Jewish World Review May 11, 1999 /25 Iyar, 5759
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We compared notes about our alma mater, the late great Chicago Daily News. Our memories diverged. Which figures. When I was there as the juniorest of editorial writers, she was already a glamorous, globe-girdling foreign correspondent, and still is.
It was a different age. We were still using typewriters, and the Daily News, writer for writer, still had the best foreign bureau of any American newspaper. But the whole operation was already being stretched thin by the time I got to the paper. We had Keyes Beech in Vietnam, Milt Freudenheim running the show back home, Georgie Ann in Latin America ... star after star.
Mike Royko, for another example. With the possible exception of San Francisco's Herb Caen, he may have represented the greatest fit between a city and a columnist ever achieved. But as the stars left or retired, they weren't replaced. The News, once the best paper in that toddlin' town, was already developing a tinge of desperation around the edges.
The Daily News was Republican but sane, which is what distinguished us from Colonel McCormick's old, unreconstructed Chicago Tribune, The World's Greatest Newspaper. (It said so on the masthead.) But the Daily News was slowly losing the war of attrition against the nationwide afternoon-paper blues. Sanity has never been the most salable of commodities in American journalism.
Mike Royko or no Mike Royko, the News was doomed, and its demise was only hastened by a fatal tendency to go soft and featuresque. Rather than distinguish itself from television, it was dumbing down, imitating TV's soft focus, twisting in the wind.
It took both of us a while to recall the name of the News' great old-time labor reporter. A gentle, quiet-spoken elder by the time I came along, he'd been covering labor since John L. Lewis and the Reuther boys. We could both picture him: gray-haired, a bow tie always bobbing in front of his Adam's apple. Finally his name came to us ... Bob Lewin! I'd read his stuff many a time on the hook in the clattering newsroom -- where unused galley proofs yellowed -- while the editors chose to go with jazzier stuff from the wire services. A paper that's losing confidence starts to neglect its own.
I had forgotten the name of the News' man in the Mediterranean back in the Sixties. Georgie Ann supplied it at once: George Weller, who was based in Rome but also covered Greece, Turkey, North Africa, the Near East and maybe another continent or two. A week before the Six Day War, he'd predicted the Israeli strike that would remake the face of the Middle East. His distant early warning made sense to me -- I still remembered Moshe Dayan's lightning Sinai campaign in '56.
But the foreign desk softened Weller's analysis; the News' sage editors didn't want to risk embarrassing him, since a diplomatic solution was obviously imminent. At least that was the word out of Washington, which proved as reliable as the word out of Washington still does. When war broke, our man in Rome's prophecy was still yellowing on the spike. Along with my editorials echoing him.
Smelling the rot, I left the News a year to the day after I got there, and skedaddled home to Arkansas when the publisher of the Pine Bluff Commercial -- Ed Freeman -- let me come back. Pine Bluff, Ark., actually proved a key listening post when it came to foreign affairs. It was remarkable how prescient an editorial could sound if the writer kept up with Georgie Ann Geyer's dispatches. She interviewed everybody and seemed to interview 'em first: Castro, Qadhafi, Khomeini, Che Guevara . ...
Georgie Ann tells about coming home to the South Side from one of what she calls her Dictator Tours, and being greeted by her always genteel mom. "Now, my dear,'' said Mrs. Geyer, "you know I never interfere with your life, but I'm not sure I approve of the company you've been keeping.''
I always was partial to South Siders. Saw my first major league ball game at Comiskey Park on the South Side and stayed a Sox fan. Can still see the Philadelphia As' Connie Mack -- Cornelius McGillicuddy himself, the original one, the legend, not the latter-day senator -- sitting in the visitors' dugout in his shiny blue summer suit, signaling with his scorecard as delicately as a Chinese empress using her fan.
Georgie Ann is talking about the war, or whatever this is in the Balkans, and I'm thinking about the White Sox and Nellie Fox at second. She understands that only one side seems to realize this is a war, and it's not us. Yep, South Siders understand these things.
I remember one of those rare years when the White Sox were having a championship season, and Comiskey Park was flooded with tourists from ivy-covered Wrigley Field. They'd all motored down in their Jaguars and little LaCoste shirts. Insufferable. That's the year the guys in the bleachers rolled out a huge banner with letters 5 feet high that said: YUPPIE SCUM GO HOME! My sentiments exactly.
I tell Georgie Ann that, if we're going to settle for some kind of phony peace in Kosovo that will only invite more aggression, and more suffering, I wish we'd surrender now. Instead of waiting six or seven casualty-filled years. Nothing could be crueler than this half-war, this indefinite war, this escalation a la Vietnam.
We need some South Siders running this war, and all we've got is Cubbies. NATO's (and Arkansas') Wesley Clark is always the good soldier in public, but he must be bitter in private. Imagine having to report to 19 bosses, all of them politicians. He wouldn't be the first American general denied victory by the politicos. And in war there is no substitute for victory.
I ask Georgie Ann if she read Tony Blair's speech about how this war is the left's chance to show that it, too, can be tough. And how this is his generation's chance to prove its manhood and all that. Yes, he definitely sounds like the British Clinton. So ... beside the point.
Can you imagine Churchill leading the British into war in order to make some kind of political
point for the Tories? Or assuring Hitler that he would never use ground troops? Crazy.
Juvenile. And dangerous. Georgie Ann says I should write a column about it. Now I
05/07/99: There is no substitute for victory