun-Times's campaign more persuasive than the Tribune's silence. "I think the city will stop the Goldblatt's building," John Camper said last week. "Support's evaporating by the day." And when a point-by-point rebuttal of the Sun-Times's accusations finally did appear, in last week's Reader, the Tribune seized the story and reprinted it prominently in their Sunday "Perspective" section. So they did find the Sun-Times's charges worth answering, after all—if someone else did all the work. The Tribune comes off like a paper that didn't want to get mud on its sleeves.
As for their desire to avoid a fight with the Sun-Times, well, maybe that's a good policy. A battle between the two papers could have gotten nasty. Think of the consequences—all those reporters running around town trying to prove each other wrong, digging into each others facts, rechecking each other's sources—why, someone could have gotten informed in the process.