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.