Sunday, April 1, 2018

The warm human side of Michael Madigan

Ed McElroy, Michael Madigan, Neil and Edie Steinberg
     Today is April Fools Day. While in past years I've marked the occasion with prankish posts, this year, as the Poynter Institute observes, "feels different." 
     Why? That's easy. Donald Trump's constant invocation of "fake news" has sapped the value of parody, if not of humor itself. While I can't speak for other journalists, I for one appreciate having this brought to my attention by ivory tower academicians in Florida, because otherwise we might miss it. And they have a valid point. If the mainstream media demonstrates unwavering fidelity to the truth, even on a day traditionally given over to levity, then perhaps the Right will finally become aware of the error of their ways.
     So in that spirit, I will not try to fool anybody today. Save that for some happy occasion in the future when our country has returned to the path of truth and justice. 
     Instead, as luck would have it, I have a column from the archive that originally ran on April 1 and I've been meaning to repost, but it always got bumped by my modest attempts at April Fools humor. 
     Okay, perhaps I've also been reluctant to post it, for reasons that will become clear.  Michael Madigan gets a lot of bad publicity—universally bad, in fact. The Nazis get better press. So I'm not only happy to post this, in keeping with my contrarian nature, but I think it would be cowardly not to take advantage of the pause from my typical April Fool's drollery to slip this in. To show you how times have changed, this got very little notice when it was first published in 2009.

     "When are you inviting me to that pool party?" whispered a low voice behind me.
     I was standing with my wife at the Beverly Country Club, at the 85th birthday party of my old friend Ed McElroy, when I heard a familiar thin, tight voice nearly in my ear. I turned.
     "Mr. Speaker!" I said, seeing the smiling face of Michael Madigan. Well, not smiling, in the traditional sense of the corners of the mouth curving upward. But a kind of slight-yet-detectable tightening of the mouth, and the merest hint of sparkle in the eyes that might otherwise seem cold and dead to a causal observer, but that I've learned from long experience means that he's smiling, or trying to. 
      "Just finishing up?" I said. He was wearing a green polo and had obviously come from the links. 
      There was a silence for about five seconds.
      "Yes," he finally said, in that way of speaking without actually moving his lips that's always fascinated me. We gazed at each other fondly. He is a man of few words.
     "How was your game?" I asked brightly. "Play with anybody I'd know?"
      He looked at me for along time, his expression never changing.
       "If I told you," he said, with asperity, "I'd have to kill you." 
      I roared at his joke, and  observed that we had invited him to our last pool party, but he hadn't come. He never comes.
      "You know you're always welcome," I cooed, reaching over to shake his hand, but he yanked it away.
      When we bought our house in Northbrook in 2000, the backyard just cried out for a pool that our boys, then 3 and 4, could enjoy. I had known the speaker for years, back to when I was opinion page editor of the Wheaton Daily Journal. He has a lovely pool behind his neat bungalow in West Lawn. When I asked him who did it, he immediately arranged for a contractor to come out. The guy did an excellent job for not too much money—$1200, quite a bargain, really for a large, below-ground concrete pool with two ladders and a curving slide. Plus a changing cabana and a fence. Though Mr. Madigan does needle me about it—his quip about the pool party is his standard line. The truth is, I really can't imagine the speaker ever showing up, though I always invite him, out of loyalty.
      Mike Madigan appreciates loyalty. 
      I know a lot of people give Mr. Madigan grief. He's supposedly aloof, sphinxlike. But I find him very open and accessible. Sometimes, if I'm writing a column about a complicated piece of legislation, I'll email it to him before it's published and he'll immediately respond, more often than not with a few "small tweaks," as he calls them, and they always turns out an improvement. 
     We're close enough that he was the godfather to my older son, and helped him get into the pre-kindergarten Chicago City Day School when they rejected him for misbehavior, and on a special "Speaker's Scholarship" to boot. People complain that Chicago Day is expensive, but we didn't find it expensive at all.
     Mr. Madigan isn't known for his sense of humor, and people are surprised when I tell them we do have a joshing relationship. He'll say. "Did your house burn down? I heard there were firefighters over there," when of course it was just the Northbrook Fire Department coming to fill the pool, which they do every spring. 
    "How did you know?" I say, well aware that he's up on everything that goes on everywhere, and he'll rib me back, "What are you, an idiot?"
     Some neighbors grumble that it's a perk, but the truth is that firefighters need to train with hydrants—"quick water from the hydrant" they call it, and if that water used in this important training ends up in my pool then really, what's the harm? In fact, it helps the environment by saving water. I'm almost certain they do it for other people.
    "You hear from Bob much?" I asked—Bob Page, former publisher of the Sun-Times, who hired me after I had written some editorials in the Daily Journal backing various Madigan projects and candidates. 
      "No," the speaker said.
      "Well, give him my best. When you do, tell him I'm in his debt for his taking a chance on me.
     I invited Mr. Madigan to join us at dinner though, being such an important figure in Illinois politics, he had to decline.  A moment later he was gone, but not before allowing us to take a picture to document the occasion. He's really good about that kind of thing. I wish people could see the warm human side of him that I see.
                    —Originally published in the Sun-Times, April 1, 2009



  1. I love the photo of your backyard! I have so many wonderful memories of that peaceful little spot. I notice that you kept the pool out of the picture. Was it taken the day Donald crashed the party and his tan washed off? I've never seen you so pissed! (Sorry I laughed so hard.) As soon as it warms up, I'll bring my power-washer over and we'll blast away that orange ring around the pool. I'm looking forward to another spectacular "pool season" at the Steinberg's!

  2. Shame he can't make the annual event. He and Bruce could get their heads together and do a bit of state business. These informal contacts are an important aspect of governance -- like those wonderful times when Ronnie and Tip used to get things ironed out canoodoling over lunch.



    1. Tom, I always thought those stories about how Tip and Ronnie "canoodled" were wildly exaggerated. And in any case, I don't see why Madigan would want to spend 30 seconds alone with someone who has spent the last three years vilifying him as evil incarnate.

  3. Next time you see Uncle Mike (I don’t get to see him much these days - he’s kinda busy) ask him where he gets those high waisted pants - I’m getting on in age I could really use a couple of pairs.


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