Friday, February 16, 2024

Flashback 2006: Sometimes, the denial is worse than the charge

Perseus with the Head of Medusa, by Antonio Canova (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

    No column in the paper today — an editor asked me to instead write something Sunday  about my late colleague, Jack Higgins. 
    In the meantime, Facebook served this up as a memory Thursday, and I thought, "I must have already posted that." But no. It's too fun not to. Yes, sad that Jesse Jackson Jr. was lost to mental illness and prison. But that was in the future when I wrote this column, a reminder that columnists used to throw their elbows a little harder than we do today. (If there even is a "we." Some days it feels like it's just a "me.")


     A classic tale from the colorful career of Lyndon B. Johnson gives politicians of today nearly all they need to know about dealing with abuse.
     The late, great Hunter S. Thompson, of all people, tells a publishable version:
     "Back in 1948, during his first race for the U.S. Senate, Lyndon Johnson was running about 10 points behind, with only nine days to go. He was sunk in despair. He was desperate. And it was just before noon on a Monday, they say, when he called his equally depressed campaign manager and instructed him to call a press conference for just before lunch on a slow news day and accuse his high-riding opponent, a pig farmer, of having routine carnal knowledge of his barnyard sows, despite the pleas of his wife and children.
     "His campaign manager was shocked. 'We can't say that, Lyndon,' he supposedly said. 'You know it's not true.'
     "'Of course it's not true!' Johnson barked at him. 'But let's make the bastard deny it!' ''


     When the first smirking colleague passed along a letter purporting to be from Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., I thought it was a joke.
     "You wrote this yourself, didn't you?" I accused. He swore it was legit.
     Could it be? Was the congressman really denying being dumb ? And at such length. He mentions the word "dumb" seven times: dumb , dumb , dumb , dumb , dumb , dumb , dumb.
And the amazing thing is, I never called him " dumb ," not directly. What I said was that he "isn't very bright" — a premise that he amply illustrates below.
     Just to assure you that this isn't some kind of elaborate parody — a fantasy sequence – I should say I spoke directly to Jackson 's press secretary, Frank E. Watkins, and he assures me, albeit a bit frostily, that the congressman did indeed pen the letter.
     But enough preliminaries. Let me step aside and present Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., in his own words. He writes:
     "Neil Steinberg says he doesn't like me . . ."
     Actually, I never said that either. The fact is, I do like him. A lot. It's the Jesse Jackson Jr.'s of the world that make my life a bed of ease.
     ". . . because he has a bias that I'm not very smart. Note that he doesn't just say my ideas are dumb , but that I am dumb . . ."
     What I actually said was that Mayor Daley "isn't dumb " — which is also true. He sure didn't write me a long, aggrieved, self-indicting defense. The man's too smart for that.
     ". . . a very personal and subjective view without a factual basis. The last time I checked they don't award college, seminary, law and honorary degrees to dumb people."
     That's the dumbest — now I am using the word — part of the entire letter. I graduated from Northwestern University and, trust me, they slapped degrees upon some world-class idiots. Not to single out NU — I think anyone who ever attended any college, seminary or law school anywhere would heartily agree. With the exception of Jackson , that is.
     "Steinberg says I'm dumb because I've offered an amendment to the Constitution that would provide all American students with a 'public education of equal high quality . . ."
     The key weasel word here is "provide." If I thought Jackson's amendment had a chance to provide anybody anything, except perhaps a cynical chuckle, I'd be all for it. But it wouldn't. How could it help? Right now parents allow their own children to fail in school, even though it dooms them, hurts the economy, raises crime, drug use and a raft of social woes — if that isn't inspiration enough to make school work better, then what's a constitutional amendment going to do? Nada.
     "It's not a dumb idea to put one of our basic beliefs into our most important legal document — that every child in America has the right to a public education of equal high quality."
     Window dressing. Product placement. Chin music. How could kids across the country have a "right" to an equal high quality education when kids in the same school, even in the same room, don't get an equal education? It's impossible.
     "He says such an amendment would be a 'waste of time and make the Constitution a place for meaningless symbolism.' That's like saying the phrase 'shall provide for the common defense' is merely symbolic when it just resulted in a 2006 Defense Department appropriation of $453 billion . . ."
     Well, he prattles on from there, but you get the idea. Bottom line is: He stands by his charmed notion that a constitutional amendment would somehow fix our broken schools. Why stop there? The biggest problem in our schools — as any teacher will tell you — is not money, but parents who don't care. Why not get a constitutional amendment to fix that? A line demanding that parents love their children and take an active interest in their education. Jackson could call it "The loving parents amendment." And obesity. With fat kids being such a problem, why not tuck in a line that all children have a right to be healthy and of moderate weight. Why not put that in the Constitution, too?
     Because it would be . . . no, no, I won't say it.


     Then, as if holding some kind of master class on ham-handedness, Jackson proceeds to send the offending column out to everybody he knows, begging them to support him (perhaps he sensed that, prior to his plea, I didn't receive a single communication backing the congressman. Not one).
     This provoked a mighty trickle of confused, automatic support — and quite a bit of name calling, which always helps one's case — as well as e-mails such as the following:
     "When I got an email from Jessie Jr. soliciting an attack on you I knew you must have been right on target. Bravo."
     Which should explain to my colleagues the hoots of laughter that have been echoing out of my office all day.
            — Originally published in the Sun-Times, January 11, 2006


  1. I always have considered Richie Daley to be really dumb.
    After all, he passively supported Blago over Paul Vallas for governor then, because Vallas got so much good PR as the Chicago School's chief, so Richie was pissed off at him getting the credit, instead of the great spawn of the first Daley!
    As for Jesse Jr, he learned to be a fool from his rotten to the core anti-Semite father!

  2. Ah, those halcyon days before Meigs Field and the parking fiasco. I remember them well, back when I could afford to enjoy the city.

  3. I never thought Richie was all that smart EXCEPT that he surrounded himself with smart people. Would that the current mayor did the same.

    With respect to the column, no argument with its veracity, but it does seem a little unkind.

  4. Jackson uses one cliché in particular that I have always found distractingly awful in any argument: "The last time I checked they don't award college, seminary, law and honorary degrees to dumb people."

    That conjures up a mental image of... what? The author feeling a need to somehow "check" periodically on the status of something he's about to use as a debating point, even when it's some bloody-obvious statement? How does that advance his argument? In this particular case it seems to work against him.

  5. Your column today on Jack Higgins was very good.
    He was a talented man. And you're a talented man.
    As is Zorn, Telander, Page, and so many more whose opinions I respect, be they in words or drawn.

    The problem is, will the S-T or Trib keep an editorial artist on staff?
    We've already seen many columnists and critics bought out and not replaced.
    This is the trend I fear. There will soon be no one to take the place of these essential journalists.


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