Monday, March 31, 2008

Hillary won’t quit. Good for her!

“I have no intention of stopping until we finish what we started and until we see what happens in the next 10 contests and until we resolve Florida and Michigan. And if we don’t resolve it, we’ll resolve it at the convention” – Hillary R. Clinton.

Let me state up front that I cast my ballot for president in the Feb. 5 primary in Illinois for Barack Obama and the requisite delegates. Nothing that has happened since makes me regret my vote and I believe the Democratic Party (and the nation) is best able to move forward if Obama is the person who winds up in the White House.

But I believe the people who are trying to pressure Hillary Clinton to get out of the primary fight for the Democratic presidential nomination are being ridiculous. She has earned the right to be in the running for president, even if she wants to take the fight all the way to the nominating convention in Denver in late August.

I WILL BE the first to concede that there is a sizable number of people in this country who seriously believe that Clinton the second is a necessity as president if this country is to undo the damage that has occurred during the eight years that Bush the younger has served as president.

Many of these people see a Clinton successor to Bush as a way of framing his presidency as an accident, of sorts, that occurred in the middle of the Clinton era. It diminishes the significance of his eight years in office, and enhances the importance of the Clinton legacy.

Perhaps in their minds, it even diminishes the importance to Bill Clinton’s legacy that he got caught doing something naughty with an intern (and I don’t care if Chelsea will get offended that anybody dares bring that up – it happened, and no amount of indignation on her part can change that).

There also are those people who would take a great pride in seeing the United States show evidence of moving forward by selecting a woman to be its chief executive, and many of those people are upset that the “first female president” angle is buried under all the hype of Obama-mania.

I THINK CLINTON backers overestimate the importance of being able to try to frame history (historic legacies have a knack of taking care of themselves, no matter how much we try to stage things to appear a certain way).

But while I don’t want her to win the primary in part because I don’t want to relive the 1990s, I think it is wrong to try to cast her out of the political fight.

The fact is that she is winning significant numbers of delegates and is not running that far behind Obama – even if it is highly unlikely that she will surpass him in either delegate count or the popular vote.

A bare majority of delegates is what is needed for a candidate to take the party’s nomination, and the fact that Obama has the lead (and likely still will come mid-June when all the primaries and caucuses are over) will not change the fact that he won’t have enough to win.

HE IS BARELY leading, but has been unable to clinch the victory. So any talk that this race should be over and Clinton should step down is silly.

Want a baseball analogy? It’s the middle of the eighth inning, and Obama only has a 1-run lead. She could still come from behind to tie it up and send it into extra innings (the political equivalent of which is having the super-delegates decide the matter at the convention in August).

Why is it so ridiculous that the nominating convention actually be used to decide who gets the nomination? Quite frankly, the problem with presidential conventions in recent years is that they have become little more than over-glorified pep rallies for the presidential front-runners.

The 1996 conventions were particularly dull. Bill Clinton ran unopposed, while Bob Dole clinched the GOP nomination so early that there was nothing left for delegates to do in San Diego except lap up the sunshine and stuff themselves with fish tacos (I actually know someone who claims that was what he literally did to pass the time away that convention).

THE IDEA THAT delegates chosen from every state and territory of the United States will gather in Denver to decide who should represent their party for president – with the best man (or woman) winning. That sounds to me like Democracy at work. That sounds to me like what our political system is supposed to be.

To quote Mr. Dooley, “politics ain’t beanbag.” It’s not supposed to be pretty. This year in particular, it isn’t. The fact that the Obama/Clinton political primary has become so ugly is evidence that the American people have taken to caring about these two candidates.

Unfortunately, reality sets in. There can be only one winner. There will always be some people who get disappointed because their preferred candidate didn’t win.

Now some people are getting worked up over the latest poll by Gallup that shows 28 percent of Clinton’s supporters would rather vote for Republican John McCain instead of Obama, if he wins the Democratic nomination.

THAT SAME POLL shows 19 percent of Barack backers saying they would vote for McCain if Hillary gets the nomination. It also shows 20 percent of Republicans won’t vote for McCain (11 percent would pick the Democrat, while 9 percent would refuse to vote).

Of course, that same poll also showed that 59 percent of Clinton backers saying they would stay loyal to the Democratic Party – regardless of who wins the nomination.

There’s also the chance that many of the people who are now saying they would vote GOP will not be able to bring themselves to commit such a shameful act come Nov. 4 – the Gallup group noted that in presidential elections from 1992 to 2004, only 10 percent of all voters flipped to the candidate of the other political party because they didn’t like who their party chose.

All these numbers really mean is that this year, the American people are enamored of the presidential candidates. They care. It isn’t like a 1992 repeat, where the only thing that really made that presidential campaign interesting was the entrance of Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot into the mix.

GEORGE BUSH THE elder vs. Bill Clinton would have been deadly dull, despite the attempts of Republican attack dogs to make Clinton out to be a draft-dodging, over-sexed, aging hippie (my fingers trembled even typing such ridiculous rhetoric).

This is going to be the election cycle that we will tell our children and grandchildren about years from now. They’re going to want to know whether we were Barack backers or a part of Camp Clinton (or were we among the deluded dozens who seriously believed Fred Thompson was worthy of the White House).

Election ’04 – the Democratic primary – is a story for the history books (I think the general election will be anti-climactic, too many people hate Bush the younger and will take it out on McCain). It is likely that this primary and the after-election court battle in the 2000 presidential campaign will be the two electoral stories of our lifetimes that will be long-remembered.

Why would anyone in his right mind want to bring this story to a premature end?

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EDITOR’S NOTES: Does anybody seriously believe Hillary Clinton would give up a U.S. Senate seat (http://www.newsweek.com/id/129399) for the chance to live and work in Albany, N.Y.?

Are Barack Obama’s followers the ultimate male chauvinists? Some foreign observers (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2008/03/30/whillary130.xml) seem to think so.

Hillary Clinton, during this recent campaign event in Blue Bell, Penn., is trying to keep the support of one of the demographic groups that is keeping her presidential campaign viable. Photograph provided by Hillary Clinton for president.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Baseball off-base in way it perceives race

Major League Baseball will pat itself on the back Saturday night (or will it behave like a true ballplayer and give itself a pat on the rump?), giving itself praise for some of the great African-American ballplayers who have thrilled us throughout the years with their athletic skills.

From Jackie Robinson to Willie Mays and running to the present of Ken Griffey (Sr. & Jr.) and Dontrelle Willis, we may even get to hear the saga of the Hairston family – one of only three in which three different generations (grandpa, pa and son) all played baseball for major league teams.

FOR TONIGHT IS the Civil Rights Game, at AutoZone Park in Memphis, Tenn., which is becoming a pre-season tradition where two teams get to play an exhibition game that is dressed up with ceremonies commemorating the contributions of black ballplayers.

But when our very own Chicago White Sox take the field tonight against the New York Mets in their last pre-season game before heading for Cleveland to begin their regular season on the road with a series against the Indians, we ought to think seriously about the role professional baseball has played in the culture of our country, and realize that much of the pablum we’ll be fed tonight is a crock.

I have lost count of the number of times people come up with statistics that show baseball, our “national pastime” and truly one of the great ballgames in existence, just doesn’t have much appeal to people in the United States who are not white.

It does continue to appeal in a very big way to people outside the United States, particularly those from Latin American countries. It is often the growing presence of Spanish-speaking ballplayers (roughly one in four major leaguers comes from a Latin American country, and two in five is Hispanic), combined with the growing number of Asians, who are giving this game its feel of diversity.

IF NOT FOR the foreign elements to Major League Baseball, the professional game in this country would be even whiter than it was in the days prior to 1946 – the year Robinson played his one season of minor league ball prior to joining the Brooklyn Dodgers.

To me, the World Series in 2005 is memorable for several reasons – from watching Roger Clemens fizzle out after just two innings to seeing White Sox shortstop Juan Uribe make a diving catch into the stands on a foul ball that helped preserve a 1-0 White Sox victory in Game 4 to that game that felt like it would never end (Game 3, at 14 innings, lasted until just after 1 a.m. – and remains the longest World Series game ever).

That is all memorable on-field activity. But there’s one other factor that is memorable about the World Series that year. The National League champion Houston Astros didn’t have a single U.S.-born black player on their roster.

Not that the White Sox were much better that year. Outfielder (and Series MVP) Jermaine Dye and designated hitter Carl Everett were the sole African-Americans on the team that year (long-time White Sox star Frank Thomas would have been a third, had he not suffered a nearly season-long injury that kept him from playing in the World Series).

SADLY ENOUGH, THIS is not some extreme situation.

It is common for most of the melanin complexion on a ball club to come from players who were born in other countries, and to whom the United States is a place where they work during the summers before returning to their home countries for the winter months (where some insist on playing in the professional baseball leagues scattered throughout Latin American countries).

Some people want to downplay this fact by claiming that many of the Latin American players themselves are very dark-skinned and obviously have African ethnic origins in their genetics. That is true, but it doesn’t mean that baseball is doing itself or society any favors by replacing the number of black ballplayers with Latino ballplayers.

Perhaps it is appropriate that the White Sox are one of the participants in Saturday’s exhibition. The very question, “Who was the first black ballplayer ever for the White Sox?” highlights the confusion.

THE FIRST BLATANTLY dark-skinned Sox player was Orestes “Minnie” Miñoso, the Cuban who joined the team in May 1951 and became one of the White Sox’ top players for the 1950s. Three months later, a second dark-skinned player, Mississippi native Sam Hairston, joined the team.

Hairston was a catcher who only played part of that one season in the major leagues, and hung around the minor leagues for several more years hoping to get another shot at playing ball. He didn’t, but he went on to become a talent scout who had two sons and two grandsons who all played major league ball.

I’d argue that Hairston is the first African-American player for the White Sox, noting that Miñoso wasn’t even the first Latino ballplayer with the team. That doesn’t take away from his skills.

But this type of debate (which I have read way too much of on various web sites trying to discuss the racial makeup of modern-day professional baseball) reeks too much of a mentality of there being “white” ballplayers and “other” ballplayers, as some fans don't like having to acknowledge any difference between dark-skinned Latin Americans and African-Americans. That attitude, in and of itself, can make many promising African-American athletes look to other sports.

WHY SHOULD THEY play something that tries to make them feel like an outsider, or that wants them to believe they should be grateful anyone is even allowing them to play?

It is true that many athletes who once may have thought of playing baseball now turn to sports like basketball or football, both of which use major college athletics as their developing ground for talent – compared to baseball which still relies on minor leagues that are located primarily in the rural south.

The thought of a college scholarship (which makes it sound like the person is going off to be a student, even if some of them will never open a textbook during their time on campus) can sound much more promising to a young black man than the chance to play (and fail) for the Bluefield (W.Va.) Orioles in the Appalachian League.

I often wonder myself if a Jackie Robinson these days would even want to play baseball professionally. After all, he was a college football star (UCLA), and conceivably was a good enough athlete that the National Football League might be an option.

NOW PROFESSIONAL BASEBALL in this country is taking a step in the right direction with its RBI program, which tries to run camps in inner-city neighborhoods to show youngsters the intricacies of baseball. On a certain level, baseball views its Civil Rights Game as yet another chance to show off the history of athleticism amongst African-American ballplayers.

Yet I could see how such action would go against the game. Reminding people of the players who once took the field for various teams in the old Negro leagues is a nice gesture. Paying attention to the contributions of Jackie Robinson and Hank Aaron is interesting.

But it has the potential to make baseball appear to young black people to be a game that grandpa once played. It doesn’t do much of anything to show off the current talent and make the African-American youth realize baseball is a game that can use their talents as well.

It also doesn’t help that so many baseball fans want to dump the single-season and career home run records set by star slugger Barry Bonds, and seem particularly gleeful that he is having trouble finding a ball club interested in using his hitting talents this season.

STEROID-LADEN OR not, he still managed to hit all those home runs. Unless baseball is prepared to start nullifying its past decade of existence (which would seem too much like bitter griping against a black athlete), it is going to have to accept his accomplishments.

Now some are going to note that the person who is now beloved for the home run record – Hank Aaron – is also African-American. But back when Aaron approached the record in 1973, he was subjected to so much hate mail that the perception exists that baseball fans are just bitter cranks whenever a black man comes close to a record-setting achievement.

This is the attitude that needs to be dealt with and changed if baseball is truly interested in gaining more fan support from African-American people.

This is where baseball commissioner Bug Selig ought to be focusing his attention Saturday night in Memphis, instead of getting caught up in hero worship for his boyhood idol Aaron – who despite his past greatness is now little more than just another ex-athlete.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Major League Baseball is determined to pay tribute to the Civil Rights movement (http://mlb.mlb.com/mlb/events/civil_rights_game/y2008/index.jsp) with an annual exhibition game in the same city where the National Civil Rights Museum (http://www.civilrightsmuseum.org/) is located.

Sam Hairston is not only the first African-American to play for the Chicago White Sox, he also is the head of one of only three families (the Boones and the Bells are the other two) in which (http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9B07EFDF1239F93AA35752C1A961958260) three generations played major league baseball.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Ideologues are flat-out lying about "records" detailing Obama's Statehouse performance

Perhaps it is because I have seen the Illinois Statehouse “scene” up close and I remember the days when Barack Obama was just a peon on that scene, rather than the political "rock star" he has become now.
The arcane antics of the General Assembly that take place in the halls of the Capitol complex are providing fodder for political "attack dogs" who don't fully understand the way in which Illinois government operates.

But too many of the partisan ideologues who are trying to find dirt on Obama from his days as a state senator from the Hyde Park neighborhood are doing little more than showing their overall ignorance when they try to make accusations that imply Obama is less the “visionary of change” he claims to be, and is really nothing more than a political hack.

THE LATEST OF these attacks comes from Judicial Watch, a conservative group that is trying to turn Obama’s recent release of his income tax returns into an issue against him.

When Obama posted copies of his tax returns for 2000-06 on his campaign web site, he said opponent Hillary R. Clinton was being negligent for not promptly making the same financial information available about herself.

Judicial Watch wants us to think that Obama is merely using the issue as a tax dodge, of sorts, to make people think he is being forthcoming about personal information – but is really covering up information of greater significance.

According to the group’s statement, they want access to Obama’s “records” for the eight years (actually, it was seven years, 10 ½ months) he served in the Illinois Senate.

“IT APPEARS THAT Obama never kept records of his time in the Illinois state legislature, or he discarded them,” group President Tom Fitton wrote in a recent newsletter. “Either way, he clearly intended to leave no paper trail.”

The problem with this accusation?

I honestly have no idea what Fitton is referring to when he says he wants Obama’s “records.”

Does he mean that he wants to know how Obama voted on the nearly 8,000 pieces of legislation that came before the Illinois Senate during his stint in Springfield? That information is available.

PEOPLE HAVE BEEN able to go through the Obama voting record and figure out that he was largely a reliable vote for the Illinois Senate’s Democratic caucus, which was the minority party for six of Obama’s eight years in the General Assembly. That means many of Obama’s votes were defense mechanisms to protect himself from future political charges being made against him.

Does Fitton want an attendance record? That is available too. We can easily find out how many times Obama didn’t bother to show up for an Illinois Senate session, or may have been present and missed a vote because he was in the men’s room at an inopportune moment.

All of this information can be found for every single member of the Illinois House and state Senate. In today’s age of computers, it is not difficult to weed through eight years worth of votes and other records in order to find embarrassing data that might have gone overlooked in the past – when people had to manually go through each page looking for specific information.

I once heard another group hint at this same issue, saying what they wanted to see was Obama’s daily schedule – a detailed accounting of every single person he met with, every hearing he attended, who did he bother to eat lunch with (and who paid?). In short, they expected to find a daily logbook along the lines of what is kept for presidents of the United States, and then eventually shipped off to the National Archives.

IT WOULD BE ridiculous to expect such detailed information to be kept for every single one of the tens of thousands of individuals who have served in the Illinois General Assembly. The records literally would take up the entire Stratton Building – that ugly 1950’s era structure located across the parking lot to the west of the Statehouse.

The simple fact is that your typical legislator (on days when the General Assembly is in session) shows up at the capitol, hangs around the House or Senate chambers or in his capitol complex office during down time, and spends the great deal of his time waiting.

Specifically, he’s waiting for the General Assembly’s leadership to figure out what direction the Legislature will go on any given issue. There’s a reason some legislators call themselves “mushrooms” – the joke is that they are kept in the dark by the leadership about everything.

When the Legislature is not in session, the legislators are back in their home districts (many of them have law practices or other business interests to tend to) trying to find ways to remain in the public eye so that future voters will not forget they exist.

KEEPING DETAILED RECORDS about this kind of trivia on individual legislators (the leadership is a different story) would be absurd. Obama himself once joked that information of this level was not maintained because no one was planning to someday build the “Barack Obama legislative library and museum.”

So by saying they want Obama’s “records,” they make a non-issue sound ominous. That also is the reason these critics never go any farther to say what they mean by “records.”

If we were to find out that what they want to know is whether Obama went himself to the Rathskellar (the cafeteria located in the capitol basement) or sent a page to get something for him to eat or drink, we would realize just how ridiculous the “records” charge truly is.

Another non-issue comes from the people who want to make “present” an issue.

SPECIFICALLY, THERE ARE people who are trying to lambast Obama for the roughly 130 times (out of 8,000 votes) that he voted “present” – instead of “yes” or “no” – on bills.

Some of those bills were related to abortion, and conservative critics are trying to create the image either of a politico who’s trying to cover up his “radical” support for abortion being legal or of a hypocritical pol who talks of supporting a woman’s right to abortion, but does not back up such a sentiment with his votes.

Obama himself has said his “present” votes were to avoid taking a stance on bills that consisted of conservative measures that were designed to make it more difficult for women to obtain abortions when desired. Some of those bills’ primary purpose was to put Democratic legislators on the record as favoring abortion – so they could then be singled out for attacks during re-election campaigns. Perhaps the ideologues can go through the "records" and find out how many times legislators made the same corny St. Patrick's Day-related joke about Senator O'Bama? Illustration by Obama for America.

IN SHORT, HE was trying to circumvent a future political assault on himself, although the reality of politics (and journalism, for that matter) is that people will always find something in your record that offends them.

It is ridiculous to try to imply that Obama’s “present” vote is anything more than the political equivalent of states other than Illinois that permit a person facing a criminal charge to plead “no contest” so as to allow them to say they never pleaded guilty to anything.

The difference is that someone who tries to imply that a “no contest” verdict is the same as a “guilty” verdict leaves them selves open to a lawsuit for slander or libel. A politico running for office has to take the abuse, even though a “present” vote is really such a non-issue that it may be even more trivial than the “records” issue.

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EDITOR’S NOTES: Barack Obama’s legislative records are an issue only to people who either don't have a clear (http://www.judicialwatch.org/jwnews/2008/03142008.pdf) understanding of the ways in which the Illinois General Assembly operates, or who perhaps own stock in landfills (http://blog.wired.com/27bstroke6/2008/03/obama-releases.html) and would love to generate the kind of waste paper that such extensive record-keeping would create.

The New York Times was able to find enough record keeping of Obama’s legislative acts (http://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/20/us/politics/20obama.html?_r=1&ref=us&oref=slogin) to put together an account of what type of state senator he was.

When is a “present” vote a “no,” and nothing more than a “present?” (http://www.salon.com/mwt/broadsheet/2008/02/06/obama_present_votes/index.html)

All of this political trivia over Illinois Statehouse procedure should be less important (http://www.salon.com/tech/htww/2008/03/27/obama_s_economic_plan/index.html) than the economy in choosing the next president of the United States.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Squad cars help determine police personality

Picture the Chicago of the near future, where police stop someone they suspect of doing something illegal.

Once they figure they have enough evidence to justify taking the person into custody, they cuff him, read him his legal rights (or risk the Wrath of Miranda), shove him into the backseat of an SUV, then drive away to the nearest district station with a lockup facility.
Something similar to this Chevy Tahoe could soon be a part of the public image conveyed by the Chicago Police Department. Photograph provided by http://www.chevy.com/

NO, YOU’RE NOT imagining things. Police Superintendent Jody Weis – who constitutes a new image for the Chicago police in that he’s a former FBI agent rather than a one-time patrol officer who worked his way up through the ranks – said Wednesday he wouldn’t mind if the city started purchasing Chevrolet Tahoes for use by the police department.

That would mean putting to rest the trusty vehicle that has come to be associated with squad cars of police departments across the United States – the Ford Crown Victoria.

Weis, in speaking at a Chicago Crime Commission luncheon, said Chicago’s harsh winter weather is what is motivating him to consider the vehicle most commonly associated with schlepping the kids around to soccer practice.

He says the vehicle in use by so many multi-kid families with activities will be better able to take the heavy-duty use that police officers put on their vehicles, particularly if they have to also endure the Midwest version of winter – which isn’t anywhere near as fluffy as a winter in, say, San Diego.

BUT THE IDEA that someone being arrested as a criminal suspect will now get subjected to the same transportation experience as a trio of kids being driven by their mother to basketball practice, art class and piano lessons is somewhat lame.

I can’t help but wonder if the Chicago Police Department will lose a certain intimidation factor that is intended when police squad cars (particularly those with uniformed officers in them) come driving down the street.

Admit it. When you see a police car in the distance, you immediately give yourself a double-check just to make sure you’re doing nothing that a police officer could even remotely claim gives him probable cause to pull you over and check you out.

Are you going to feel the same intimidation if you see an SUV coming up behind you? Even if painted with the police department logo, the overall effect just won’t be the same.
The black and white of a Los Angeles police squad car is meant to intimidate, while the battered condition is testament to the harsh treatment police put their vehicles through. Photograph provided by http://www.you-are-here.com/.

THAT INTIMIDATION FACTOR is what is behind the decision of the police department in the Chicago southwest suburb of Worth (also the final resting place of late Mayor Richard J. Daley).

The police there are due for new police cars, and the chief, John Carpino, is insisting on ditching the current Dodge Intrepids painted white with a blue city logo on the side. Instead, he wants the Crown Victorias, painted black and white.

“Black and white cars show a strong police presence,… they look a bit more intimidating,” Carpino told the SouthtownStar newspaper at the time the decision was made earlier this month. “Bad guys don’t look at logos, but they see black and white, and they know it’s a cop car.”

Just how soon these changes in image will take place is yet to be determined. Like anything else, it is a matter of budget and money available in order to purchase new cars.

SQUAD CARS ARE a particularly expensive item for city governments, since cities can’t decide to go for the cheapest vehicle possible or decide to go for something that might get better gas mileage.

A police officer on patrol needs a powerful vehicle, one that might even be considered a gas guzzler. And police officers are hard on their vehicles. When they are in pursuit of a suspect who is in flight, they are going to push their car to the max in order to ensure the criminal does not get away.

If that means they have to do some things to their car that would make a car buff flinch in disgust (and a mechanic drool in delight at the thought of the repair bill), then so be it.

But even more important than the occasional high-speed chase is the simple fact that police officers are on duty 24 hours a day (at least they’re supposed to be). The same cars are used by different officers on each shift.

IT IS NOT uncommon for one officer to finish his shift, drive his squad back to the police station and hand the vehicle off to another officer beginning his shift – all without the engine ever being turned off. There can even be instances where a police car’s engine runs for 24 hours at a time – despite the stereotype of a cop catching a nap in his squad, while crime breaks out around him.

That’s “Around the Clock” use of a car, which is something that most people can’t imagine putting their vehicles through. It is easy for a police car to have 30,000-35,000 miles put on it per year, and for a single police car to be completely shot after about three years.

Why else do you think used police cars are auctioned off at such cheap prices? Mechanically, they’re reduced to junk and whatever one pays for the vehicle, it is too high a price.

YET POLICE DEPARTMENTS, if they are to truly respond promptly to incidents, need cars that are durable and reliable. One can’t scrimp on police cars when setting the police department budget.

I still remember one of the big “controversies” I wrote about back when I was a municipal reporter some two decades ago for the old Chicago Heights-based Star Newspapers. Three squad cars in pursuit of a robber in Oak Forest all sustained mechanical breakdowns.

Faulty automobiles allowed the robber to get away, and it became a big political stink in the southwest suburb as to who was at fault for allowing so many defective police vehicles to be on the road at once.

GOVERNMENTS HAVE TO take the financial hit and buy the vehicles (which can go for about $22,000 each), although under state law, municipalities are required to accept bids from car dealerships and must buy their vehicles from the dealership with the lowest bid.

So while it will be a few years before all the current police squad cars are retired from active duty, it is likely to be soon, in the city of Chicago, that we will have to do a double take when we see someone throwing a tantrum in the backseat of an SUV to determine if it is a spoiled child or a future criminal defendant.

And it might be in the near future that police in places such as Worth (which is a tiny town barely two square miles in size) wind up looking more intimidating than “Chicago’s finest.”

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EDITOR’S NOTES: Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis sees new squad cars (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/chi-weis-talk-webmar27,0,7636840.story), along with better equipment and standardized firearms, as being ways for the police department to put forth a more professional image.

“The Friendly Village” of Worth wants to intimidate people to keep them from committing (http://www.southtownstar.com/news/835022,031108worthcopcars.article) what little crime does occur in the suburb that borders Chicago’s southwest side.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Zell "video" a 21st Century throwback to old days of Chicago journalism competition

To listen to the old-timers of Chicago journalism tell the story, there are several rusting hulks of trucks sitting at the bottom of the Chicago River – evidence of the days when the “newspaper wars” in this town got so aggressive that publishers would hire thugs to sabotage their competitors.

Having your newspaper’s copies dumped in the river, along with a truck or two belonging to your company, was supposed to be an intimidation factor – in addition to the expense incurred by having to print up more copies than usual of the paper and replace a delivery truck.

THAT MAY BE the extreme, but in a place where there is actual journalism competition, there is always a sense of wanting to take down one’s competition. One does this both by coming up with better, more interesting stories, and by making your opposition look ridiculous.

So while making a video and posting it on the Internet reeks so much of the early 21st Century, there’s also a sense in which Katie Hamilton is nothing more than the ultimate throwback to the “Front Page” era of Chicago journalism – the Chicago Tribune intern managed to make the rival Chicago Sun-Times look ridiculous, while also wrecking the Sun-Times’ attempt to make the Tribune’s owner, Sam Zell, look selfish and stupid.

Originally, I wasn’t going to write a word about Hamilton, a University of Illinois graduate student who is working on an intern’s salary these days for the Chicago Tribune. Because her face and name are not known in most Chicago journalism circles, the paper’s people used her face to put together a video that it entered in a Sun-Times-sponsored contest.

"The Front Page" may be nearly 80 years old, but the antics of Katie Hamilton and her Tribune colleagues show that the competitive spirit of Chicago journalism still lives in the 21st Century.

That contest itself was just a cheap stunt by the Sun-Times that was meant to make people angry about Zell, the real estate developer who recently purchased Tribune Co. and now has the “audacity” to suggest that the Chicago Cubs (the Tribune-owned sports franchise) are just a business interest – rather than some “sacred crusade” whose very existence “brings honor” to the North Side of Chicago.

WHO KNEW THE Tribune’s video would actually win the Sun-Times contest, with Hamilton reading from a script prepared by her Tribune colleagues about how much she loves the Cubs and Wrigley Field and doesn’t want Zell to sell off naming rights of the stadium to some corporate entity – like every other sports team.

I got a little chuckle when I learned about the affair (the Tribune just couldn’t resist writing about how it sabotaged the Sun-Times attempt to embarrass the newspaper – as though anything could embarrass that behemoth once described by Time magazine as “the Baby Huey of American newspapers”).

Some people, however, are taking this matter too seriously. They are the reason I feel the need to try to explain what is going on here. Alan Mutter (I don’t know him personally, but I generally admire his “Reflections of a Newsosaur” weblog about news media issues) says the incident is evidence of the declining standards of journalism.

He compares it to the 1977 stunt by the Sun-Times, where the Field Enterprises Co. purchased a Near North Side tavern for a few months – and the newspaper documented every single instance where the tavern was shaken down for bribes by government-affiliated inspectors.

ANYBODY WHO EVER scours the shelves of a used-book store and comes across a copy of “The Mirage,” Sun-Times reporters Zay Smith and Pam Zekman’s account of the reporting of the story, ought to buy it (my copy only cost me $5) and read it. The month-long series of stories that ran in the newspaper and which are summarized in the book remain an excellent primer in the ways that government inspectors who are supposed to serve the public good can promote their self-interest instead.

By comparison, Mutter says the Tribune video was nothing more than a stunt meant to embarrass. No public good was achieved by it.

Actually, I think the incidents are very comparable in motivation, but Mutter is looking at the wrong portion of the Mirage story. In reading the book, one learns that the Tribune became aware about a month before the stories were published in the Sun-Times that something was up involving the tavern on Superior Street.

Their reaction was pure old-school – when confronted with the possibility of being beaten on a story, you “wreck it.”

SOMETIMES, YOU TRY to match its details so you can claim to have had the story as well. Usually, however, a reporter goes out to find the one tiny aspect of the story that might not be solidly resourced or can appear somewhat sordid. Then, the reporter hypes his version of the story that the competition “got it wrong.”

The Tribune’s initial reaction to the Mirage was to try to “wreck” the story by doing their own stories that implied the Sun-Times’ behavior was somehow illegal. (It wasn’t.)

In the Zell video escapade, the Tribune’s initial reaction was to wreck the Sun-Times story by showing how the newspaper’s behavior was silly. And I don’t mean to say that it is something endemic to the mentality of the Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times or any other news organization would have reacted the same way.

This desire to wreck each other’s stories is so ingrained in the working mentality of the news business that I have always believed political people facing trouble from an upcoming newspaper exposé ought to just reveal the story on their own.

WHILE SOME CAMPAIGNS have known to have pre-emptive press conferences just prior to publication of a scandal story, candidates might seriously think of giving the story to just one news outlet.

The initial reaction of that news organization is going to be to feel such relief that they didn’t get beat on a story, that they probably will go along with whatever self-righteous explanation a politico offers to justify their behavior – just so they can take digs at their news competition that did the “real” work and found the “true” story.

This may sound sorry, and it is in some ways. But it is the way an aggressive news environment operates, and people should understand that when they read stories in dueling newspapers.

They also ought to realize that the alternative is to have news markets without competition, where a sense of laziness creeps in and news organizations wind up doing nothing more than covering the routine crumbs that fall their way – filling out their pages with (ugh) Associated Press copy to put around the ads.

NOW SOME CRITICS of the video affair would like to believe that old-school journalists in Chicago would never have committed such a stunt. After all, those old-timers were devoted to reporting the news, none of this wishy-washy liberal ideological stuff.

They’re right that the old-timers never did this, but only because the technology to make one’s own video and use it to humiliate the newspaper competition didn’t exist in the 1920s.

Ben Hecht, the famed Hollywood screenwriter who once wrote for the old Chicago Daily News (and the guy who created the play “The Front Page” that gives us so much of the imagery of the Chicago newsmen of old), is the reporter who once allegedly dug a trench in Lincoln Park to provide physical evidence for an “exclusive” story he wanted to write about an Earthquake hitting Chicago.

THIS STUNT FITS in so much with the character of Chicago journalism that it is evidence of the truth of that old cliché – The more things change, the more they stay the same.

In fact, there’s really only one aspect of the Zell video affair that truly troubles me – Hamilton herself really is a Cubs fan.

What we ought to be concerned about is why that poor, deluded young woman imposes so much pain and suffering on herself by rooting for the Chicago Cubs.

-30-

EDITOR’S NOTE: Did the Chicago Tribune commit a major ethical lapse by entering (and winning) the Chicago Sun-Times Zell video contest? Some people are just determined (http://newsosaur.blogspot.com/2008/03/stealth-journalism.html#comments) to complain about the issue.

I’m still trying to figure out Sam Zell. Every time I suspect he’s a half-wit with a foul mouth (http://www.laobserved.com/archive/2008/03/sam_approves_of_suntimes.php), he does something like this that makes me think the Tribune is better off with a publisher who doesn’t take himself so god-awful seriously.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

To a politician, what constitutes loyalty?

How many of you remember the scene from the 1976 film “All the President’s Men,” where Dustin Hoffman as Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein is berated by a low-level presidential aide for daring to ask her impertinent questions about the conduct of President Nixon’s re-election campaign.

“Have you ever heard of loyalty? Do you even know the meaning of the word?” the aide screeches, as her way of refusing to answer any questions that might imply her political boss acted improperly.

THAT VIEW OF “loyalty” has some validity in politics, although it is naïve to think of political people who are incredibly reliable and can be counted on in the clutch to return a favor you may grant them.

Loyalty to political people is more about what you are expected to do for them. Loyalty is demanded – it is rarely given out.

And on those occasions when a political person does show some loyalty, the recipient had better realize the bond is for life.

It almost brings to mind another 1970’s-era film, “The Godfather,” where in exchange for one act of retribution against some teenage boys on behalf of his daughter, the undertaker Amerigo Bonisera is eternally indebted to Don Corleone.

THAT IS THE mentality at work with political consultant James Carville, who used the Easter Sunday weekend to lambast New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as “Judas” for not supporting the presidential aspirations of Hillary R. Clinton.

Carville, of course, is the political operative credited with getting Bill Clinton elected as president in 1992 (his appearances throughout “The War Room” make that documentary film a memorable one), and he remains loyal to this day to the Clinton family’s political aspirations.

So when Richardson – himself a cabinet member and appointee of Bill Clinton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations – came out last week in favor of Barack Obama’s presidential dreams, Carville showed his loyalty to the Clintons by accusing Richardson of forgetting his loyalty.

By Carville’s definition, Richardson should have either supported Clinton publicly, or kept his mouth shut. Basically, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., is the model politico when it comes to someone who just can’t publicly get excited about Hillary.

EMANUEL WILL LIKELY go to the Democratic National Convention saying as little as possible, and will make his vote as a super-delegate in as low-key a manner as possible, particularly now that he can see what would be in store for him should he decide to back anyone other than Hillary.

Now some people might mock me for bringing up “All the President’s Men” and “The Godfather.” After all, this election cycle is real life, not reel life.

But that is what is sad about Campaign ’08.

It is generating political activity and storylines that would make for an entertaining movie. We would be able to sit back and laugh at just how incredibly half-witted our political people could be, all in the name of winning an election.

BUT THIS IS real. One of these people is going to be the next president of the United States, unless they do such an incredible job of beating up on each other that they cause John McCain to win by default.

Actually, even a beaten-up Dem could still probably wallop McCain – that’s how unpopular George W. Bush and the Republican Party is in this country outside of the most isolated, rural of communities.

Hillary Clinton, and potential first gentleman Bill, are the types of political people who will hold a grudge and engage in political payback to those people who did not back her presidential dreams from Day One of her campaign.

It is true that “politics ain’t beanbag,” and that any political person who is worth anything has a hard streak in them.

BUT THE KIND of behavior exhibited toward Richardson is an extreme. Having supporters of Hillary Clinton behave like Nixon supporters or Don Corleone – that’s not exactly the image any thinking person wants to have answering that telephone at 3 a.m. when all hell is breaking loose in the Middle East.

That could be the reason so many people allegedly view both Obama and McCain as more “honest and trustworthy” than Clinton. A Gallup poll from last week showed roughly two-thirds of people surveyed found Obama and McCain to be trustworthy, but only 44 percent trust Hillary – and 53 percent say the terms “honest” and “trustworthy” do not apply to her.

It could also be a factor in the even more recent Gallup poll (released Monday) that showed any lead Clinton had developed over Obama due to the incendiary rhetoric of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright (Obama’s personal pastor) had withered away.

That poll literally showed Obama with a 1 percent lead (47 percent to 46 percent) over Clinton – which is so close as to constitute a tie.

THE CLINTON CAMP is trying to spin this as evidence that Obama’s huge leads from last month are gone. But if the American people were really so offended by Wright’s rants in the name of religion as Clinton wants to believe, she ought to have taken at least a slim lead.

She hasn’t.

All it really means is that some of the moderate-to-conservative people who were publicly saying they might consider an Obama vote will probably use Wright as their excuse to stick with the Republican Party. Basically, many of those people were votes that Obama was never going to get because of the trend among potential voters who claim when talking to pollsters to be more liberal on racial issues than they really are.

IT IS BECAUSE of that attitude from the Clinton camp that it could be difficult for the Democratic Party to unite behind whichever candidate winds up winning the party’s presidential nomination.

But that attitude is in keeping with the character of the Clinton campaigns of the past. That’s Bill Clinton, who in 1992 got hit with so such slime that a traditional candidate would have been devastated and forced to drop out early on.

Surrender is not the Character of Clinton, either Bill or Hillary.

THE SAD THING is that the Clintons, in their view of the campaign season, may very well be paying too much attention to yet another Hollywood film – “Primary Colors.”

That 1998 film starring John Travolta as a Bill Clinton-like presidential candidate who manages to win election to the White House despite running against an idealistic opponent and such despicable attempts by their other opponents to bury them in sleaze.

Somehow, I don’t think Campaign ’08 will give us the sequel, even though Emma Thompson might appreciate the chance to get some more acting work.

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EDITOR’S NOTES: James Carville and Bill Richardson are engaging in political rhetoric that would make for an entertaining Hollywood production. (http://www.upi.com/NewsTrack/Top_News/2008/03/24/richardson_carville_snipe_from_a_distance/2595/) It’s too bad that what they’re doing is real life.

Barack is back (http://www.gallup.com/poll/105589/Gallup-Daily-Obama-Clinton-Back-Tie.aspx), or so his supporters would like to think. Personally, I wish I could take a mid-campaign vacation (http://thecaucus.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/03/24/obama-in-virgin-islands/) in the Virgin Islands.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Facebook is just kids' fun, it's not the future of disseminating the news across this country

I don’t get Facebook.

Actually, I get Facebook all too well. It is a more elaborate way of wasting away time while sitting in front of a computer terminal – instead of engaging in work or study. I say more elaborate because I still remember when I worked at the now-defunct City News Bureau of Chicago and editors there had to crack down on the amount of irrelevant message traffic us kid reporter-types were sending to each other through the inter-office message system.

CONSIDERING THAT MOST of us were using the system to send the equivalent of notes passed from student to student in high school, all we were doing was passing away time instead of working.

But with Facebook, young people can send messages, share pictures of themselves acting goofy, send video snippets, or whatever other type of “mind play” interests them.

What I don’t get is why some media organizations are now of the belief that Facebook (and other personal interactive sites like it) is somehow a part of the future for people like myself who have devoted their working lives to trying to disseminate information to the public.

This story from Orlando, Fla., also got big play in the Chicago Tribune. It is part of a trend of stories done by people who want to think of Facebook as being something more than just a batch of kids goofing off instead of working or studying.

It amazes me the number of media types who now feel the need to have their own presence on Facebook. It also annoyed me how many of those types who work for the Chicago Sun-Times have felt the need in recent weeks to let us know in the paper that they can now be found on Facebook.

WHAT A WASTE of space, particularly in a newspaper that is shrinking, that could have been used to write about something significant – or even interesting. Those columns were neither.

As if that wasn’t enough, now the Chicago Tribune feels the need to get in on the Facebook feature fad.

The newspaper on Sunday gave us several pieces of copy centered around the theme of whether it was an Internet faux pax for a boss to ask one of his employees to be his “friend” (as defined by Facebook, not by reality).

What struck me as particularly pointless about the Tribune series was that it was a lot of space for something that wasn’t even Chicago Tribune copy. It was actually written by an Orlando Sentinel reporter for his own newspaper, and the Tribune (whose parent company also owns the Florida-based newspaper) published it for free.

WHAT I FIND particularly interesting about this Facebook interest is that, at least as explained by some of the Sun-Times types who wrote about it, it is management that is encouraging its employees to get involved.

So we now have the bosses telling workers they should set up pages on the Facebook site so that they can spend their working hours doing things other than working on coming up with copy to fill the newspaper’s (and web site’s) pages.

Back in the day, my City News editors got so upset with our message traffic that (at one point) they actually took away the message function from reporters, which wasn’t really a hardship, since the main newsroom was so small that people could easily speak to each other while sitting at their desks.

And for those of us who worked outside the main newsroom at Wacker and Wabash, the telephone was a more useful means of communication than any semi-literate message on the computer screen.

WHY AM I down on Facebook?

I’ll be the first to admit that just over a month ago, I went ahead and created my own account there. For about two days, I spent some time setting up a page and putting some details (significant and trivial) about myself for anybody to read.

Anybody who bothers to check me out will learn roughly how old I am (anybody who checks my “profile” with Blogger will learn exactly how old I am), and will see that I am a free-lance writer who publishes this site and a sister site, The South Chicagoan.

I initially had delusions that people might stumble across me on Facebook, see the web site addresses, and decide to check this site out.

BUT WHEN ONE considers the types of personal information that Facebook fans are passing along, it quickly became obvious that very few (if any) people there are going to want to check out this site just because they saw the link there.

In fact, I could easily imagine some Facebook fans are the type of people who think the problem with “the media” these days is that it wastes so much time and energy trying to cover “the news.”

Reading through the pages of other people on Facebook also made me feel uncomfortable, particularly because I’m not even close to being in college anymore. Using my laptop to learn more information about college girls makes me feel like I’m doing something that is borderline perverted, rather than professional.

I couldn’t seriously envision asking any of them to be my “friend.” It would seem to me to be a lot like Internet stalking.

AS FAR AS the thought of focusing my attention on older people, I’m not sure what would really be gained.

Looking at the pages of some people whom I personally know made me feel sad. While it was interesting to learn what became of a one-time college roommate (whom I haven’t seen in 20 years), what I mostly saw felt like I was seeing a batch of aging people trying to pretend they’re still young and hip.

We might as well dig out those toupees to cover our baldness or short skirts that show off legs that would be better off covered up.

I can’t even dream up what the younger crowd for whom Facebook is meant thinks when they stumble across my site (although when I checked out my Facebook page for the first time in nearly a month, I found that I now have a “fan.”)

NOW I REALIZE that in today’s day and age, us types who work in communications-related fields are going to need a comprehension of how useful the Internet can be, particularly since it eliminates many of the publishing expenses that would be incurred if I were trying to publish the Chicago Argus as a traditional newspaper – or even a smaller-scale newsletter.

I also realize that the media types of the future are going to be self-promoters, to a degree.

But focusing too much attention on the Facebook crowd strikes me as being counterproductive. Every moment of time spent there is a minute less time I spend on actually creating an editorial product that could be of use to somebody.

It may even wind up annoying some people into remembering the concept of the Chicago Argus or The South Chicagoan as sites they should avoid – because of the way they tried to intrude on their Facebook fun.

MY TIME IS better spent trying to turn this site and its sister site that covers the Hispanic/Latino perspective on issues into worthwhile products that people would want to read, rather than letting people know what types of music I enjoy listening to or sharing a few candid photographs of myself (which is what Facebook allows people to do so well).

The bottom line?

Facebook is not the place where people will turn to learn more about news and public affairs. If anything, it is the place people turn to on their computers when they want to get away from news.

And everybody needs a place to turn to in order to escape reality. Facebook just isn’t my place (I’d rather watch baseball, but that’s a different story).

-30-

EDITOR’S NOTES: Personally, I think any “boss” who is on Facebook should be fired (http://www.chicagotribune.com/business/orl-social2308mar23,0,4717355.story) just for wasting time on a company computer. If, by chance, he’s using a personal computer, then he needs to learn to keep his home life and work life separate.

The Orlando Sentinel reporter who wrote the story used his newspaper-controlled weblog (http://blogs.orlandosentinel.com/etan_on_tech/2008/03/more-stories-ab.html) to give us some more details about this “crucial” issue.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Nobody knows who Rahm's presidential pick is

If I had been forced to put money down on a political issue, I would have been a loser on Friday.

I seriously believed that New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson would eventually come down on the side of Hillary R. Clinton in the fight among Democrats for the party’s presidential nomination.

RICHARDSON WAS THE former cabinet member in the administration of President Clinton who was under serious political pressure to come out and support the former first lady’s desires to be U.S. president.

When he dropped out of the presidential race following his lackluster performances in the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary (third place, behind Hillary and Barack Obama), he went back to his duties as New Mexico governor.

He kept silent on the presidential race, often saying that his endorsement (in and of itself) doesn’t mean much. That silence ended Friday when he formally supported Obama’s presidential dreams over Clinton’s fantasies.

Richardson was the first to admit the pressure he received from the Clinton camp, which considered him to be a friend and ally. We got to see the photograph of Richardson sitting with potential first gentleman Bill Clinton watching the Super Bowl earlier this year.

SO FOR RICHARDSON to come out for Obama is a big deal – in that his name is now “mudd” insofar as Bill and Hillary Clinton are concerned. Political people tend to think in terms of “loyalty,” and think that favors are not to be forgotten. Richardson’s political career will deteriorate if Hillary actually manages to beat Barack and go on to be Leader of the Free World.

It is that exact scenario that has caused Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., to keep his mouth shut ever since the primary campaign season began unofficially over a year ago.

Emanuel has even tighter loyalties to both Clinton and Obama – both of them think that Emanuel should have come out in support of their candidacy a long time ago, and he’s going to make an enemy for life regardless of who he publicly supports. (You can forget about asking him who he actually voted for back on Feb. 5).

Obama, who is fighting for every single delegate he can get, can’t even count on getting every single delegate from his own home state. Of the “super-delegates” from Illinois who could wind up picking the presidential nominee, one is refusing to back Barack.

THAT WOULD BE Rahm, who gets to be a super-delegate due to his elected position as a member of Congress from Chicago’s Northwest Side and surrounding inner suburbs.

For the record, he praises Obama and says his fellow politico from Chicago would make a wonderful Democratic candidate for the U.S. presidency.

But Emanuel is a suburban Chicago boy who owes his political career to the Clintons. Emanuel was a White House senior policy adviser during the Bill Clinton presidency who is credited along with Mayor Richard M. Daley’s brother, William, with helping to get the North American Free Trade Agreement approved by Congress.

It was those ties to the Clintons that enabled him to run for office himself, returning to Chicago where he defeated former Chicago Park District attorney and state Rep. Nancy Kaszak in a 2002 congressional primary that turned into a classic Chicago political brawl and could easily have become a progressive crusade converting Kaszak into a female version of “Mr. Smith.”

THOSE CLINTON TIES also allowed the relative newcomer to Congress to get the position of chairman of the House Democratic caucus – which put him in a position to oversee the coordinated effort in 2006 that led to Democrats gaining control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Rahm Emanuel is a political heavyweight because of his ties to the Clintons – both Bill and Hillary. Some people might think the fact that he didn’t immediately come out in support of Hillary is a sign of political ingratitude.

But he also knows that coming out in support of the Clintons will irritate the Obama backers of his home district, and also totally miff those people who six years ago voted for Kaszak because they feared Emanuel was so D.C.-oriented in his view that he would neglect their Chicago concerns.

EMANUEL MIGHT VERY well be facing the toughest political dilemma of the 2008 election season.

If he picks the loser, his career will instantly shrivel up and die. Even if he picks the winner, he’s going to make an enemy of the loser, which is bad because neither Hillary Clinton nor Barack Obama is going to wither away when they lose.

A “President Obama” would be wise to consider Clinton for a high-ranking, significant post in his administration (and not vice-president, that job requires nothing more than a pulse).

A “PRESIDENT CLINTON” the second would need to respect Obama as a new heavyweight political player in the U.S. Senate – one whose support will be needed if she wants to accomplish anything during her stint in the White House.

I fully expect Emanuel will wait until the absolute last minute possible before letting us potential voters know whether he’s a “Clinton man” or a “Barack backer.” We may very well have to wait until the Democratic National Convention in Denver when he casts his super-delegate vote for one or the other.

Emanuel wants a friend in the White House and an ally among his congressional colleagues. Making the wrong choice now could ensure that he gets neither.

-30-

EDITOR’S NOTE: Rep. Rahm Emanuel gave his advice earlier this week to both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as to how they should go about trying to renegotiate the terms (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB120588246877846793.html?mod=googlenews_wsj) of NAFTA.

Emanuel is the lone Illinoisan of significance who won’t publicly back Barack Obama’s presidential aspirations. (http://www.wbbm780.com/Obama-Secures-Illinois-Super-delegates--Except-for/1838217)

What does Richardson give to Obama?

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson’s greatest support to the Barack Obama presidential campaign will come in the weeks following the Democratic convention in August. He could be the key to swaying the Hispanic vote to give Obama a chance come November.

For those interested in knowing more, details on this issue can be found in a commentary at The South Chicagoan (http://southchicagoan.blogspot.com/), the Chicago Argus’ sister weblog.

-30-

Friday, March 21, 2008

Presidential campaign attention to Indiana (almost) makes me want to be a Hoosier

Remember back a couple of months ago when we had dreams of the presidential primaries being settled on “Tsunami Tuesday?”

Among the roughly two dozen states that voted back on Feb. 5 was Illinois, and those of us who backed Barack Obama had a delusion that he would learn on that date whether or not his campaign would succeed. He could very well have made a glorious victory speech right from downtown Chicago.

WELL, IT DIDN’T work out that way. When all is finally finished with Primary ’08, it will turn out that Illinois won’t even be the most significant of the Great Lakes states in determining whether Obama or opponent Hillary R. Clinton will get to take on Republican opponent John McCain come the Nov. 4 general election.

Michigan is preparing to have another election of some type to determine how to split up that states’ delegates, and Indiana may also have a more significant effect than Illinois when the Hoosier primary takes place May 6.

The political junkie in me is a bit jealous of Indiana these days.

In the past week, Obama and former President Bill Clinton made campaign-related appearances in the land east of State Line Road. Hillary herself made three Indiana appearances on Thursday, showing up to greet potential voters in Anderson, Terre Haute and Evansville.

PERHAPS IT IS Illinois’ own fault that the General Assembly voted to bump up our primary election from mid-March (normally, it would have been held this week) to early February, coinciding with the mass of other states that didn’t want to get lost in the shuffle.

But it seems like this week’s Indiana campaign activity amounts to more attention paid to Hoosiers (not the sap-filled film about small-town high school basketball) than the candidates paid to Illinois in the weeks leading up to the Illinois primary – which Obama won handily.

But that large-state victory was overshadowed with Hillary Clinton’s large-state victory of her home state that same day, and her large-state victory in California – despite the vocal support of California first lady Maria Shriver, who even appeared with her cousin, Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, to tout Team Obama just days before that state’s primary.

Illinois, which has more delegates and electoral votes than any other state in the Great Lakes region, wound up becoming a Midwest afterthought.

VOTERS IN INDIANA, Michigan, Wisconsin and even Iowa have received more tender loving care from the Obama and Clinton campaigns than us Illinoisans.

Our state got so little attention that those of us who want a fix of the political campaigns may very well have to venture to Lake County, Ind., should either candidate actually bother to venture into the Calumet Region to campaign.

Thus far, neither campaign has scheduled anything resembling an appearance in the part of the Chicago area that spills over into Indiana, although the Munster, Ind.-based Times newspaper earlier this week quoted Clinton backer Evan Bayh (also a U.S. Senate colleague of both Obama and Clinton) as saying Hillary likely would make an appearance there some time during the month-and-a-half remaining before Election Day.

Yet the bulk of Indiana campaign activity is going to come outside of Lake County, Ind., for the mere fact that the county is too attached to the Chicago area.

WITH NEARLY 500,000 of Indiana’s 6 million people living in that one county, it is not typical of the state as a whole. Its proximity to Chicago translates into a larger ethnic and racial minority population (39.4 percent African-American or Hispanic) than the state as a whole (13.4 percent, with most of that being African-American).

So I’m sure elements of both campaigns are ceding the Chicago-area portion of Indiana to Obama, while hoping to succeed in the rest of Indiana. Clinton backers probably would write off the entire state, except for the fact that Indianapolis does not dominate Indian to the extent that Chicago dominates Illinois.

Marion County (which contains the Indiana capital city) has just over 800,000, unlike the six counties that make up the Chicago area and comprise about 65 percent of Illinois’ population.

So Indiana campaigning is likely to become a political brawl in the small cities (places like Terre Haute, whose most reknowned assets are being the home of the federal prison where the U.S. government actually executes people and the site of the Miss Indiana pageant) of Middle America.

ONCE WE GET away from the large cities of Urban America (Indiana at times feels like an entire state that’s trying to escape urban life), we get into territory where Clinton’s campaign may very well have more appeal among the type of Indianans who are willing to publicly identify themselves as Democrats.

They are a scarce breed, although some political observers are wondering if the general dissatisfaction with George W. Bush will result in even solid-red Indiana going a little bit blue.

Let’s not forget that Indiana as a whole is a solid Republican state – the one place in the Great Lakes Region that the GOP can count on to give it solid backing, unlike Illinois which is solid Democrat, and places like Wisconsin, Michigan and Minnesota that narrowly went Democrat in recent elections.

EVEN IN OHIO, the one other Great Lakes state that Republicans have won in recent presidential elections, the Republicans don’t have significant majorities of support. Ohio is a place where the electoral votes went for George Bush the younger over Al Gore and John Kerry only because the southern part of the state that leans Republican overcame the northern part that leans Democrat.

Just imagine if people of the Cleveland area had turned out a little more strongly for Democrats in the past two presidential – the whole concept of “President George W. Bush” would be nothing more than a fantasy that only exists in some “bizarro world” where everything is opposite reality.

Instead, Cincinnati (the land that still thinks Pete Rose is a hero) prevailed, and we got two terms of “Dubya.”

THE POINT IS that Indiana is going to be in the Republican column come November. In fact, isn’t one of the points Hillary makes against Barack’s primary victories thus far is that he’s only winning in states that Democrats have no chance of succeeding in come the general election?

That fact is going to discourage Hillary Clinton from investing too much time or money in Indiana, no matter how much she wants a majority of those 83 delegates to the Democratic National Convention who will not view it as an insult to be called a “Hoosier.”

In the big picture, fighting it out too much in Indiana won’t pay off, since the bulk of the state’s vote come the November general election is likely to go to McCain, regardless of which U.S. senator wins the Democratic party’s presidential primary.

-30-

EDITOR’S NOTES: Indiana’s largest newspaper gives us some clue of what Hillary (http://www.indystar.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20080320/LOCAL19/80320023/0/LOCAL0402#gslPageReturn) had to say during her appearances in the Land of Hoosiers.

Indiana’s second-largest newspaper speculates on the chance either Clinton or Obama (http://www.nwi.com/articles/2008/03/19/news/top_news/doc44cff12956fc9b6386257410008331a7.txt) will come anywhere near the Chicago area during their campaigns in Indiana. And no, I don’t consider Team Obama’s Gary, Ind., “open house” on Saturday to be all that significant.

Some speculation about the likely Indiana activity of the two Democratic presidential campaigns, (http://www.howeypolitics.com/2008/03/06/obama-clinton-headed-to-indiana/) coming from an observer who understands the mindset of Hoosier politicos much better than I do.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Division III gives Chicago basketball fans their only Illinois-based rooting interest in '08

For those of us from Chicago who root for an Illinois-based team come NCAA college basketball tournament time, this year has to be downright depressing. Not one of the universities that play men’s basketball at the Division I level managed to qualify.

While Illinois State and Southern Illinois universities both managed to qualify for the NIT, the second-rate nature of that tourney will keep all but the most hard-core alums from caring whether the Redbirds and Salukis manage to win.

I WOULD ARGUE that for Illinois residents, the superior fan experience this year belongs to a school at the Division III level – and chances are good you missed the story.

For while the NCAA Division I tournament is just getting under way beginning Thursday, the Division III tournament has been underway for weeks already, and one Illinois-based school’s team managed to make it to the Elite Eight.

So in the interest of fairness, we all ought to take a look at what was accomplished by the Wheaton Thunder, the DuPage County-based college that likes to brag it is the alma mater of evangelist Billy Graham and former House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not a Thunder fan (although I’ve seen enough Wheaton College games going far enough back to when the school’s teams were called the Crusaders). I am an alumnus of Illinois Wesleyan University, which plays in the very same College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin as Wheaton

SO WHEN THE Division III tourney began March 7-8, there were two Illinois-based schools playing for a national title – Wheaton and Augustana University, which was the conference champion.

Augustana got knocked off early in the tourney, but Wheaton managed to survive until Saturday, when they lost to Hope College, playing in Hope’s home arena in Holland, Mich.

Why is it that I can say I was taking some interest in Wheaton? It is because I know in my heart that the IWU Titans this season were a superior team. Just how Wheaton got an at-large bid to go to the tournament while Wesleyan got to stay at home is something that can still get me outraged.

After all, the Titans beat the Thunder twice during the conference season, and then again in the first round of the CCIW conference tournament.

KNOWING THAT THE “Fighting Titans” are capable of holding their own against a team that managed to survive so long in the Division III tournament this year makes me all the more optimistic that next season, IWU will manage to qualify and perhaps even have a chance to win the whole thing.

Yes, I’m greedy. Four “final four” appearances in the past 11 years (and one Division III title back in 1997) is not enough. Call it the mentality of a Yankees fan, if you will, but I’d like to see my alma mater make another trip to Salem, Va., (the regular site for the Division III tournament, unlike the revolving locations for the Division I tourney).

Watching Wheaton not only gave me an “Illinois” school to root for, it gave me optimism that I’m not delusional in thinking that “my school” can win something again in the near future.

Now some people might ask me why I’m snubbing women’s athletics. They might wonder why I don’t pay attention to any Illinois schools that had women’s teams continue to play.

ACTUALLY, I WAS prepared to. IWU’s women’s team won their conference championship and made it to the women’s Division III tournament, but then got knocked out in the first round.

It makes me wonder about the ideal dream – Fighting Titan men’s and women’s teams managing to win national titles in the same year.

Perhaps my alma mater could become the Illinois-based, Division III equivalent of the University of Connecticut, which pulled off this very trick in 2004, when both of their basketball teams won their respective Division I tourneys.

Some people might wonder if it is ridiculous to see these college sports tournaments so personally. After all, Illinois Wesleyan is a place that hasn’t been a part of my daily life in nearly 21 years and it has been eight years since I last set foot on campus.

YET TO ME, it is a place that helped inspire me to accomplish much of what I have done in life. And having a personal rooting interest is what makes a college sports tournament interesting to begin with.

I can’t see the point of paying any attention to a 64-team tourney where there is nothing that connects me to any of the schools. For those people who just want to view college basketball as the National Basketball Association’s version of minor league baseball, that really defeats the purpose of college sports by trying to change them into a second-rate version of the NBA.

The energy and enthusiasm of player and fan alike at the smaller level schools is what makes their game so appealing, even if you do wind up seeing the talents of players who obviously devoted a significant portion of their life to practicing their skills dribbling and shooting a basketball – but can’t play at the highest levels because life’s cruel irony cut off their growth spurt at 5-foot, 6-inches or so. (Seriously, the major difference between Division I elite programs and Division III is that 7-footers are scarce at the lower level).

At the Division III level, you get the ideal of student/athlete that the Ivy League schools would like to think they still represent.

THERE’S ONE OTHER reason I prefer the Division III tourney – it has not become a television-dominated spectacle. It has already been underway for two weeks, and will come to an end Saturday, with either Amherst, Hope, Ursinius or Washington universities taking home a national title.

By comparison, the Division I tourney is just getting underway (even though the March in “March Madness” is two-thirds of the way over), and will wind up stretching out so long that it will run into baseball season – stealing attention away from the truly significant experience of professional sports – baseball’s Opening Day, when even Chicago Cubs fans can dream about their team winning a pennant.

Personally, I wouldn’t mind seeing St. Louis-based Washington win the Division III tourney, just because I know IWU plays them regularly and is capable of handling themselves against their team. It would be yet more evidence that I may see another national title for my school’s team during my lifetime.

And if you’re really going to insist that I pick somebody from the Division I tournament to root for, then I’m going to have to go with American University.

THE EAGLES MANAGED to win the Patriot League title this year, and I did attend the D.C.-based school for a semester back in the autumn of ’86 (my semester of study in Washington coincided with the breaking of the Iran-Contra scandal). But I won’t be the least bit surprised when Tennessee wallops American in the first round.

Even if AU wins a game or two before going home, it wouldn’t mean as much to me as a Titan title in the future.

So congratulations to the Wheaton Thunder for advancing further in post-season play this year than any other Illinois college team. After all, you’ve given this Titans fan some reason to be optimistic for next year.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently commented on the lower-key (http://www.stltoday.com/stltoday/sports/columnists.nsf/bryanburwell/story/459287C0FE27A78E8625740E00161A6B?OpenDocument) atmosphere surrounding the Division III tourney.

For those people who want to know more about the Illinois-based college that did the best this year (http://athletics.wheaton.edu/index.asp?path=mbball) in post-season play.

American University of Washington, D.C., is making its first-ever appearance (http://aueagles.cstv.com/sports/m-baskbl/amer-m-baskbl-body.html) in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

Results from Salem, Va., can be found here (http://www.d3hoops.com/) this weekend.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Obama’s “mea culpas” won’t end accusations

This appears to be “I’m Sorry” week for Barack Obama.

Obama seems to think that by making a public appearance or two and taking a little bit of abuse, all of the criticisms that he has been hit with in recent weeks will just wither away. Then, he can go back to being the darling politico who wants to inspire the American people to achieve new levels of success.

IT AIN’T GONNA happen.

Anybody who thinks the issues just go away is being politically naïve. Just because he let the two major metro Chicago newspapers beat up on him a bit and also publicly spoke out against his pastor isn’t going to cause any of the criticisms to go away.

In fact, it may very well raise the intensity level of those charges, since the people who were seriously inclined to believe them are going to want to use those charges regardless of what Obama has to say on the subject.

It is the reality of political rhetoric that it is heated. It is intense. It is shrill.

Seeing how Barack Obama deals with continuing criticisms will show us just how close he is to the idealized image offered up by this campaign poster.

MORE OFTEN THAN not, it is usually a little bit of fact wrapped in a blanket of innuendo with a whole lot of other irrelevant facts added on to the point that the “major scandal” is created.

Now if it sounds like I’m saying most campaign charges are ridiculous and should not be taken seriously, you are correct. I have always been of the opinion (from having covered various political campaigns across Illinois) that what matters about campaign charges is not so much the substance of the accusations (often, there is none), but the way in which the candidate responds to being slandered by his political opposition.

Is he the kind of person who gets touchy and takes everything personally? Does he respond by coming up with his own scandalous charges against his opponent?

Does the candidate try to go into detailed, overly researched explanations that somehow, in his own mind, justify his conduct? Is he the type who tries to ignore the charges, somehow thinking they don’t matter if he refuses to respond?

OR DOES THIS candidate live in a fantasy world by which problems go away if they are ignored?

That’s how we figure out how a person would react if he really does get that telephone call at 3 a.m., telling him his presence is needed to cope with a world crisis.

So what should we take into account when studying the conduct of Barack Obama in recent days?

Obama clearly lived in a “fantasy world” for quite a while with regard to the accusations that he had not been forthright about his ties to politically connected Democratic fundraiser Antoin Rezko. The explanation he offered up for months wasn’t inaccurate, but it did not offer the mind- numbing detail that political geeks wanted to know about just how close the two men were.

CONSIDERING THAT BARACK theoretically still owes Tony Rezko favors and Rezko could possibly be asking a “President Obama” for a pardon – if found guilty in U.S. District Court in Chicago on political corruption charges, something of an explanation is necessary.

But to the people who get excited about such excess detail, no amount of explanation is sufficient. They are more interested in having a charge that can make the candidate squirm. They will want to interpret Obama’s every refusal to elaborate further than he already has as evidence that he’s covering up something.

That also is likely the case with regard to Obama’s Tuesday speech in Philadelphia where he said he knew how fiery the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s rhetoric on racial issues could be, disagreed with some of it, but also said that Wright was close enough to him that he could never fully denounce him, no more than he could his grandfather if that man had said something offensive to some.

What matters is not the substance of what he said last week Friday and on Tuesday. It is how he continues to handle himself whenever he gets asked about these issues over and over and over again, until the week of the Democratic National Convention.

NOW I REALIZE that some people find it distasteful that political people believe in putting out wild accusations against their opponents. Some find it to be the ultimate evidence that electoral politics itself is morally bankrupt, if not craven.

But I have heard the political people justify their actions by saying they provide a needed service for the American people, and I can’t help but agree. These political operatives believe it would be morally offensive to withhold such accusations about their opponents – even if they can’t prove the charges.

These people want every single accusation thrown out there for public analysis – on the theory that the American people should decide for themselves whether or not any particular issue is truly significant (or utterly trivial).

We should be allowed to decide for ourselves whether Obama’s closeness to a political operative who now faces the possibility of prison time if found guilty of corruption is so big a character flaw that it should be held against Obama’s presidential dreams.

WE OUGHT TO be allowed to decide for ourselves whether we believe Obama is correct in remaining supportive of Jeremiah Wright the man, even if he thinks Wright acted like “a crazy uncle” and shot his mouth off a bit too much.

Ultimately, it is Obama’s reaction the rest of this primary season going into this year’s Democratic convention in Denver that will determine whether he deserves to be the party’s presidential nominee.

During her presidential campaign, Hillary R. Clinton has said she is the better bet because Obama is “inexperienced” and “hasn’t been vetted” in the public eye to the extent that she is.

WELL, THAT IS what all of this campaign activity amounts to – he’s being “vetted” by the American people. We’re kicking the tires of the Obama campaign and looking under the hood to see if the car’s innards look as nice as the “outer shell” talk of representing change in our way of government.

If it turns out that Team Obama collapses from the pressure that it will face in the following weeks, then perhaps Hillary had a point about Barack not being ready for the post.

But there’s also a good chance that Obama will be able to persuade a majority of people of the soundness of his positions. After all, the Rezko tie is really not all that significant, and Wright’s comments on race relations are not racist, just brutally honest.

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Tuesday, March 18, 2008

I don't "see" Illinois

Perhaps I was just one of those children who sadly grew up with an insufficient imagination.

But when I look at eBay to see how the bidding is going on a cereal flake shaped like the state of Illinois, I shake my head in amazement because all I see is a corn flake.

THE NOTION THAT bidding was at $200,500 (as of the first minute of Tuesday) to buy a nugget of food that, by now, is so stale as to be inedible strikes me as ridiculous.

What is our society coming to that people are willing to throw away perfectly good money to buy a cereal flake. If I wanted a flake that badly, I would go out to my local supermarket and buy a box of Corn Flakes for $3.59.

The odds are overwhelmingly good that I could find at least one flake (if not several) in the box that would come just as close to resembling Illinois as this flake allegedly does.

Part of my problem with this so-called news story is that it is just so blatantly pointless. Even if the cereal flake does resemble Illinois (and it doesn’t), who cares? It isn’t a terribly significant story. Nor is it particularly interesting.

TWO WOMEN FROM Virginia found a cereal flake in their box of corn flakes that they want to believe is some sort of vision. Of what, we don’t know. No one has said yet what, if anything, it is supposed to mean.

This is just the kind of trivia that takes up television airtime and newspaper space from issues of more significance.

I wish I could take a whack at a particular news organization for wasting time and space on this story. But the Illinois cereal flake is a perfect example of what is wrong with the news business these days – an over-reliance on the (ugh) Associated Press.

It was the (ugh) AP that picked up on reports out of Virginia that local people were making their absurd claim. That caused it to get spread across the country, and probably around the world.

WHILE OTHER PARTS of the world see the Virgin Mary in newly washed windows or the Virgin of Guadalupe burned into the surface of tortillas, we see Illinois in a cornflake.

Personally, I couldn’t help but notice that a newspaper in neighboring Indiana – the Times, based in Munster – put the story on their front page, with a full-color photograph of the cornflake that allegedly gives us an Illinois vision.

That probably means we have a batch of Hoosiers laughing at us now, wondering why our state would turn up in a cornflake. Now if we were to get a vision of the state of Indiana, it would probably turn up in the exhaust fumes emanating from racecars at the Indianapolis 500.

Now that would be a vision worth seeing, although the smell of so much exhaust would likely smell something fierce.

I COULDN’T HELP but think back to that moment three years ago when residents of a northwest side neighborhood along the Kennedy Expressway noticed something unusual about a salt stain on the concrete walls of an underpass.

To them, the image looked like the Virgin Mary in her shroud, taking a break from appearing on tortillas across Mexico to bless us Chicagoans with her image.

I remember the way that wall became an informal shrine, with devout Catholics setting up religious candles and flowers and more artistic renditions of the blessed virgin – for those of us who could not see the image for ourselves.

It’s a good thing those paintings were there, or else I never would have been able to figure out how anyone could possibly think the oval salt stain could resemble the Virgin Mary.

THE BEST I can come up with for an answer to this great visions question is that some people just want to believe. It doesn’t matter what, but they want to.

The religiously devout want to think that the sighting of the Virgin Mary is evidence that a miracle is about to happen, or that we are blessed, or maybe that we should take the time to watch our surroundings so as to reduce the chances of something bad happening.

It’s almost like the Rorschach tests – those ink blots that different people see different images in, and what you see says something about our individual personalities.

SO WHAT DOES it say that we now have a vision of the state of Illinois turning up in a corn flakes box?

Does this mean that the Land of Lincoln is destined to be the home of the next president of the United States? Personally, I’d have been more impressed if someone had produced a corn flake in the shape of Barack Obama’s head – ears and all.

That would be a sign worth seeing. And what does it say about my personality that the first thought I had about an Illinois vision was to associate it with Obama?

LIKELY, IT MEANS I’m paying too much attention to this year’s presidential primary season – particularly since it has already come and gone here in Illinois (but there’s always the chance that the candidates will come to the portion of the Chicago-area that falls in Indiana – their primary is May 6).

But my final thought upon seeing the alleged Illinois vision in a cereal flake is to start feeling a rumbling in my stomach. Perhaps I’ll get a bowl of cereal.

Just not corn flakes. There’s no way I’d pay that much money for a flake, especially since I could easily envision it falling on the floor and getting stepped on – thereby reducing that thousands-of-dollars purchase to corn dust within seconds.

-30-

EDITOR’S NOTES: One can check out the eBay auction (http://cgi.ebay.com/The-Great-Illinois-Corn-Flake_W0QQitemZ110233337338QQihZ001QQcategoryZ1467QQssPageNameZWDVWQQrdZ1QQcmdZViewItem) for themselves, just in case they think I’m exaggerating the amount of money that someone is willing to pay for an alleged vision of Illinois.

A news blast from the past – the Virgin Mary spent a summer living in a Kennedy Expressway (http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2005/04/20/national/main689630.shtml) underpass in Chicago.

Documentation can be found here (http://members.aol.com/bjw1106/marian.htm) about the many past visions around the world of the Virgin Mary.

For people who are willing to spend so much money for a single corn flake, here are a few more cereal-related items (http://www.kelloggstore.com/Collectables.aspx) one could purchase. And no, Kellogg Co. did NOT pay me anything for this promotional plug.