Politics has changed in 40 years as columnist
by RUSS STEWART
As of August this column has appeared uninterrupted for 40 years. That’s 2,080 columns containing about 1,500 words apiece, for an aggregate total of about 3.2 million words.
If nothing else, that qualifies me for recognition as a purveyor of verbosity, a paragon of consistency, and the receptacle of considerable enmity.
Looking back over four decades, and analyzing the machinations, foibles and idiocies of perhaps a thousand national, state and local politicians, the question of the moment is, what has changed between then and now? The answer: not much.
*Out of sight, out of mind. In the early 1970s, headlines blared that Richard Nixon was a liar, Spiro Agnew took kickbacks, Paul Powell had cash-stuffed shoeboxes, Otto Kerner took bribes, and boatloads of Chicago aldermen went to the federal slammer for taking bribes and tax evasion. What has changed?
Instead of indulging in illegal acts for self-enrichment, we now have a new generation of politicians who engage in perverse acts for self-gratification. Of course, we have the Jacksons, Jesse and Sandi, who looted $750,000 from campaign accounts and didn’t pay taxes, and Rod Blagojevich, who tried to sell a U.S. Senate seat. Now there’s a seemingly endless parade of gropers, philanderers, prostitute users, gay bashers exposed as gay, and perverts who text parts of their anatomy.
Pathetically, the public doesn’t care. The president of the United States had sex with an intern in the White House? So what. The governor of New York uses prostitutes and resigns? He gets a television gig and now is running for city comptroller. A San Diego congressman, apparently a serial groper for decades, gets elected mayor. A newly married New York congressman quits after being caught texting his private parts, runs for mayor, and is caught texting again. Let’s not forget the former U.S. House speaker who wanted to impeach Bill Clinton, is exposed as a philanderer himself, resigns, but then becomes a television commentator and runs for president.
What happened to dignity or decorum? At least 40 years ago, the corrupt guys kept their zippers up and their bedroom doors closed while they fattened their wallets. Then, unlike now, politicians had less unbridled egotism and more shame, knew their place, and were patient. Like soldiers, they were promoted when they were told. Now, politicians think that they’re God’s gift to mankind, that they’re indispensable, that they deserve more power now, that they can pack their payroll with family and friends, and that they can, with impunity and without consequence, raise vast campaign dollars by doing official favors for donors.
In Chicago and Cook County, public office was never a gift or a privilege. It always was an entitlement. You got it then because of ethnicity or geography; you get it now because of race, gender or geography.
In effect, our political sphere has evolved into a cauldron of "victimless crime." The perpetrator claims he was the "victim" of some debilitating disease or childhood trauma and undergoes "therapy." The real victim makes a bundle by selling the story to the tabloids and the Internet, which fill their print or electronic space with salacious and titillating material. Their goal: a scandal a week.
Most sadly, there is no repentance. Forty years ago a jail sentence meant abject humiliation and shame. There was no "second act." Now the media already are speculating about what office Jesse or Sandi will seek when they are out of federal prison. The voters’ prevailing attitude seems to be that there are so many future "cons" in office that it makes little difference if they put an actual "con" back in office.
*Negativity, gimmickry and hucksterism, plus money, now equals victory.
Since the early 1900s, presidential politics has been a brutal and negative endeavor, with the nation polarized between conservative, pro-business Republicans and liberal, pro-labor Democrats. People voted their geographic culture and economic class, and campaigns were a top-down proposition: For the most part, whoever they backed for president, they voted a straight ticket for every other party candidate.
I dimly recall the vicious 1964 Johnson-Goldwater contest, when the Democrats used television ads to demonize Barry Goldwater as an "extremist" who would provoke World War III. It worked, and the Democrats swept to a monumental victory. Up through the mid-1960s, political machines were indispensable — government job holders were precinct captains, they identified their voters and got them to the polls, and their party won and kept them on the payroll.
Two factors provoked a political upheaval, burgeoning college enrollment and Vietnam. Students rebelled against their parents’ political proclivities, and Vietnam made rebellion obligatory and acceptable. The 1968 Nixon-Humphrey-Wallace presidential race shattered the Democratic coalition, and split tickets abounded. That meant down-ballot candidates had to elevate their visibility, give voters a reason to vote for them, and raise vast sums of money for media campaigns.
By 1972 the "Age of Hucksterism" had dawned, one of the chief protagonists being Dan Walker. Wreathed in a red bandanna, Walker, a wealthy retired corporate lawyer, began walking Downstate roads in 1971, touting himself as the "people’s candidate" against Republican Governor Dick Ogilvie, who had signed into law the state income tax. The "Walkin’ Walker" gimmick soon caught the attention of the media. Although Walker never promised to repeal the "Ogilvie tax," his demagogic platitudes and hokey image as an outsider propelled him to a 77,494-vote win, beating both the Ogilvie machine and the Daley machine.
Using the Walker template, a former Georgia governor, who once served as an officer on a nuclear submarine, ran for president in 1976 as the folksy peanut farmer Jimmy Carter. He promised vague "change." He won and, like Walker, he was a one-term failure.
Perhaps because of Watergate, ticket splitting in Illinois abounded. Republicans "Big Jim" Thompson and Bill Scott won by 1,390,137 votes and 1,116,213 votes, respectively, against Daley machine Democrats, while Downstate Democrat Alan Dixon won by 1,344,283 votes. Politicians had evolved into media creations, all imagery, with minimal substance. The worst was yet to come.
In 1972 Republican U.S. Senator Chuck Percy won by 1,146,047 votes, and he was expected to coast to re-election in 1978. His opponent was lawyer Alex Seith, and just before the election, Seith made a $1 million television ad buy, ripping Percy for his "soft" stances on foreign policy and Israel and for not preventing tax and spending increases. Stunned, Percy went on television, apologized for not "focusing more" on Illinois issues, and squeaked out a narrow 250,524-vote win. The "Age of Negativity" had dawned in Illinois. If you can’t sell yourself, then try to unsell your opponent.
Blagojevich spent $25 million in both 2002 and 2006 demonizing his opponent, as did Dick Durbin in 1996, George Ryan in 1994 and 1998, and both contenders in the 2010 Mark Kirk-Alexi Giannoulias Senate race. No personal character flaw or verbal blunder now is left unearthed or unpublicized. The candidates’ goal is to be the least worst, not the best.
Then came the DNA revolution: You win because of gender or race, not qualifications. After the death of Mayor Richard J. Daley in November 1976, the question was, would his vaunted machine, now dominant only within the city, wither?
The "caretaker" successor, Mike Bilandic, decided to keep the job, and the machine gave him a comfortable 51 percent of the vote in the 1977 special election, but Bilandic was devoid of charisma, governed without flair, and had no base except the machine’s precinct captains. When the snows piled up in 1979, public anger vented on Bilandic, and Jane Byrne became the only alternative. She defeated Bilandic by a vote of 412,909-396,134.
Was the machine defunct, or was Byrne the new boss? Governing with an ax, destroying enemies with glee, Byrne thought that she was a celebrity mayor, impervious to defeat. Instead, she was an accidental mayor. Her arrogance estranged African Americans and infuriated the still-potent Daley wing of the party. Black voters decided it was "their turn," and Harold Washington topped Byrne and State’s Attorney Rich Daley by 415,050-382,798-340,702, a margin of 35,887 votes.
Then Washington died, Daley won the mayoralty in 1989, and normalcy returned. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is where the elder Daley was in 1973: secure because of his campaign money, instead of precinct manpower, but with ever-growing manifestations of voter discontent.
*If it ain’t printed, it ain’t news. Forget about that old canard. In 1973 journalists had "digestive time." They could ponder today’s news and print it tomorrow or newspaper next week. Television news was the quickest medium of dissemination. Now news is posted in minutes on the Internet and tweeted to millions. Politicians’ Facebook pages detail their every move and utterance.
Chicago boasted four daily newspapers in 1973. Now there are two, and both are on life support. Readers won’t wait until tomorrow for today’s news, and they don’t even want to read it.
This column prides itself on being biased, cynical, sarcastic and, hopefully, entertaining. I don’t report news, I analyze news reports, draw conclusions, and make predictions. A lot of people refuse to read this column, but for those of you who do, I promise another 520 Nadig Newspapers columns.
Send e-mail to russ@russstewart. com or visit his Web site at www. russstewart.com.