Chicago has a real problem. Not the Blago scandal. That's humiliating for upstanding Chicagoans just coming off their Grant Park Obama contact high, but mad fun for those of us who love to frolic in the muck. No, the real problem for Windy City natives like me is that Mike Royko has been dead for a decade. The longtime star of the Chicago Daily News and later the Sun-Times and Tribune was more than a terrific local columnist, probably the best of the 20th century. He was the guy who could have explained Rod Blagojevich to a dumbstruck world.
Be like Mike and put the emphasis on dumb. It's impossible to know exactly how the great man would be feasting on this story—this one's a 10-course meal. From brazenly selling the Senate seat of Illinois' first president since Ulysses S. Grant (crediting Ronald Reagan to California) when he knew he was being wiretapped, to shaking down Children's Memorial Hospital in front of witnesses, it's an embarrassment of pea-brained riches.
But rest assured that Royko would have taken issue with U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald fingering Abraham Lincoln as the one "rolling over in his grave."
Royko knew that those who were most put to shame were all the dearly departed swindlers, bag men, con artists and assorted ward heelers who would have been spinning in their mausoleum vaults at how poorly Blogojevich played their game. In the old days, they knew how to threaten, grease, skim and shake down with a little finesse. And if a Senate seat was on the block, it would go for a lot more than a job for their old lady with a labor union.
Mike would have told us that Rod the Clod, as he is commonly known (and Royko could have done better), was giving the rest of the guys from the old neighborhood a bad name. He was making even the ones with room temperature IQs look like Nobel Laureates from the University of Chicago.
And once Blagojevich began using the governor's office to run a pay-to-play operation for anyone hoping to get a contract with the state—a practice that apparently began within moments of his taking office in 2003—Royko would not have been satisfied going after the guv. He would have creamed all the Chicago politicians who refused to back anyone to run against him for re-election in 2006. Even though he's a reformer who never got along with Blagojevich, that would likely have included Barack Obama.
I grew up a few blocks from Wrigley Field, now known as the subject to which Patti Blagojevich, the governor's refined wife, was referring to when she said, "Hold up that f-----g Cubs s--t…F--k them." Genteel Patti was referring to Rod's efforts to withhold the state's support for the sale of the Tribune Co.'s ballpark if the newspaper didn't fire John McCormick, a Tribune editorial writer (and much-respected former NEWSWEEK reporter) who wrote long before this latest abomination that the governor should be removed from office.
Royko, a mixture of Polish and Ukrainian, grew up a few miles away on the Northwest Side, not far from Blagojevich, who comes from Serbian stock. While their careers only barely overlapped, the columnist had a perfect feel for Blagojevich's milieu, though he wouldn't have been caught dead using that word. Consider the names of some talented 16-inch softball players Mike knew: Ron Sobieszczyk, Teddy Serma, Hank Zitnik, Bill Bereckis, Jimmy Mikuta and Frank Szczech, a name, Royko wrote, "which is pronounced the way it is spelled."
Blagojevich's father-in-law and political patron, Richard Mell, from whom he is now estranged, is exactly the kind of nasty hack alderman that Royko spent his career lampooning. Blago apprenticed under Alderman Edward (Fast Eddie) Vrydolyak and then-State Attorney Richard M. Daley, now the mayor-for-life, before taking Rep. Dan Rostenkowski's old House seat when he went to jail.
Everyone in Chicago knows that if Royko had lived he would have carved up Blago from the moment he showed up in 2002 as a gubernatorial candidate with the Fonz leather jacket and that ridiculous Donald Trump do. Mike wasn't much for yuppie joggers who thought they were JFK, especially those who married into the machine.
"For Chrissakes," I can almost hear him saying at the Billy Goat Tavern under Michigan Ave. (the inspiration for John Belushi's SNL "Cheesebooger"skit), "If you're going to steal, at least be smart like Tom Keane. And if you're gonna be a dope, at least be ugly like Vito Marzullo." These are references to cronies of the late Mayor Richard J. Daley, subject of Royko's classic 1971 book, Boss.
Royko didn't believe that all or even most Chicago politicians were crooked, and he would likely have thought it ridiculous that someone like Rahm Emanuel is being hounded by the press for the crime of talking to the governor on the telephone.
But when he wasn't writing about the Cubs (whom he thought were cursed by their racially backward ownership under the Wrigleys, not by a goat), or answering hostile reader mail with laugh-out-loud retorts, Royko was the bard of the boodlers. If you wanted to read about the Illinois secretary of state who left $800,000 in cash stacked in shoeboxes in his Springfield hotel room, Mike was your man. He once explained how Chicago had originated the word "clout," which means influence with someone who can do you good:
"In simple English, a bailiff might say, 'Somebody beefed that I was kinky and I almost got viced, but I saw my Chinaman and he clouted for me at the hall.'"
As everybody knows, that means:
"A citizen complained that I did something dishonest and I was almost fired but I contacted my political sponsor and he interceded on my behalf with my department head."
Royko wrote that the city of Chicago needed a new seal, with the traditional Indian and cherub replaced by clasped hands exchanging money, and a new motto. In place of Urbs in Horto (City in a Garden) he proposed Ubi Est Mea—"Where's Mine?"
If only he were here to perfectly parse Rod Blagojevich's take on our president-elect:
"Unless I get something real good, s--t, I'll just send myself [to D.C.]. …. the mother f----r 's not willing to give me anything but appreciation."
For Mike Royko, appreciation is all we've got.