Saturday, March 24, 2018

Visit to the woodshed


     I invariably turn down invitations to luncheons and dinners, because they're time-consuming and tedious. The food is mediocre and the speeches are so-so, especially when I am the one doing the speaking.
     But since the election of Donald Trump, the American Civil Liberties Union has taken on the role of the American Free State, filing 100 lawsuits this past year, fighting for our country's core values during the twilight of amateur despotism that is descending upon our nation's capital, and I eagerly accepted an offer to attend Friday's annual luncheon.
      No sooner had I got my name tag at the Hilton than I ran into Daniel Biss, accepting condolences from the faithful for his recent defeat in the governor's race. We chatted briefly and pleasantly—I had gone to bat for the increasingly antique notion that government should be run by people with actual experience running government. He liked that, though when I asked him to sum up how he is doing now, he moved off without a word, smiling sphinxlike.
    A minute later, heading into the ballroom, my beeline toward Table 127 put me on a collision course with J.B. Pritzker and his running mate, Julianna Stratton. I could have fixed my eyes forward and hurried past, I suppose, but that seemed the way of the coward. A path I am fully able to tread. When he came by the office, I had actually flattened myself against a wall, to avoid him. 
    But you can't do that forever, and now he was the Democratic challenger. Might as well get this over with. So I slapped my best Dale Carnegie smile across my mug and headed into the woodshed to be chastised.
     "Howdy Governor," I said, shaking hands. "I hope we can put all the unpleasantness of the primaries behind us."
     Unpleasantness, I hasten to point out, emanating entirely from me, writing various uncharitable—if not unkind if not cruel—things about J.B. Pritzker simply because I sincerely believed them to be true, based on my glancing assessment of the situation and my desire not to accept the status quo.
     Malice is the coin of the realm, online, and if you are going to be in the opinion business, you'd better have a bucket of mud at the ready.
     Not all believe that, of course. Some journalists view elections as horse races, and like to bet on the winner, certainly never saying a harsh word, currying favor in the dubious theory that it increases access and authority. Or they let others do the dirty work, acting as mere conduits. Don't blame me I just report the stuff. I knew Pritzker was going to win, but bespattered him anyway, for what I considered his deficiencies. Facing the music afterward is the price you pay.
     Pritzker was good about it. He said he was surprised that I had backed Biss. I reiterated my whole experience-in-government-is-good notion, and tried to pour oil on the waters. 
     I should have mentioned that I supported him in the bugged-phone-call-to-Blago controversy, in an article in that infamous lawn jockey issue of The Reader. He hadn't said anything wrong. But it slipped my mind—these political kerfuffles are delicate as dew and evaporate with each new dawn. Instead I told him something I had told Rahm Emanuel, whom I am also highly critical of, primarily because he so often fails as a human being and as a civic leader.
    "If I stand on my chair and cheer from the start, then I'm just one Jew supporting another Jew, and it means nothing," I said. "If I'm critical initially, then it might actually have some kind of significance if I come around at the end, when it matters."
     Or words to that effect. I didn't take notes.
     "But Biss is Jewish," Pritzker observed.
     Good point. I hadn't thought of that. I took another tack.
     "You know, after I wrote a book about my father, he didn't talk to me for six months..."
      What I was trying to say is that fondness and sharp observations are not necessarily mutually exclusive. That approach didn't work either. I cut to the chase.
     "You're the man standing between Illinois and four more years of Bruce Rauner." I told him, adding that I admired the brio of his acceptance speech. "If you are going to take Vienna, as Napoleon said, take Vienna."
     Here Pritzker surprised me.
     He said, in essence, that he didn't want to merely be the guy who isn't Bruce Rauner, but he wants to be elected on his own merits, and if I were more familiar with him, I might actually know what those were, and we would have to work on that.
      That impressed me, as had his acceptance speech Tuesday night. He was more forceful than on the commercials. He might not be what I had assumed him to be—a hand puppet for the various Democratic forces behind him. Pritzker surprised me by how nimble and engaged he was—every time I bumped into Rauner and tried to talk to him, to reach out, I drew back a handful of slime—and it dawned on me that I hadn't been fair to Pritzker, judging him by his TV commercials and my biases about hereditary wealth.
     I'm not the Jedi Council, I call things as I see them, but those initial impressions can be off base and can change. When I first heard the name "Barack Obama," I conjured up the image of a man in a dashiki, dark glasses and a big afro, tossing a black power salute, which was very far from the soft-spoken, clean-cut law professor who showed up in front of the editorial board.  We are all going to be stuck with J.B. Pritzker during his struggle to send Rauner back to the Land of Bad One Term Republicans, along with Peter Fitzgerald and Mark Kirk, so we might as well get to know him a little better. 

17 comments:

  1. My wife is one of the most intelligent people I know. Scratch that. She is the most intelligent person I know. And she supported J.B. right from the start. She said she knew something about the good he's done with his wealth, and she likes him. Well, that was good enough for me. I think she will be proven right. I've never seen her proven wrong. Also, she joined me in supporting Marie Newman for congress. Now we will support Dan Lipinski despite his anti-LGBTQ bigotry and distrust of women to make their own reproductive choices because 1) he is running against an actual nazi holocaust denier and 2) he has a truly great record on animal welfare, something my wife and I care deeply about. I think folks who supported Dan Biss or Chris Kennedy can find much more in J.B. worth supporting than we can in Bill Lipinski's son. And as a bonus, J.B. is not Rauner.

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  2. Didn't you talk to Stratton?

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    1. I did, but I figured I had embarrassed myself aplenty with the Pritzker exchange without commemorating that too (I introduced myself, and she observed that we had met, going through bond court with Toni Preckwinkle. I would make a lousy politician, for many reasons, but primarily because I have a terrible memory for people I meet briefly).

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    2. I also have a terrible memory for people I've met briefly, but the people in following story on NPR have a much more serious problem:
      Oliver Sacks, the famous neuroscientist and author, can't recognize faces. Neither can Chuck Close, the great artist known for his enormous paintings of ... that's right, faces. Oliver and Chuck--both born with the condition known as Face Blindness--have spent their lives decoding who is saying hello to them.

      john

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    3. Prosopagnosia is the name of the disorder Oliver Sacks had. The brain is certainly a fascinating organ.

      I have trouble with faces and names but I blame it on inattentiveness.

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    4. Face blindness is also associated with autism. I have high-functioning autism. It is embarassing when I run into people I should know (from the vet, from the grocery store) and don't... I hate to think that people think I'm stuck-up or rude, when I am neither... just autistic. High function notwithstanding.

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    5. Padraig, please don't feel self-conscious about this. Happens to me all the time when I run into someone outside of the only context I've encountered them in before. And I don't expect someone I've met previously in passing to remember me; I think I must have a common face "type," which is definitely a thing. I often remind people of someone else they know (someone gorgeous, I assume).

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  3. Cool column, Neil, and a typically accurate assessment of the current political situation. But I still bridle a little at how this guy bought the nomination with his family's money. It's like the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a lot of money is a good guy with a lot of money.

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    1. Everyone these days buys it with money, andvare usually beholden to their sources, unless they are lucky enough to get many smaller donations. . I love it when a good guy has so much money he will be beholden to no one.

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  4. Interesting that you mention the Jedi Council. I'm not a Star Wars guy, but I know it is ultimately about good versus evil in the biblical fashion. I didn't vote for Pritzger in the primary, but I will vote for him in the general election.

    I'm well aware of the problems with the Democrat Party in Illinois and take no pleasure in voting for Madigan's party. But the GOP in America has morphed into something out of a horror movie, a genuine threat to the country and the human race. They are now in bed with Russia for God's sake, for the simple reason that Russians are a means to an end for the people really running the GOP. Republicans in 2018 are a motley coalition of hate, anger and stupidity, blindly supporting two simple initiatives - less (or no) taxes on the super wealthy, and less (or no) regulations on the super wealthy's business interests. That's it. Ig the Russians can help meet those two goals so be it. The GOP gives lip service to immigration and guns and abortion and so on, but that's just to keep the easily led in a cocoon of agitation and obliviousness.

    Pritzger has my vote. To vote for a republican at this point on a state and nation level is to vote for Putin and billionaires. It is good versus evil.

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  5. A thoughtful column. I did not vote for JB but many people I respect have shared stories of his stealth kindness and organizational acumen. I appreciate this insight. Also- I admire your intrepid nature. I’d be a blathering fool.

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  6. Heartening to hear that Pritzker seems to indicate that he won't be running as the anti-Rauner. I think that was Hillary's biggest mistake: she thought (and so did I) that pointing out Donald Trump's flaws would be sufficient to win the election in a landslide. I voted for Biss too. Maybe Pritzker could appoint him to a position where his expertise would help in running Illinois government.

    john

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  7. You've reworked this piece since last night, haven't you Neil? Either that or I didn't read it very carefully. I'm impressed with your candor, but gotta say that your having had 11 months to discover whatever his good qualities are, but only doing so *after* the votes were cast and because of a personal conversation with the guy is kinda disappointing to me. (Please file that under "fondness and sharp observations are not necessarily mutually exclusive," if you would be so kind.) But it's a compelling and beautifully written post, for sure.

    "He said he was surprised that I had backed Biss." I'm surprised by that, too. Only because I read EGD every day and didn't know who you were actually backing. I thought you were being coy in your March 18 column about the race, ("'That’s a toughie, I replied to my friend', then made my recommendation") but perhaps "I like Daniel Biss because the state senator has actual government experience, once considered important to actually running the government" was meant to indicate what that recommendation was. I couldn't tell whether you were indeed going for Biss or Kennedy.

    Anyway, while I voted somewhat grudgingly for Biss, due to a number of factors, I'm not gonna have too much trouble wrapping my head around backing "our" billionaire against the other one, when it comes right down to it. I'm happy to read about your exchange with him and see some of the positive comments here, which will make doing so easier. And kudos to Bitter Scribe for "It's like the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a lot of money is a good guy with a lot of money."

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    1. That's a fair criticism -- I didn't seek out any of the candidates, but heard from Kennedy, who I knew well, and Biss, whom I had met, but not Pritzker, who I then judged from third parties and from his commercials. I'm not sure, had I met him, I would have liked him any more, having the options of Biss and Kennedy, but once they were gone, I discovered qualities in him of value, in his speech and this exchange. It's a fairly organic process. I don't cover politics much, primarily, because other people are already doing that, and because I don't find politicians very interesting, since they are usually so circumspect. But your point is taken. And yes, I did keep working at it this morning -- I wasn't happy with places.

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    2. A gracious and logical reply, indeed. Thanks, Neil. I admit that I sorta overlooked the part about your appreciation for his speech, since I didn't watch it. If a guy's gonna spend tens of millions of dollars on commercials to encourage people to vote for him, judging him by them would surely seem like a legitimate response, I agree.

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  8. Also to learn Pritzker is more "nimble and engaged" than his TV spots might suggest. I was somewhat impressed with his running mate as well, although Lieutenant Governors usually disappear after the election.

    Tom

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  9. Great perspective Neil. I have a different perspective of you as well now.

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Thanks for commenting.