The Man Who Reformed the Post Office
Late last week we visited the Lakeview and Lincoln Park post offices, two of the most notorious branches in Chicago. Every window was open, framing a smiling face. Everything looked spanking clean, and there were no lines at all.
As everyone knows, this transformation didn't just happen. Journalism brought it about. New book of stamps in hand, we walked out of the Lincoln Park branch thinking of the dogged reporter who did the deed, guessing he must be the last person his Sun-Times editors want to see basking in triumph.
"When you start out writing on a project like this," says Charles Nicodemus, "you have no concept that what you will write can force the postmaster to visit town, force him to set up a totally unprecedented 27-member task force of outside postal experts and ship them into town, which will in turn start setting the local post office on its ear, bringing the ousting of three of the four top people in Chicago, and converting Chicago's postal problems into a national story. You don't expect those things to happen, especially with as intractable a target as the post office has long been. But it happened. And, yeah, it's satisfying."
Nicodemus's doggedness will soon be turned against his bosses. He's chairman of the Sun-Times unit of the Newspaper Guild, and contract negotiations begin later this month. To management he isn't a friendly adversary--he believes he's reviled as a saboteur.
"Top management--you can quote me on this--has suggested in years past, as recently as last year, that I was out to destroy the paper," said Nicodemus. "And that's their words. Management also chronically tries to suggest that the guild leaders, whoever they may be, do not have the support of the staff. They always find that to be incorrect."
There's a pattern to guild negotiations, a pattern everyone at the paper is sick of. Management offers next to nothing, a strike is authorized, at the 11th hour management offers just enough to prevent one, and both sides adjourn sulking to snipe at each other for the next three years. Last month Nicodemus scoured the stock prospectus put out by the Sun-Times's new owners, the American Publishing Company, and came across a mysterious reference to two 1990 loans "to an officer of the Company totaling $100,000. These loans and the related accrued interest were forgiven on December 31, 1991."
It's never the wrong time to twit the bosses, and the eve of contract talks is the least wrong time of all. Up on the guild bulletin board went a Nicodemus memo: "During upcoming negotiations, it is a total certainty that the company will be telling you how POOR the company is. . . . When you hear that plaintive cry, think about . . . that 'forgiven' $100,000 loan. And when the company starts with its inevitable litany of give-back requests during negotiations, tell its negotiators: "Go back to the company officer (if he's still around) and tell HIM to lead the giveback parade."'
In '91 editor Dennis Britton believed that goodwill would beget goodwill, that the two sides would quickly settle their differences and unite against the common enemy in the Tower. Nothing of the sort happened, and some reporters don't think Britton has ever gotten over it.
Britton says he's still an idealist. In his view the goal on both sides of the table should be a work environment in which they can produce "the best, most competitive newspaper we can make it. When the atmosphere is created to be entirely adversarial, it's difficult to achieve that."
Does management really think Nicodemus is prepared to destroy the paper? we asked him. "I would presume he was talking about me. I don't recall ever saying that," Britton said. And what of the memo? Britton said Nicodemus lifted the $100,000 loan out of context, and went on, "You're asking, was that a provocative act? You know the answer to that."
We think we've put our finger on the problem with Jay Mariotti. Mariotti thinks sports are important because they're important. Sports are important because they're not. Fans can live and die for sports because sports have nothing to do with their lives. Sports are like the girl who haunted you when you were 13 who never knew you existed.
So it was a good sign last week when we spotted Mariotti attempting silliness. "The time has come for Tribune Co. to do the honorable thing," he proposed. "Let my business group run the Cubs."
The effort was unsurprisingly ham-handed with its references to "the suits in Tribune Tower," "the sleepy paper," "corporate smugness," and "the disease that permeates the entire scene." Mariotti is unpracticed in wit. What's surprising is that Mike Royko responded in kind.
"At the struggling little paper," Royko answered, "some of the writer-hysterics have shrieked that Cubs fans are pitiful morons for supporting a loser; all but accused the ownership of criminal negligence; and howled about the lack of management continuity . . .
"That from people who work on a newspaper that has had five owners in the last 11 years; has frantically changed editors and publishers more frequently than a nanny changes diapers; has chopped the payroll by dangling buyouts at much of its established talent; has seen its circulation shrink by a disastrous 25 percent; and has not won even one Pulitzer Prize for writing or reporting in almost two decades. Talk about losing streaks."
To write this, Royko had to weasel-word his way around the Pulitzer Jack Higgins won for cartooning in 1989. He also had to work himself into a wrath of Mariottian dimensions. No one with his sense of perspective in working order would advance the surly ad hominem argument that sportswriters' license to carp is limited by the fortunes of the papers they work for.
Royko meant to counsel wisdom. "The day after the Cubs don't win the World Series," he predicted, "certain things will happen: the sun will rise; birds will chirp; people will fall in love; and babies will be born." Other things aren't predictable. One of them is Royko guarding his bosses' dignity with a blunderbuss.
Slick and Tricky
What do you think they talked about--the jowly warlock of American politics and his young pal Bubba? Once the stud rap subsided, that is, the knee-slapping tales of wenching and whoring and mooning old ladies in flivvers during midnight runs on country roads.
"I don't think you're paranoid," Bubba might have told the sage.
"I appreciate that," the old man would have answered. "Oh, I might have had an enemy list, I'll grant you that. But that's only because I had enemies! Thousands of them. Hundreds of thousands of them! Every last one out to get me."
"I know you did," responded his successor in the land's highest office. "I was your enemy, myself. Gosh, the little woman was such a heck of an enemy she tried to get you impeached."
"There you are," said the old man gratefully.
"It certainly wasn't your imagination," Bubba went on. "And now that you're out of the way, a lot of us fellows who were out to get you have taken over the country."
The old statesman had never felt so vindicated. No wonder the two of them got along.
But it wasn't just this sentimental bond that held the pair together. No, it was the memory of Lyndon Johnson.
"Johnson had enemies," the old statesman said. "Not nearly as many as I had, but more than his share. He didn't have the enemies I got for standing up to the soft-on-communism crowd, but the Kennedy-glamour-boy wing of the Democratic Party despised poor Lyndon nearly as much as they despised me. And then there were the kids like you. Of course you hated me more, but you hated him plenty too. And it ruined his presidency. Poor Lyndon never learned it doesn't matter how many people hate you just so long as you're too big to hate them back."
"You didn't make that mistake," volunteered Bubba.
"No, I didn't. I let the hatred roll right off my back. And that's why I batted .667 as a president. I led the country out of Vietnam. I opened the door to China that the soft-on-communism crowd had slammed shut by letting those Reds take over in the first place. Only place I struck out was trying to round up the enemies of America and put 'em all behind bars."
"Just think," said the incumbent. "If you'd done that you might still be president, and my wife might be in leg irons on some flea-speck island off South Carolina."
"Never look back," the sage counseled. "What's done is done. No, what I learned from Lyndon is that a president does have enemies, genuine enemies, and lots of them. And if they get their way you'll never accomplish a damn thing."
The young incumbent possessed not an iota of the old man's self-pity. Everyone in the whole world liked him. Well maybe from General Raoul Cedras he felt a coolness, and ditto from Radovan Karadzic, but this was largely a matter of unfamiliarity. If he could somehow coax them into his Mustang for a manly spin down two-lane blacktop he could calm those waters.
But what if he actually went to war against them? He'd seen during LBJ's day that foreign leaders are never half as open to friendly persuasion once you've begun bombing their cities. If he went to war he'd make enemies at home and abroad. He could kiss good-bye his domestic program, just like LBJ had to.
"We both learned from Lyndon's misery," the old man ruminated. "And what I learned damn near got me tossed in prison. Whereas what you learned is fast earning you a reputation as the most feckless sonuvabitch who ever sat in the Oval Office."
"Dang!" said the incumbent.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.