Tuesday, January 19, 2016

"What matters infamy if the cash be kept?"

     I had lunch with former congressman, former federal judge, former White House counsel, current Chicago icon Abner Mikva last week—my Wednesday column will be about our conversation. He mentioned a column I wrote about him 10 years ago. I couldn't find it, but I found this, from the long-ago era when Rod Blagojevich was our governor, and it was so much fun I thought you might enjoy.
     This was back when I had a full page, with a brief "Opening shot," several small segments, and a joke at the end.

     Obscurity pressed hard upon Juvenal, the Roman satirist who spent
his career crouched miserably in the antechambers of rich patrons, waiting for a half-gnawed chicken leg to be tossed his way. 

     That's why his satires remain so fresh today — you see this poor mope, thwarted at every turn, overlooked, underfed, trying to make his way through the crowded Roman streets, enviously eyeing the rich in their curtained sedan chairs, not noticing the burly centurion about to plant a hobnail boot on his toe. 
     So it would do the old Roman's heart good, I believe, to know that in 2008, in a nation he never heard of in a world he could not imagine, one of his pithier lines spontaneously popped into the head of a Chicagoan when he heard that his old boss, David Radler, had been released from a Canadian prison after less than a year in jail. 
     "What matters infamy if the cash be kept?" I thought, quoting Juvenal, figuring that, for the money Radler got from his crimes, minus penalties and legal fees, I'd gladly make birdhouses in the federal penitentiary for a year, and so would you. 

     Am I bragging by mentioning a classical writer? Maybe so. But why is it viewed that way? Nobody says, "How can you guys pay attention to these football games, week after week, month after month, year after year. It's the same thing happening over and over. Doesn't it get boring? Why insist on talking about it?" 
     No, I accept that football is a passion that many love, one that adds richness and texture to their lives. Who am I to judge their fancies? Yet do they return the favor? Nooooooo. I was listening to the radio the other day — WGN — and this jamoke starts mocking people who talk about reading War and Peace. "Oh, I'm reading War and Peace," he gushes, in a smug, Homer-Simpson-imitating-a-fairy voice, as if the only reason to read War and Peace is to impress strangers. 
     I was truly offended, and I don't offend easily, and for the very reason most people get offended — because my ox was gored. I am currently reading War and Peace, out loud to my older son, and we're both loving it, not because it gives us something to brag about, but because it's great. When Tolstoy describes a horse, it's like an actual horse canters into the room, twitching and snorting. When Natasha jumps into her mother's bed to tell the old countess about Prince Andrei, it could be any 16-year-old girl gushing about her dreamboat.
     It's real. I know the common wisdom is that classics are these horrendous blocks of stone written by dead white males and forced upon the unwilling through some malign conspiracy. And I can see how people feel that way. Classics have their drawbacks. War and Peace is 1,200 pages long, and every character has four names. It gets confusing. I'm sure climbing Mt. Everest has drawbacks, too. But must I suppress enthusiasm, keep quiet, just because you can't imagine any reason to read it other than braggadocio? Every Monday we all have to hear about what the flippin' Bears did, yet let slip something about a book you love and you're a bigmouth blowhard preening your feathers. It's not fair. 

     Usually experts have to be hunted, cornered, flushed out. So it was a pleasant turnabout to have one of the foremost legal authorities in Chicago phone me up out of the blue Tuesday. 
     "I want to talk about the attorney general's lawsuit," said Abner Mikva, former federal judge and adviser to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, referring to Lisa Madigan asking the Illinois Supreme Court to freeze embattled Gov. Rod Blagojevich's powers. "I know you're questioning it, but we thought long and hard and looked at it carefully before we filed." 
     The Illinois Constitution clearly sets out reasons a governor can be relieved of power: death, impeachment, failure to meet qualifications of office, "or other disability," the loophole that Mikva believes the court can use to spike Blagojevich. "It doesn't say 'mental' or 'physical'," said Mikva. "It would cover just about anything the court wants to prevent the governor from carrying out his duties." 
     Isn't that the problem? If this is a disability, it is a political disability, and is not the governorship by nature a position given to controversy? True, the governor is not typically caught scheming to sell a seat in the Senate, but the particulars are not the crucial aspect. Do we really want this precedent, that our courts can strip our governor of power for being accused of doing something bad? Could not an attorney general with fewer scruples than Madigan—who I believe is a straight arrow—abuse such a system? 
      "We thought it made more sense for the attorney general, the highest law enforcement official in the state, to make the case to the highest court in the state," said Mikva. "I don't think it is asking the court for an outlandish interference. It is the least invasive thing anyone could do. . . . Well, the least invasive thing he could do is resign." 
     Amen. Not that anyone expects Blagojevich to do the noble thing.
     "Had he been thinking about what's best for the state, he wouldn't have gotten himself into this mess in the first place," I said. 
     "Of course not," said Mikva. "But that's not his bag, I'm afraid."


     I bumped into George Lemperis, owner of the Palace Grill, the famed diner and Blackhawks hangout on West Madison Street. He told me the following: Two inmates go through the lunch line with their tin trays, then find a spot in the crowded prison lunchroom.
     "This slop tastes awful," says the first, grimacing over his spoonful of gruel.
     "You think this is bad," says the second. "You should have tasted the food here when you were still governor."
               —Originallly published Dec. 17, 2008


  1. A lot of fun reading the above. A couple of observations: I couldn't help noting the coincidence of the new BBC miniseries "War and Peace" which started yesterday (Monday) on several cable channels. For anyone interested (I DVRed Episode 1), here is the link to a clever take on the show by The New Yorker's Louis Menard:


    Also, Abner Mikva's comment in 2008 about hoping Blagojevich might resign was eerily similar to today's hope, even demand by many, that our esteemed mayor do the same thing. But of course, he wouldn't either.


  2. Amused to see the BBC mini-series criticized as "soapy." The novel War and Peace itself had many of the characteristics of a soap opera, as did a lot of 19th century novels, especially the serialized ones by the likes of Trollope and Dickens. As Neil said, "They're alive."

  3. Juvenal would have understood the need to feed our public's fascination with "the flippin Bears," as he coined the phrase "bread and circuses."

    Being shamed for being well read depends somewhat on who you are. I read recently that Justice Stephen Breyer said that when he finished Proust's "Remembrance of Things Past." He immediately went back to the beginning and started over. I doubt that he will be penalized for the admission... except perhaps by Justice Scalia.

    Being of a certain age myself, I feel some pity for people who never acquired the habit of wide reading, reinforced by this little poem by that well known author "Anonymous."

    "When your light is on all night
    You're either reading,
    Or you're dead,
    Or you're having fun in bed."

    Of the three options one is unlooked for and another of diminishing likelihood. But a good book can always be a reliable comfort.

    Something of the same sentiment was expressed by Thomas Hobbes in

    "The quest for learning and understanding is a lust of the mind, that by a perseverance of delight in the continual and indefatigable generation of knowledge, exceedeth the short vehemence of carnal pleasure."

    Tom Evans

    1. Maybe those who don't read need Viagra for the brain.


    2. Yes. but if it lasts more than four hours they need to see a doctor.


  4. A beef taco at that place in Evanston sounds good. Too bad you didn't try that one, as far as what you described.

  5. Did you even find any decent hotels to stay at in Fairfield?


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