Mike Royko, a columnist’s columnist
You know you’re approaching Geezerdom when you start reminiscing about the “old days.” I guess I’m there, because reading a biography about the late Chicago columnist, Mike Royko, put me on a nostalgia trip for several days.
I picked up the book, “Royko: A Life in Print,” in our newsroom “auction.”
Back in the “old days,” reporters saw nothing wrong with taking a lot of freebies – booze, holiday hams, theater tickets. Ethics rules ended that at most newspapers long ago, but there are still things that arrive unsolicited that are against the rules to keep, but aren’t worth sending back, such as books, CDs, product samples, etc.
So at The Union, we toss these items into a big box, and a couple of times a year we auction them off, with the money going to a local nonprofit. I don’t know how the Royko book got in there (it was published in 2001), but I bid $3 and took it home.
I soon realized how much of my career memories paralleled Royko’s career. He started out working in Chicago’s City News Bureau – a training ground for many great reporters (including some friends of mine) – and was given a column in 1964, the year I started as a teen-age copy boy at the Des Moines (Iowa) Register.
I read Royko regularly from then until he died in 1997, a very old man at 64. The reason for that, as the book makes clear, is that Royko was an alcoholic, workaholic, smoker who was lucky to live that long. On the flip side, he created five columns a week for more than 30 years – a great percentage of which were brilliant. He was the epitome of the hard-nosed, wise-guy chronicler of big-city life that will be gone forever when Jimmy Breslin dies.
The author of “Royko,” former Chicago Tribune managing editor F. Richard Ciccone, tells the story, warts and all, including the fact that although Royko ended his career working for the Chicago Tribune, he never liked that paper much.
As a young newsman, I never did, either. People forget that 40 years ago the Tribune once was a mediocre paper (as were the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle). Those of us at the Des Moines Register – which had won 15 Pulitzers and was listed as one of the 10 best papers in the country by Time magazine in 1984 – actually thought the Tribune was a joke until editor Clayton Kirkpatrick in the 1970s began to discard the legacy of its late owner, the autocratic and eccentric Col. Robert McCormick.
Royko spent much of his career at the Daily News, which was a very respected newspaper, and then when it folded, the Sun-Times. It was only when Marshall Field sold the Sun-Times to Australian media mogul Rupert Murdoch that Royko walked across Michigan Avenue to the hated Trib.
Ciccone covers Royko’s self-destructive but influential life through memories of his friends and excerpts from the thousands of columns he wrote. Mayor Richard Daley, the Cubs, alter-ego Slats Grobnik, civil rights struggles, the Billy Goat tavern, the greasy politicos and the ubiquitous mobsters. Royko was Chicago, and Chicago was Royko.
Royko started as a political reporter, and at heart that’s what he was as a columnist. He liked politicians because they made good copy. His specialty was political hypocrisy, and he relished ridiculing people like the silk-suited sewer commissioner who had never been down in a sewer, but took a peek now and then “to be sure the water was running.”
But like a good fisherman (which he was, as well as a fair golfer and devotee of 16-inch softball), he never wanted politicians punished too harshly. He believed in catch-and-release, to hook ’em another day.
Although Royko often warned young reporters not to compromise their reporting by getting too close to politicians, his problem, according to Ciccone, was, “If you get too close, then you’re going to feel uncomfortable when you have to stick it to them.”
“Royko could be an echo or an aria,” writes Ciccone. “He sometimes wrote for everyman, sharing the frustrations, anger and whims of blue-collar Americans. He was sometimes on stage alone, bellowing his sorrow or grief or outrage.”
But at heart, he was just a news reporter, a breed that Royko once described this way:
“If there’s a big puddle in the street, a gentleman puts his coat down for a lady to walk on. But a newspaperman spits in the puddle, then goes to ask the sewer department why the puddle isn’t draining.”
Don’t miss The Union’s special 140th birthday Sunday edition tomorrow, which will be delivered free to subscribers and nonsubscribers alike, and also be available at outlets around town.
Richard Somerville is the editor of The Union. His column appears each Saturday.
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