Thursday, July 31, 2008

Is McCain dumping on his "allies?"

When I first heard that Republican presidential hopeful John McCain was using campaign ads on television to try to make his Democratic opponent seem like a lightweight by comparing him to Britney Spears and Paris Hilton, my first reaction was to wonder why he was picking on potential allies.

That’s right, allies.

WHILE I WILL be the first to admit that Hilton and Spears appeal to people who probably think it is disgusting that anybody is supposed to care about something so deadly dull as electoral politics, what little bit I know of their few political statements or actions has always led me to believe the two celebrity fluffs lean toward the GOP.

Now I have never heard Paris Hilton make political statements. But she comes from a family that definitely leans toward the Republican Party and its candidates (primarily because its stances on economic issues would be more likely to protect the family fortune).

Hilton Hotels Chairman William B. Hilton made contributions earlier this year of $2,300 each during the primary and general election cycles – all to John McCain 2008 Inc.

Several other Hiltons who are among the descendants of Conrad Hilton of hotel fame also made donations of various sizes to the McCain campaign. In fact, I can find only one Hilton who didn’t give money to McCain – and he’s not part of the family.

I’M TALKING ABOUT Perez Hilton, the West Hollywood, Calif., geek who publishes his own entertainment-related website. He gave $500 back in March to Hillary R. Clinton’s now-shuttered presidential campaign.

Insofar as Britney is concerned, the only political comment I have ever heard her make was one in support of George W. Bush and his administration’s handling of the U.S. military presence in Iraq.

Back in 2003, she gave an interview to CNN where she was asked if she was among the many entertainers who opposed the war. Her response?

“Honestly, I think we should just trust our president in every decision that he makes and we should just support that, you know, and be faithful in what happens,” she said.

WHEN ASKED BY CNN newsman Tucker Carlson if she supported Bush, Britney said, “Yes, I do.”

For all I know, Britney is like many people in this country in that she has changed her mind about Bush and the war in Iraq.

But this was definitely someone who was once inclined to give the Iraq War (which is a key issue in this campaign season) a chance to succeed, and if she were to vote (I have no clue if she’s even registered), she could very well be a McCain backer.

Aside from all this, there’s one other reason I’m surprised McCain would try to bring up those celebrity names. The fact is that some people will not see it as an automatic negative for Barack Obama.

IN FACT, A story with the names “Obama,” “Spears” and “Hilton” is sure to grab attention from people who otherwise would not want to care about Campaign ’08, particularly if they are the kind of people who get all their news from whatever stories their Internet search engines happen to stumble across. McCain may have inadvertently emphasized his age, which will be seen by some as a negative.

In short, McCain may have just made himself look out of touch with the youth of today. To use a term of the past (so as to ensure that McCain will comprehend), he may have made himself look like an old fuddy duddy.


Patti Solis Doyle needs a boss

Perhaps it is evidence that Democrats are getting serious, but it seems like ages since anyone has publicly suggested that presidential hopeful Barack Obama has no choice but to choose Hillary R. Clinton as his vice presidential running mate.

Either the masses who wanted a Clinton sequel in the White House are getting real, or there really will be a massive shift in Democratic voters to the campaign of Republican John McCain. Either way, the attention of those people who truly are trying to find a partner for an Obama presidency are looking to more serious candidates.

TO REHASH WHAT I have written before, I have been one of those people who always thought the idea of an Obama/Clinton (or Clinton/Obama) ticket was pointless. The two of them are identical in so many ways that the presence of one on the ballot adds nothing to the overall package that wasn’t already offered by the other.

Both Obama and Clinton are liberal enough on social issues and come from adopted urban backgrounds (Chicago vs. New York as opposed to their real homes of Honolulu vs. Park Ridge, Ill.). To come up with the traditional concept of a vice presidential running mate who helps plug the holes in the presidential nominee’s biography, Obama needs to look to anybody but Hillary.

I was always of the belief that an off-beat, but worthy, possibility for running mate would be New Mexico Gov. (and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations) Bill Richardson, but that Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., was a more likely choice.

He is a somewhat conservative white guy who won as a Democrat in a Republican-leaning state who would go a long way toward appealing to those people who (for whatever reason) have a problem with a candidate who is as blatantly urban as Obama is.

BUT WEBB HAS since said he is not in the running, and it is getting close to the time when Obama needs to have a partner. After all, he hired a chief of staff for the vice presidential candidate. It's about time Patti Solis Doyle learned who her boss will be.

So the Obama campaign’s professional vetters (when they weren’t coming under fire from Republican political operatives) have had to turn elsewhere.

Now around this part of the country, Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., who also is a former governor of the Hoosier state, is the focus of a lot of political talk.

He gets points from political geeks because he is one of them. He has held various state and federal elective offices for 22 years. Once the youngest governor in the United States, Bayh was elected to his first office in 1986 as Indiana’s secretary of state.

LITERALLY, HE HAS been an elected official since the days when Obama was a community activist working on behalf of the residents of the Altgeld Gardens public housing development on the city’s far South Side.

Yet unless Obama is suddenly willing to write off his Chicago ties of just over two decades and start portraying himself as the first Hawaiian to run for president, I can’t see the Obama/Bayh ticket. Such a ticket might take the electoral votes of the region once represented by minor league baseball’s old “Three Eye” League, but it might seem too parochial to the rest of the country.

The same might be said of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, who supposedly was a favorite of Obama early on in the process. But her choice could appeal to some of the women who feel Hillary got snubbed, although I am sure there are others who will start bringing up comparisons to Geraldine Ferraro’s 1984 vice presidential bid – out of hopes they could turn Obama into the equivalent of Walter Mondale (who only won the electoral votes of his home state of Minnesota in that election).

Of all the names that have been tossed out as possible vice presidential candidates for the Democrats, the one that most intrigues me is Joe Biden, the long-time senator from Delaware.

HE MAY HAVE the national security credentials from his experience on various Senate committees during his 36 years in Washington. But this is also the man whose own presidential dreams were toppled due to a pair of so-called scandals.

Let’s not forget his so-called plagiarism of 1988 in campaign speeches (he got sloppy with his attribution in using lines once spoken by Neil Kinnock of Great Britain’s Labour Party), and the comments he made last year about Obama’s “articulate and bright and clean” nature that were interpreted by some people as a slur against African-American people.

While I always thought people were making too much of an issue out of Biden’s lame attempt to lavish trivial praise on Obama, it would be a test to see how an Obama/Biden pairing could co-exist. Has Obama truly forgiven the gentleman from Delaware, or is there some lingering hostility?

It would be ironic if Biden, whose career beyond his home state was supposedly left for dead, were to be resurrected beyond belief by becoming the vice presidential run ning mate, literally only a heartbeat away from the top job that he would desire for himself.

I CAN ALREADY hear the wisecracks from political people who find humor in jokes about a president needing an official food taster to protect him from his running mate. Think I’m kidding? Similar jokes are told in Illinois political circles with regard to lieutenant governor Patrick Quinn, who during the past six years has developed a strained relationship with Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

But on a serious note, I would take the presence of Biden as the ultimate evidence that no one (regardless of what kind of stupid thing they say or do) should ever be left for dead. Political redemption is always possible.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Is Joe Biden out of the political doghouse? (

Aides to Barack Obama are traveling about the nation in hopes of finding the perfect running mate ( who will not have some skeleton in his life’s closet ( that would cause embarrassment for Obama and defeat for the Democrats in the Nov. 4 elections.

Obama already has hired a chief of staff for his vice presidential running mate. All he needs now ( is the running mate.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

News business is news-worthy

This is a response to a Chicago-area resident who is confused about why so much attention is being paid by area news organizations to what seems like the endless rounds of job layoffs taking place at the city’s newspapers.

His opinion was expressed earlier this week on the WTTW-TV program “Chicago Tonight,” when he wrote a letter to the station expressing disgust with the amount of coverage that had been given in recent months to the business problems confronting the Chicago Tribune, the Sun-Times and other news-oriented publications.

HE SEEMS TO think this is a case of reporter-types letting their egos run amok, thinking that their professional livelihoods are somehow significant enough for everybody to know about.

This letter-writer would prefer it if NO airtime or column inches of newsprint were devoted to the inner workings of newsgathering organizations (or should I say business entities that sandwich a few inches of “news” in between the steadily declining amount of advertising pages they manage to sell).

That attitude bothers me, and NOT because I am a person who has devoted my professional life to the gathering of news and analysis out of some belief that helping my fellow citizen better understand the world around them was somehow a worthy contribution to our society.

I have always been of the belief that the problem with the news business is that it is poorly covered – organizations that are more than willing to devote time, money and staff to uncovering the sleazy business dealings of other corporations in their community suddenly adopt all that secrecy they ridicule others for when the business is themselves.

I THINK WE need more intelligent reporting about why newsgathering organizations with significant staffs and traditions and capabilities to dig up more information than any other are suddenly being challenged economically.

I, for one, want to know why the newspaper thinks the way to achieving long-term financial solvency is to slash the size of its product – even though the advantage newspapers have over other forms of news media (and often do nothing to take advantage of) is that they offer more space and can go into more detail on any given story.

Now if one wants to argue that constant stories about layoffs (60 more editorial staffers will soon depart the Tribune) tend to sound alike and become just another meaningless number, that is one thing. Few publications are doing a decent job of covering the news about themselves.

We need to get more thorough reporting and explanations about the advertising situation, which is the real bulk of the newspaper industry’s problem.

TOO MANY COMPANIES that used to look to those full-page newspaper advertisements and ad inserts as the only way to reach a mass audience now realize that too many people (when they buy a newspaper) reach in and throw away those inserts before they start to read the newspaper.

By comparison, increased advertising through the Internet gives companies the option of tailoring their ads in a way that will focus specifically on the people they are trying to reach – much more than can be done with a newspaper where an insert has to be provided for every single copy of the paper, regardless of whether it is sold or if it is sold to someone who does not fall into the economic bracket the advertiser would like to reach.

There’s also the simple fact that Internet advertising is so much cheaper – it can be a few bucks for each ad, which has the potential to be seen around the world (although some businesses gain nothing by having their ads seen outside the local community).

Instead of thousands of dollars to publish that full-page advertisement (tens of thousands if one is going for one of the national-scope newspapers such as the New York Times), it can be a few hundred overall, with individual websites receiving a miniscule amount of the financial cut.

FOR EXAMPLE, THIS weblog recently became part of a network that is selling some advertising. That display ad near the top of the right-hand column is rather elaborate by Internet standards (compared to those links one can click on to buy reduced cost Viagra or similar products), yet my share of the proceeds for the first week that ad was on the site came to a grand total of $0.54.

While I realize that figure will increase in the future and that there are some websites and weblogs with much more significant readership than I have managed to achieve in seven months of operation, I am not alone in making puny dollars from selling advertising on the Internet to support their coverage of the news.

That is what people need to understand when they think it is totally acceptable for websites to replace newspapers, and why I think it is bad for one to think there is too much coverage of the news business’ financial problems.

If newspapers really are going to shrivel up and die (like some of the Internet’s biggest proponents desperately want to believe), I think we the consumer of news and information need to know why.

SINCE IT IS not likely that anything will fully replace the newspaper of old as a product that can generate the kind of income that can support a full news-oriented staff, we need to know why the kind of information we can get is going to become less and less available.

And in the future, when newspapers (and the more prominent websites, I believe) are supported financially by organizations that think it is in their best interest to run their own publications, we need to know that the types of news we will be getting are the stories that promote the interests of their publisher.

Some people might not have a problem with that concept, provided that the publisher/ideologue is honest about what causes they are promoting. I for one think the news business should be covering this saga.

It is one that affects all of us.

THERE’S ONE OTHER question that is popping into your minds. My answer to it is, “No.”

The current setup where one who wants to find out something about the business dealings of a newspaper needs to “read all about it” in their direct competitor is not adequate.

Having to rely on the Chicago Sun-Times to tell us why the Tribune is going to (again) slash its staff to bits and shrink the thickness of the overall newspaper is not right. Nor should we have to rely on “Mother Tribune” to inform us about all the flaws of “The Bright One.”

The business partisanship gets in the way of producing a clear account of what is wrong. Each paper is going to be more than willing to over-hype the flaws of the other.

IT’S LIKE THE situation in the recent past when the Sun-Times’ financial problems were coming up in court hearings related to former owner Conrad Black. The Tribune devoted endless amounts of space to letting us know every obscure detail about the paper.

In retaliation, the Sun-Times took advantage of an ongoing situation involving the Tribune Company and the Spanish-language sister newspaper to Newsday, whose officials were involved in some scandalous detail involving over-reporting of their circulation.

The Sun-Times’ coverage of New York Hoy’s circulation scam read too much like retribution for every nasty word the Tribune wrote about Black.


EDITOR’S NOTES: More than 1,000 jobs have been lost by Tribune Co. newspapers ( across the United States during the past year.

WGN-TV’s general manager lost his long-time secretary in a recent round of staff cuts at the company’s (,CST-FIN-feder29.article) media properties.

Tribune Co. is looking towards developing an advertising product that would send classified ads ( to an individual’s cellular telephone, in hopes of generating the kind of revenues needed to keep the company’s publications afloat financially.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

7 decades bring about some race changes

While I will be the first to say that people are trying to underestimate the significance of race in this year’s presidential election, I also realize how important it is to acknowledge now far we have come throughout the decades when it comes to comprehending each other in this country and taking one another seriously.

That fact was reinforced in my mind when I realized it has been 70 years to the day since Jake Powell managed to earn his place in this country’s cultural history by opening his mouth and expressing what was the commonly felt attitude toward race relations of the day.

FOR THOSE WHO don’t bury their minds in minutia, Powell is a former professional baseball player. An outfielder, he played for the old Washington Senators and New York Yankees back in the era when Joe DiMaggio was leading the team to what seemed like endless World Series titles (four ina row from 1936-39).

As a result, Powell was in Chicago on July 29, 1938, as the Yankees were playing the White Sox at Comiskey Park. Prior to the game, Powell was partaking in what has become a ritual of broadcast sports – the pregame interview.

While being questioned about various bits of trivia on WGN-AM, longtime WhiteSox broadcaster Bob Elson (he didn’t retire until 1970) thought he would try to get a personal anecdote by asking Powell about his off-season activities.

Powell’s answer was more than anyone bargained for.

THE BALLPLAYER WHO once had seriously thought about wanting to be a police officer exaggerated by telling Elson he was a cop in Dayton, Ohio, and how his favorite part of the job was being able to use his club to whack black people over the head (the fact that it was commonly called a ‘billy club’ as a slur to Irish people is yet another example of the era’s attitudes).

Of course, Powell used a much blunter slur for black people, which went out over the air live to the vast midwestern radio audience that can pick up WGN radio’s signal.

What is significant about remembering this moment, which on a certain level was nothing more than a ballplayer being a jock and saying whatever mindless thing popped into his head? He probably did think his bluntness on the air was humorous, in the same way modern-day athletes will occasionally make obscene gestures on television out of a belief that the broadcaster (and not themselves) is the one who comes off looking stupid.

The reaction of the late-1930s United States of America was split in a way it would be hard to imagine happening today.

WHITE PEOPLE, PARTICULARLY those in the press, were inclined initially to dismiss the incident as just a matter of a jock being a jock. After all, nobody goes to a ball game expecting the athletes to come up with the solution to achieving world peace.

In fact, when Powell died in 1948, his obituary in the New York Times did not even bother to mention the incident until its final paragraph. The Times of that era preferred to emphasize the fact that Powell was a Yankee on some of that storied franchise’s greatest teams.

It was the blackpress of that era that took up the wisecrack as a crusade, and eventually put on so much pressure that major league baseball’s then-commissioner, Kennesaw Mountain Landis, felt the need to do something about the issue.

The black press was calling for a lifetime ban of Powell, similar to the bans received by the eight White Sox ballplayers suspected of working with gamblers during the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.

INSTEAD, LANDIS GAVE Powell a 10-day suspension for being stupid in public. The other part of his punishment was that he was forced to make public appearances before various community groups in Harlem.

At those events, Powell tried to portray himself as a nice guy who liked to tell jokes, but didn’t really mean any of it. In short, he offered a non-apology, similar to the way people today who say something stupid have to take it back without really doing so.

Some things never change.

But what has changed is that nowadays, it would not take so long for the incident to become a big deal. The broadcast medium has become so dominant in establishing the public’s view on any given issue.

IF THIS WERE to happen today, WGN-AM radio’s audio would be picked up by ESPN, which would take the snippet and replay it over and over and over again so often on all its various media properties that the word “n----r” would be burned into our brains.

We also would give the ballplayer the equivalent of the lifetime ban that black activists of the era wanted for Powell. We’d never let him forget his gaffe.

Take John Rocker, the one-time Atlanta Braves relief pitcher who played along with a Sports Illustrated writer’s question a few years ago about whether he truly despised New York City.

But in his answer, he claimed to hate it because of the presence of gay and black people to a degree not found in his hometown of Macon, Ga. He also made a crack about a certain black teammate being a “monkey.”

ROCKER'S CAREER SHRIVELED up and died in a way that Powell’s did not (although some like to find humor in the fact that Powell – the man who pretended to be a police officer – died after shooting himself in a police station while in police custody).

Rocker, or anyone else who says something racially stupid, winds up having to defend themselves in a way that white society never woul d have asked of Powell.

The people who come to Rocker’s defense by trying to dredge up the label of “political correctness” themselves can become suspicious, as we wonder why they are so willing to defend someone who would want to attack others.

One other point to consider.

JUST IMAGINE HOW bewildered Powell and the people who were willing to look the other way at his comments back in 1938 would be if they could see us today and be forced to acknowledge the fact that a bi-racial man was able to get a presidential nomination – and may actually have a chance to win the Nov. 4 elections.

The very thought would be beyond their comprehension.

And that is the ultimate evidence of how far we as a society have come.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Jake Powell’s gaffe of seven decades ago is evidence of how much ( our society has changed.

Playing well for the Yankees in the 1936 World Series topped his gaffe, in the eyes of the American public ( back when Powell died. Anyone now who said what he said would not be so lucky.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Was firearms buyback a success?

As much as I personally prefer the concept of fewer firearms existing in the public domain, the notion of Chicago’s firearms “buyback” program contains so many contradictions that no rational human being can possibly take it seriously.

For the record, Chicago police set up 25 sites this weekend where people could bring their firearms and surrender them – with the understanding that the weapons will be destroyed. Police say just over 6,800 weapons were collected.

THEY’D LIKE US to think that it means there are 6,800 fewer firearms that could be used to assault the general public. In reality, it means there are about 6,800 people who managed to scam the Chicago Police Department out of a few bucks.

Yes, it’s true.

The police were paying for weapons – $100 for pistols and shotguns and $10 for pellet guns, air guns and other phony weapons that looked real enough that they could be mistook for a legitimate firearm.

You could have taken that BB gun your parents gave you as a childhood present and surrendered it for a few bucks, while giving Chicago police yet another boost to a statistic they want to interpret as evidence we are safer.

EXCUSE ME FOR not being convinced.

The gun buffs who like to think it is their inalienable right to bear whatever firearm they desire (and who secretly hope to have an excuse at some point in their lives to shoot a real live human being) will point out that many of the types of weapons that get surrendered at events like these buybacks are junk.

We’re often talking about old pistols that are defective and that likely are more of a threat to the person holding the weapon than to the person who the gun barrel is pointed at.

If police records were more thorough when it came to ancient crimes, we’d probably find at least a few weapons that were used in crimes decades ago but have not been fired since.

I CAN REMEMBER being a reporter covering a firearms buyback several years ago where someone literally tried to peddle the antique pistols that had belonged to his grandfather. Their condition had deteriorated too much for them to be of any value to a firearms collector, so the owner was just trying to get something – anything – for his “weapons.”

My point is that the police may have built up an arsenal this weekend of junk guns and pellet guns, and possibly, a few toys.

Where are the hard-core automatic weapons that are used on the streets that cause the serious violence in our society today? Those are the weapons whose proliferation in the public are causing the violence on our urban streets. Of course, those weapons are worth hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars, so no one is going to surrender them for $100.

Chicago Police Superintendent Jody Weis would disagree.

HE MADE A point of showing the Chicago Tribune a sawed-off shotgun with an 8-inch barrel, noting that such a weapon was not good for anything except inflicting harm on other human beings.

But the occasional shotgun in a flimsy field of 6,800 weapons overall doesn’t amount to much of a reduction in the number of weapons available in Chicago.

Not only that, but with the Chicago area consisting of just over 8 million people (with just under 3 million of them in the city proper), 6,800 weapons is an insignificant number.

It wasn’t even the figure Chicago police were hoping to reach. Noting that they collected about 6,700 weapons in their buyback last year, police said they wanted to double their collection effort.

ROUNDING IT OFF, they wanted 14,000 guns. Instead, they barely surpassed the figure reached last year.

The real purpose of a gun buyback is symbolic. It is meant to create the image of a city concerned enough to be willing to do anything to get guns off the streets. If it means they have to spend a few bucks (and not ask any questions, since technically every single Chicago resident who surrendered a weapon could have been arrested for being in violation of city ordinances that ban firearms ownership), they will do so.

Mayor Richard M. Daley, in talking with reporters last week, compared firearms in the public domain to, “gasoline sitting in your home.”

“It’s sitting there and you’re lighting a wick every night, and you’re wondering whether or not it’s going to go off, and it goes off like that in your hand,” Daley said.

OF COURSE, ONE could make an extreme comparison and claim the city should try reducing the number of illegal narcotics on the streets by “buying back” the drugs. In my mind, I can hear the moral outrage of the public to the idea of the city buying drugs (and trying to figure out which drugs are worth money and which are worthless fakes).

A part of me wonders how a weapons buyback is morally any more justified.

But even if one views the symbolic value of a firearms buyback as justification, the city blew it!

Police weren’t handing out actual cash. Instead, they had a stash of debit cards valued at $100 or $10, giving them out to people so they could use them when they go shopping.

IT MAKES SENSE, since in the 21st Century our retailers seem to prefer having people use cards that can be swiped through the register, rather than having to entrust cashiers to count bills and coins.

But it turns out that they did not have enough debit cards on hand, and some people who surrendered weapons later in the weekend had to settle for a slip of paper promising them that the city will eventually give them a debit card for $100 (or $10, if all they did was brought in their kid’s BB gun).

That is the most ridiculous aspect to me.

City officials had hoped to double the number of weapons they collected through their buyback program, yet they did not have enough debit cards on hand to reimburse people for the piddling number of weapons they managed to collect.

HOW MUCH OF a public relations fiasco would it have been if the city had managed to reach its goal of about 14,000 weapons surrendered, yet been unable to make the payout?

Even if their guns are junk, do we really want to be arousing the anger of 25 rooms filled with armed people?


EDITOR’S NOTES: Rev. Michael Pfleger allowed his St. Sabina church in the Gresham neighborhood to be used (,0,160132.story) as a collection point for people wishing to sell their weapons to the police.

City officials try to rebut the argument that nothing but junk weapons were surrendered during the buyback by noting (,CST-NWS-guns23_web_.article) that even antique weapons can kill people.

During the past two years, firearms buybacks by Chicago police have managed to get ( about 11,000 weapons off the Second City’s streets.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Obama saw the sights of Europe, Middle East, but will he get the U.S. votes?

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama appears to have made it through a foreign tour of the Middle East and Europe without doing or saying anything so blatantly stupid that he would forevermore have been mocked (remember Michael Dukakis riding around in a tank?)

So the perception of how Obama did during his visits to hot spots in Iran and Afghanistan, along with the touristy spots in France and Germany, depends largely on how one viewed Obama before he went.

PEOPLE WHO ARE inclined to support Obama are going to talk up how he gained first-hand experience in the ways of the world, and now has a better understanding of international affairs that will make him a better president.

Those individuals who are ABO backers (Anybody But Obama) are going to trash the trip as a trivial excuse to take a mid-campaign vacation. Many of those who are inclined to back a Republican for president are of an ideological leaning that makes them distrust other nations’ governments, and some people have spouted out talk that they wish Obama would focus his attention on the U.S., rather than other countries.

The truth lies somewhere between these two extremes.

The simple fact is that if a candidate seeks the political position known informally as Leader of the Free World, he had better have some interest in the happenings of the world. One can make a legitimate argument that George W. Bush’s shortcomings as president were due to a lack of interest in anything related to the job – except when the little kids came to the White House to play t-ball games on the presidential lawn.

I PERSONALLY DON’T think Obama got to see the true circumstances involved in Iran or Iraq or anywhere else in the Middle East. He got the guided tour with minders who made sure to take him to specific sites and see only certain things.

But it put him in a position where he had to immerse himself in foreign affairs, almost like he was cramming for an exam (as if four years as president could be compared to taking a test). I’m sure the Ivy League student in Obama (or the University of Chicago academic) felt completely comfortable under such circumstances.

It also gave him a chance to appear as though he was internationally oriented to those few people in this country who truly have not yet made up their minds about who to support come the Nov. 4 elections.

If anything, the Middle East portion of the trip was most important for Obama. Yet the public will likely remember the European segments much more.

FROM WATCHING THE man who got model/actress Carla Bruni to say “yes” to his marriage proposal suddenly fawn all over Obama when the junior senator from Illinois met with the president of France, to seeing the hundreds of thousands of German citizens cram the streets of Berlin to hear Barack speak, it gave the impression of increased respect for our country – if only Obama is able to win the general election.

Such respect has definitely been lacking in this decade, as all too many see the Bush years as those of an international bully running amok. Even though McCain is not George Bush by any definition, too many people around the world see him as tainted by the incumbent president.

It should be no surprise that Gallup Organization surveys released earlier this week showed at least 60 percent of European people of English, French and German nationalities all felt their country’s interests would gain if Obama defeats Republican John McCain.

Of course, some will argue that such sentiment is outweighed by the percentage of U.S. citizens who will distrust Obama because the “foreigners” like him. Others will note that the “foreigners” do not vote in U.S. elections, so we should not care what they think.

BUT THERE IS some evidence that what little bit of support Obama will lose because of his foreign interest will be outweighed by those who see it positively.

On Friday, Gallup officials came out with their latest tracking poll, showing Obama with a 6-percent lead over McCain. At 47 percent support for Barack compared to 41 percent for McCain, it is significantly larger than the 3- or 2-percent leads that Obama usually has over McCain.

Did the sight of Obama, with allusions to Ronald Reagan’s address at the Brandenburg Gate, suddenly sway a number of undecideds into the Obama camp?

The trick will be to see the polls of early next week to figure out how much of that increase he holds onto. The simple fact is that tracking polls show how we the potential electorate have a sheep-like mentality. We will follow the whim of the day.

WHEN THE REPUBLICANS have their nominating convention in St. Paul, Minn., McCain’s name is going to be in the news so often that he will gain the support of people who figure he must be worth voting for, if he’s getting covered. He may very well tie Obama in the polls.

Likewise, when Obama gives that speech at Invesco Field in Denver accepting the Democratic presidential nomination, his rhetoric likely will push his favorable ratings so high that the polls with have him with such a huge lead that people will wonder how McCain could ever have been delusional enough to think he could defeat Barack.

In short, winning an election is about hanging on to the support of the few people in our country who sincerely are willing to give both candidates a chance. One Gallup poll from earlier this week showed that only about one of every 16 voters seriously is willing to consider Obama or McCain – the others have either already made up their minds for one, the other, or feel disgust for both.

If Obama can keep the positive aura going that he has helped generate this week, then he has gone a long way toward becoming this nation’s first biracial president.

BUT THE TRIP was successful in one other way. It reduced the McCain campaign to the status of Second Story in the news cycle for over a week.

John McCain was reduced to trying to feed off the Obama attention by staging trivial stunts such as eating wienerschnitzel in Columbus, Ohio, and airing negative Obama radio ads in various rural U.S. towns that happen to be named Berlin.

His public comments during the week came off as petty rants, jealous that everybody was paying attention to the opponent and not him. It reinforced the notion that the Obama campaign is setting the agenda of the 2008 presidential election and that McCain is merely a follower.

Unless Obama literally tumbles down the steps of his airplane when arriving Sunday in Chicago (a la Chevy Chase’s impersonations of former President Gerald R. Ford) to speak to the UNITY convention of minority news media officials, John McCain is going to have to come up with something drastic to make up for the public perception ground he lost this week.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Barack Obama doesn’t seem to have hurt his campaign by visiting the Middle East ( and Europe, where locals ( are in love with his persona. What do U.S. voters think?

Combining French glamour with tough talk on Iran (, Obama is trying to appear like a knowledgable man of the world in speaking against the concept of Iran having access to nuclear weapons.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Samardzija = Borchard?

The following commentary contains factual errors detailed quite well in the string of comments that follows the essay. Nevertheless, my larger point stands - I think the Cubs are mistaken in thinking Jeff Samardzija's football experience will make it possible for him to rush through the minor leagues. And for those who will cite his first "save" on Sunday, I would cite Joe Borchard's 503-foot home run. Sunday could very well be the highlight of Samardzija's baseball career.


I realize that to be a fan of the Chicago Cubs, one must be a tad irrational in thought. But I would hope that Cubs fans have enough sense not to expect Jeff Samardzija to be the great savior who takes their favorite ball club to multiple National League championships and World Series titles during his athletic career.

Samardzija, of course, is the Valparaiso, Ind., native who gave up a final season of being the quarterback for Notre Dame University’s famed football program in order to play professional baseball – and Samardzija is on his way back to Chicago, as the Cubs have promoted him to the big club (for the time being).

SAMARDZIJA HAS BEEN a pitcher in the minor leagues, and some baseball fans would like to think the glamour and pressure of being a big-time football quarterback (particularly for Notre Dame) will make him fit to cope with the pressures of big-time baseball, and will enable him to bring a championship mentality to Wrigley Field.

Yet all I can think is that he is a kid ballplayer who has been on the fast track in the minor leagues because of his Notre Dame notoriety. It reminds me too much of the last big-time college football star who was supposed to set Chicago baseball ablaze.

You all remember Joe Borchard of the White Sox? He was the former quarterback for Stanford University who received a record high (for the Sox) signing bonus of $5.3 million to get him to choose the greatest sport of all over U.S.-style football.

Yet what did the White Sox get to show for that bonus contract? Half of one season (2004) with the major league team, parts of four other seasons with Chicago, and so much playing time with the top minor league affiliate in Charlotte, N.C., that he hit so many home runs that he is the all-time career home run champ in Charlotte Knights history.

MAYBE CHARLOTTE KNIGHTS fans think he was worth the $5.3 million, considering that they got to see him regularly at his best. We in Chicago did not.

Borchard’s problem was that he is a big bulky guy with a huge swing who, when he makes contact with the ball, hits long home runs. When he doesn’t make contact (which is often), he strikes out.

There was little in between. And because the White Sox of the early 2000s were perennially on the fringes of pennant races, there wasn’t the chance that he would have received with a bad ball club (like the Cubs) to just play and work out his kinks.

Borchard got caught up in his own negative vibe, which prevented him from ever becoming the ballplayer whom some White Sox fans tried to dub “Light Tower Power.”

EXPECTING SAMARDZIJA TO contribute anything to the Cubs at this point is a dream. I would hope the Cubs have enough sense to send him back to the minor leagues when relief pitcher Kerry Wood recovers from shoulder problems and comes off the disabled list. Life in Des Moines, Iowa, may not sound glamorous to Jeff, but it is best for his long-term future.

For Samardzija is the future, not a part of ’08 and the Cubs’ desire to take advantage of their fast start this season and actually win a National League championship – their first since 1945.

Trying to rush the future now will cause long-term problems, even if Cubs fans manage to see a good game or two from Samardzija during his current stint with the big club.

After all, Borchard is the guy who in August 2004, in a game against the Philadelphia Phillies, got ahold of a pitch from Brett Myers and drove it over the right field seats onto the concourse where the cheap drunks lounge around and guzzle overpriced beer while watching the Sox.

AT JUST OVER 500 feet, it is the longest home run ever hit at U.S. Cellular Field/New Comiskey Park (even Frank Thomas’ longest home runs never traveled so far). Even if the building survives another 30 or so years as a major league stadium, Borchard’s shot will always be one of the longest home runs ever hit there.

But was one tape measure home run worth $5.3 million? Could his talent have been harvested better had the White Sox not put the pressure on trying to rush him through the minor leagues and onto the big club?

Would he have been an integral part of this year’s pennant contending White Sox team, instead of struggling to hang on to the game at age 29 with a spot on the roster of the Richmond Braves?

It would be sad to see Samardzija, who is 23, become yet another former college football star whose career got spoiled by being rushed.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Patience is a necessity when it comes to the development of top-quality athletes ( in professional athletics.

Here’s hoping that Joe Borchard can recover from surgery on his shoulder that is keeping him ( from playing anywhere this season.

News outlets compete to determine who can reach new low with Drew Peterson

I’m not sure which Chicago news outlet is most pathetic this week in its attempt to garner attention from the antics of Drew Peterson.

Is it the Chicago Sun-Times for trying to peddle as its very own a Joliet Herald News story that Peterson’s neighbors wore electronic surveillance devices to try to get him to make incriminating statements about the death of one ex-wife and disappearance of another on tape?

OR WAS IT the Chicago television stations (yes, you Fox News Chicago) that felt the need to put Peterson on the air Thursday so he could say as little as he could in as colorful a manner as possible.

I’m inclined to say it is the TV geeks who bothered to interview Peterson live, even though it was obvious that he would say nothing of substance. Nobody who shows up for an interview with his attorney present ever says anything interesting.

The purpose of the attorney is to cut off the person if it sounds like he might start to say something interesting or factual. The result is nothing but a bunch of platitudes, which are never necessary on television.

Of course, the reason the TV geeks bothered with Drew this week was because they were instigated by the Sun-Times, which gave a big splash earlier this week to a story dug up by their sister newspaper in Joliet.

THAT NEWSPAPER PUBLISHED claims that neighbors and one-time friends of Drew wore the wiretap devices at the request of police, who were hoping Peterson might open up and say something incriminating if he thought he was speaking privately.

Police are refusing to confirm they ever did such a thing (although that doesn’t mean they didn’t do it). It just means they would have preferred the existence of audio to remain a mystery for awhile longer.

That didn’t stop the one-time neighbors from grabbing at their moment of glory, as they appeared on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America” program earlier this week to bolster their claims that Drew said things to them about his two most recent ex-wives (he’s had four, in all). One of those ex-wives, Kathleen, is the one who was found dead in her bathtub, while the most recent, Stacey, remains missing nearly a year after her disappearance.

Not that the neighbors limited themselves to the one national program. They also did their share of local television, where one neighbor (the male one) gave WBBM-TV the dubious exclusive that he used to impersonate a woman (named Ashley) on the Internet to try to entice Peterson and draw his attention - perhaps to incriminate himself.

KATHLEEN IS THE former wife whose body was exhumed earlier this year by investigators, who wanted to do more studies of the remains, and wound up changing her cause of death from accidental to homicide.

Peterson is considered a “person of interest” in both the death of Kathleen and disappearance of Stacey, although he does not yet face criminal charges.

Peterson claims he will never face any charges if people give these alleged audio recordings an honest listening to, although the excepts that are coming out appear to be intended to drum up as much negativity toward Drew as possible, so that if/when he is someday arrested, people will be seeking his immediate conviction.

The line that seems to be getting people the most worked up was the Peterson wisecrack that he wished he had had Kathleen’s body cremated (while also calling her a “rhymes with witch”).

PEOPLE WHO WANT to believe in Peterson’s guilt interpret that crack as a desire to cover up evidence of a crime. To me, it sounds like a pathetic attempt at humor from someone who would rather not have gone through the process of watching his ex-wife’s body dug up from her grave.

Considering that Drew Peterson is the guy who earlier this week deflected a female reporter’s questions about the investigation by telling her, “God, you’re hot,” it sounds like a lame attempt to say nothing. Reading any more into it is wrong.

With Peterson’s former friends going on television, we had to be subjected to the sight of him Thursday on various morning news television programs.

While I understand he did NBC’s “Today” show and also made an appearance for CBS’s “The Early Show,” the one appearance I saw live was his local appearance on WFLD-TV, Chicago’s Fox affiliate, which means Fox affiliates across the nation and the Fox News Channel will get to see Drew with his attorney, trying to sound like a cocky, confident man, instead of a boastful jerk.

WITH JOEL BRODSKY (the attorney who is being paid to ensure Peterson never has to do time in prison) at his side, Peterson said a whole lot of nothing, which shouldn’t be surprising. In fact, it seemed like Brodsky spoke more than Peterson did, spewing legalese in response to questions from Fox News types that naively were intended to get Peterson to break down and confess.

Since that clearly was not going to happen, it just made for dull television.

But it is the kind of dull television that was repeated over and over throughout the day. Within 10 minutes of the end of the interview, WFLD newspeople were doing stories summarizing what we had just seen.

Broadcast reports informing us that no real news was made just moments ago, but that non-news took place right here in WFLD-TV studios, were soon on the air. What is worse is that this same interview will get WFLD its moment of national exposure for the day, even though their people didn’t get Drew to say anything of interest.

I’D SAY THAT television people have no shame. Except that the instigator in all this is the Sun-Times, which took advantage of the fact that the remains of their parent company still own all those suburban daily and weekly newspapers to take the Herald News account of the tapes.

All across the country, we are learning that the Sun-Times has broken yet another exclusive (try reading through the stories appearing in newspapers across the United States, I have yet to find one crediting Joliet), giving us some dirt that can be twisted in ways to throw more suspicion on Drew.

I literally had to read through the package of copy in the newspaper three times before I finally noticed that it was a Herald News reporter whose work was on display.

Of course, if something were to go wrong with one of the details, it would suddenly become the Joliet newspaper’s fault. I wish there was a similar place I could use for this weblog – stealing their best stories for myself while shifting the blame for any mistakes I might make.

MY POINT IN going through all this is to note that too many people in the news business are peddling trash like the Peterson saga, trying to craft a definitive account from the trivial dreck that has managed to ooze its way into the public record.

For what it is worth, no one who is talking really knows what happened to Stacey Peterson – despite the rants of those people who are prepared to electrocute/castrate Drew.

Peterson may be a jerk, but the last I checked, being a jerk (or even stupid) was not a criminal offense.


EDITOR’S NOTES: I’m not alone in being skeptical about the contents of the tapes made from alleged wiretaps conducted by police to try to get Drew Peterson to convict ( himself in the minds of the public, and possibly in the minds of a future criminal jury.

One of Chicago’s media critics dings the Sun-Times for stealing credit for a Joliet Herald News story ( that may not be all that substantial in its content.

Attorney Joel Brodsky issued the following statement earlier this week questioning the legitimacy ( of any comments that might exist on any tapes made of Peterson though electronic surveillance.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Is Bill Richardson the Obama substitute for Illinois fair’s Democrat rally?

I understand Barack Obama is no longer just a junior senator from Illinois; he’s a man of the world (literally, a new Gallup Organization survey showed at least 60 percent of Europeans feel they have a stake in his election as U.S. president).

I also realize the Illinois State Fair has all the characteristics of a third-rate production that is best ignored, if at all possible. Many counties across Illinois, as well as the states that surround the Land of Lincoln, put on more extravagant affairs than what will take place in Springfield come mid-August.

YET I AM hoping that Obama can somehow configure his campaign schedule to be in Illinois come Aug. 13 – which is the day during the Illinois State Fair when Democrats are scheduled to hold a series of events meant to promote their electoral candidates.

As things stand now, the highlight of Democrats Day/Governor’s Day is that New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson will make the trip from his capital in Santa Fe to our capital in Springfield – speaking at a breakfast session being held for the Democratic Party’s county chairmen from rural Illinois.

Considering Blagojevich’s lack of popularity in the Illinois capital city, his presence will not be a big deal. In fact, it could be little more than an excuse for hecklers to exercise their vocal cords.

After meeting earlier this year with California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mexico President Felipe Calderon Hinojosa to discuss issues of international significance, what will be New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson's reaction to our capital city of Springfield? Photograph provided by New Mexico governor's office.

So if Obama doesn’t show, the Democratic Party’s presence at the Illinois fair will have to rely on a man with no local ties in order to have any sense of political glamour.

OBAMA HAS BEEN invited to the event, and it is traditional that the Democratic U.S. senators from Illinois would appear at the various rallies held at the fairgrounds – if not to promote themselves, then to give other Democrats running for office a chance to have candid photographs taken of them reveling in the glitz of Obama-mania.

Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., has already committed to appearing at the event. Of course, he’s a Springfield resident. He has no excuse for not showing up at the fairgrounds.

I would hope Obama doesn’t pull some sense of Chicago snobbery in deciding to blow off the fair on Democrat Day.

If anything, it would be a chance for the people of the part of Illinois outside of Chicago to feel like Obama has not forgotten they exist. Can anyone even remember the last time his campaign took him to somewhere in rural Illinois?

IF MY MEMORY is correct, it was when he made a brief appearance in Quincy when the flooding along the Mississippi River was at its peak. That was a moment that will live on forever in the memories of those emergency crew workers who were present at the time, but it’s hardly the feel-good moment that Obama ought to be trying to create for all Illinoisans.

Besides, I would think Obama would want to play up a chance to make an appearance or two with Richardson, who after his own presidential aspirations fizzled out endorsed Obama at a time when primary opponent Hillary R. Clinton was still a viable option.

Some have speculated that Obama will use the Richardson endorsement to try to appeal to the growing Latino voter bloc in this country, but it might actually make more sense to try to appeal to those establishment Democrats who would want to support officials with experience in federal government.

Richardson, after all, is the former energy secretary and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under former President Bill Clinton.

A JOINT APPEARANCE between the two at the party chairman’s breakfast would give an event that theoretically is for the have-nots of the Illinois Democratic Party (the haves are all from Chicago) a jolt of excitement. It would give the rural Illinois Democrats their moment in the sunshine.

And just think of how kitschy it would be if Richardson managed to stick around Springfield for a few extra hours and partake of some of the fair’s events. The Obama-Richardson duo could do the fairgrounds, checking out the various exhibits and livestock shows.

It’s just too bad that the Democrat Day political events take place a couple of days after the hog- and husband-calling contests that have become a state fair staple.

For those who are not in the know about the fair, women get the chance to parody the hog calls used by farmers, bellowing and shrieking for their husbands to hop to it and come.

COULDN’T YOU JUST imagine the look of bewilderment on Richardson’s face (just a few days before presiding over a special session on universal health care) if he got to see Michelle Obama taking her crack at devising a unique call for her husband?

“Get over here, Barrrrrrrrr-eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeey.”


EDITOR’S NOTES: The Illinois Democratic County Chairmen’s Association breakfast on Aug. 13 in Springfield ( has the potential to be one of the biggest campaign events Illinois will see this year, if Barack Obama can bring himself to include Illinois in his campaign schedule.

Bill Richardson all by himself in Springfield, Ill., barely warrants this mention in the (,0,2557294.story) Chicago press.

Talk about political spin. Richardson says Obama will narrowly win the electoral college ( votes from New Mexico come Nov. 4. Meanwhile, Richardson remains nearly $300,000 ( in debt from his presidential campaign earlier this year.

We’ve been snubbed!?!

That’s my “honest” reaction to learning that the Republican presidential campaign of John McCain is trying to have some fun at Democratic opponent Barack Obama’s expense.

On Thursday, the day that Obama is making a public appearance in Berlin (within site of the Brandenburg Gate, although not in front of it like presidents John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan did), McCain is airing radio spots in Berlin – three of them, to be exact.

McCAIN IS AIRING ads on local radio stations that cover Berlin, Penn.; Berlin, Wis., and Berlin, N.H. The gimmick ensures that his spots will get national attention when they trash Obama for a 2007 vote in the U.S. Senate against a $120 billion budget appropriation that would have paid for supplies for the military.

Media outlets who are determined to view objectivity by leaning toward McCain likely will give it equal play to Obama’s appearance in the capital of Germany.

Where’s the snub, those of you who never set foot outside of Cook County might ask?

It turns out we have a Berlin, of sorts, right here in Illinois.

NEW BERLIN (POPULATION 1,124) is a town in rural Sangamon County, located about 12 miles from Springfield. Airing his spot in our version of Berlin could have gained the attention of the political geeks who choose to live in the Illinois capital city, since the same broadcast stations cover both towns.

That also would have meant significant attention for the McCain campaign. Instead, they passed over our state’s version of Berlin, just because the village’s founders were honest enough to put a “New” in their name when they incorporated in 1865.

I'd be inclined to say that McCain just lost my vote for snubbing my home state, except I made up my mind a long time ago that I couldn't bring myself to cast a ballot for the senator from Arizona. And in all honesty, many of us Chicagoans had no clue until reading this commentary that there was even a New Berlin in existence.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Barack Obama defends his 2007 vote against military spending ( by noting he voted for a different measure that included the money for the military effort in Iraq.

New Berlin, Ill., is one of several rural Illinois towns named for famed international cities, including ( Paris, Rome, Vienna and Havana.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Nader has new vote goal – 7 percent

I finally see just what serious chance Ralph Nader has to get votes come the Nov. 4 elections being held for president across the country – he could be the guy who convinces 7 percent of the U.S. electorate to “Vote for Ralph” for the White House.

Where do I get this 7 percent figure? It comes from the latest Gallup Organization poll, which continues to show Democrat Barack Obama in a slight 3-point overall lead over Republican John McCain.

THAT LEAD ACTUALLY ballooned up to a 6-point margin on Monday, with the polling group suggesting it was due to the positive press Obama is receiving for his Middle East sojourn this week.

Yet on Tuesday, the tracking poll reverted back to what seems to be the pattern of recent weeks – Obama with a 3-point lead over McCain (45 percent to 42 percent, to be exact).

But unlike other recent polls done by Gallup (or any other organization that will survey voters, for a fee), this one broke down the remaining 13 percent – the people who didn’t commit to either Obama or McCain.

As it turns out, just over half of those “undecideds” say they are disgusted enough with both Obama and McCain that there’s no way either one will get their vote for president come the general election. One percent is voting for a third candidate (unspecified), while 6 percent is merely saying “no way” to Barack and John.

ACCORDING TO THIS most recent survey (which will be obsolete by Wednesday afternoon when Gallup will come out with yet another of their daily tracking polls), only the remaining 6 percent of the potential voter population is truly trying to figure out whether to vote for McCain or Obama.

That’s roughly one of every 16 people – the other 15 have made up their minds (and it’s only July).

So what should we think, aside from the fact that it is the Electoral College totals and not the popular vote that decides who wins the presidential election?

The trick will be to see if the 7 percent who say they are disgusted with both candidates truly are. Will their distrust of both McCain and Obama remain hard-line enough that they seriously decide to vote for a third-party candidate? If so, Ralph Nader awaits them with open arms.

OF COURSE, THERE’S the possibility that Ralph’s hard-line stubbornness on certain consumer issues will turn these people off (there’s a good chance that these people who hate both Obama and McCain are ideologues determined to vote for no one if they can’t find someone who matches their views on every single issue).

It’s going to depend on just how seriously the ideologues are determined to vote for somebody. Nader could easily become the name that fills in for the often-fantasized option of “None of the Above.” The number of people who actually believe Nader’s hard-line, uncompromising stridency is fit for the White House is seriously small.

But what happens if most of these people decide to just boycott the polling places on Election Day? They cease to matter (that’s the reality of our electoral system, the only people who count are the ones who bother to take the time to cast a ballot).

Then it would become the remaining “6 percent” who will decide the election – the ones who truly are not sure what to think, and who likely will not make up their minds until some time in early November – quite possibly at the moment they walk into the voter booth and are confronted with the choice.

IN THE CASE of these people, it may well turn out to be some sort of unpredictable gaffe on the part of one of the candidates that causes them to vote for the other guy.

And if McCain were to get the bulk of that “6 percent” of the undecideds, then he gets a lead over Obama of just under 50 percent that would be enough for victory, IF Nader’s 7 percent of supporters/Election Day no-shows comes in states with significant Electoral College members and costs Obama electors.

I can already hear the nonsense rhetoric – Nader will be the guy who cost both Al Gore and Barack Obama the presidency. I call it nonsense because I think Nader’s influence in the 2000 presidential election is seriously overrated by Bush bashers. I’m not convinced Nader has enough influence to truly take an election from anybody.

So in the end, that “7 percent” could turn out to be the figure representing the share of people who are just cantankerous enough that they have to be against everybody.

I’M WILLING TO guess that most of them just won’t bother to vote, and Nader could easily get 1 percent of the overall electorate – scattered about various urban states in such a manner that he does not influence the Electoral College vote at all.

Of course, there’s also one other aspect to consider when taking any poll into consideration – it is a very small sample of the population, no matter how professionally it is done.

This particular poll is based off the results of 2,645 registered voters who happened to be at home and answer the telephone. When you think about it, just over 2,600 people representing the views of all of the United States, no matter how scientifically they were chosen, is puny.

I have seen minor league baseball games draw larger crowds than that.


EDITOR’S NOTES: One percent of potential voters say they are voting for a third-party candidate (, while 6 percent more say they won’t vote for either Barack Obama or John McCain. They are Ralph Nader’s best chance of actually getting electoral support.

Consider this amongst yourselves – were both Obama and McCain correct in their views ( on the war in Iraq?

What a surprise! The American electorate believes that their preferred candidate will run an issues-oriented campaign, while the opponent will use campaign tactics bordering ( on nasty. Or so concluded the people with Gallup in a survey compiled and released last week, during the time this weblog was inactive.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Ebert film criticism TV program will live on, regardless of where or when it airs

Perhaps I’m about to age myself, but when I think of the concept of Roger Ebert on television offering mini-criticisms of current movies, the program that comes to my mind is “Sneak Previews.”

That is the PBS version that was WTTW-TV’s contribution to public television back in the 1970s (at times, it seemed like Boston’s WGBH produced everything else), which featured dueling film critics of Chicago’s two daily newspapers. It was obvious in those early days that Ebert of the Sun-Times and Gene Siskel of the Tribune felt some professional hostility toward each other that made for intellectually stimulating – and entertaining – viewing.

THEIR ARGUMENTS COULD get feisty in a way that just can’t be faked.

I even still remember “Spot, the Wonder Dog,” the canine buddy who was used to introduce the program-ending “Dog of the Week” segment where Siskel and Ebert would pick away at the week’s worst movie.

Because I remember what Ebert’s film criticism on television used to be, I have always considered all of the successor programs he and Siskel (and for the past eight years, Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper) did to be second-rate.

They were just too structured. Segments were so rigidly timed, and the disagreements were just too contrived. Such were the demands of commercial television programming in the United States.

THAT’S WHY I can’t get too worked up over the fact that Roeper and Ebert announced Monday they were leaving their current program – “At the Movies.”

Officials let it be known that the program’s producers would like the show to evolve from one of mini-film criticism to one of Hollywood entertainment news – almost like a slightly more news oriented “Entertainment Tonight.”

I have no doubt that such a program would attract a certain amount of ratings. Of course, Ebert & Roeper would have got better ratings if it aired in a better slot (10:30 p.m. on Saturday?) There’s always a certain demand for programs that delve into such in-depth issues as whether Salma Hayek’s breasts are naturally that big?

Personally, the thought of such a program makes me ill. I don’t see the need for it. I think there are enough outlets that provide celebrity trivia such as whether Katie Holmes is planning to take baby Suri and leave hubby Tom Cruise.

AND EVEN THE establishment news media outlets that like to think they are about celebrity news are delving more and more into the trivia. I couldn’t help but notice in accounts this week about proposed changes to the format of the Chicago Tribune is that the newspaper’s first section will be devoted to consumer and entertainment news, with the public affairs type reporting of Chicago and around the world being shifted to Section Number Two.

So I kind of derive some pleasure in hearing that Ebert and Roeper are not willing to take the big bucks they would have received from cooperating with such changes. They are willing to move on, even though having to structure a completely new program can be a hassle.

I couldn’t help but notice that Ebert, in discussing his move from the existing program, notes he and Siskel widow Marlene Iglitzen own the trademark to the symbol of “thumbs up” to recommend a film and “thumbs down” to reject one.

Any new program would probably try to feed off that symbol as a way to distinguish it from other programs that purport to offer film criticism.

SOME PEOPLE LIKE to argue against newspapers (and in favor of the Internet as a news transmission medium) by saying some stories are best told with audio and video. But some stories (usually the ones most worthy of being told) are best expressed with the written word.

Film criticism, I have always believed, is one of those genres that works best on the printed page. So much can be said in the 600-word essay that cannot be told in the two-minute-long video segment.

Two minutes can be about 90 words, and few details can be used in them without cluttering up copy. Even the existence of a snippet of film from the cinematic production makes up for the form’s shortcomings.

That is the problem with the current film criticism programs – even “At the Movies.” Just at the point when it seems like either Ebert or Roeper is about to get into some interesting thought about a film, his time is up.

WATCHING THE PROGRAM can feel like trying to comprehend several contrite reviews that don’t offer enough, rather that giving one detailed account that could help us understand what is worthy (or despicable) about some new cinematic release.

I can’t help but wonder if the future of an Ebert/Roeper pairing as television-oriented film critics is on some cable television network – some place where they won’t feel the need to cram seven or eight film reviews into a 22-minute program (the other eight minutes in the half-hour show are devoted to commercials that pay the bills).

For what it is worth, Roeper hinted that he has some future show in the works, but he would not offer details on Monday.

Seriously, I’d watch something that would allow Ebert to show off the knowledge of film he has acquired during the four-plus decades he has been the Sun-Times’ movie critic. That knowledge has always been what made his written reviews in the newspaper so interesting and enjoyable.

THAT KNOWLEDGE IS also what will make Ebert’s eventual passing such a loss to the public, similar to that suffered Monday with the death of one-time Sun-Times and Tribune baseball writer Jerome Holtzman, whose writing of the sport gave the public a detailed sense of the game’s joys and its business end. Who else can say they came up with the statistics that make relief pitchers worth paying attention to?

The sad thing is that Ebert’s eventual obituary (which hopefully will not need to be edited into publishable shape for several more years) will focus on his role in making television-oriented criticism of film a commercially acceptable premise, instead of reminding us of his role in helping us to understand the joy that one can experience just by sitting in a darkened auditorium to watch a classic cinematic experience on the big screen – particularly if accompanied by a big tub of popcorn or a box of Snow Caps (my personal favorite).


EDITOR’S NOTES: Ebert & Roeper will try to move on to a new program about (,feder072108.article) film criticism.

My personal dirty secret of Internet surfing? There are times I will weed my way through ( Roger Ebert’s archive of old film reviews as a way of passing time in an interesting manner.

Monday, July 21, 2008

It feels great to be publishing again

There is bound to be somebody out there who will take offense and accuse me of exaggerating the significance of my predicament, but I can almost identify with the mood of those Chicagoans who were alive in the final days of October 1871.

It was earlier in that month that a fire allegedly started in a barn managed to grow out of control and devastate much of the city, and the people of Chicago in those days would have been justified had they just thrown in the towel and moved elsewhere, leaving the remains of a frontier town to become a ghost on the shores of Lake Michigan.

INSTEAD, THEY REBUILT. In the process, they created one of the great cities of the world. I’m not sure my attempts to rebuild the Chicago Argus (and its sister weblog, The South Chicagoan) will achieve the same level. But I feel the same spirit in wanting to resurrect the sites that were attempting to provide intelligent commentary and analysis of the happenings of Chicago (and of the world, as perceived from Chicago).

Insofar as what went wrong, I must admit it has taken me several days to figure out, and even now I only have a partial understanding of what caused the Chicago Argus and South Chicagoan to be shuttered for fivedays – it was only a few minutes ago that I regained control of the sites.

Basically, I wrote a commentary late Wednesday about Starbucks’ franchises in the Chicago area. Then, I went to bed.

When I woke up Thursday, I discovered that the passwords that allow me access to the editorial content were no longer working (which is why I did not provide an update indicating that the number of Starbucks’ stores in the Chicago area being closed was significantly increased in the hours after I published my say on the matter). It also is why I did not trash Gov. Rod Blagojevich for making a mockery of law enforcement problems with his ridiculous talk of National Guard tactics being used in Chicago.

THE EXPLANATION I received eventually was that Google shut down my account when it detected someone trying to use the e-mail account connected to the sites to send out the enemy of every Internet user – spam.

Because of Google security measures, I was unable to resurrect my ability to access either weblog.

Now as best as I can tell, none of the commentaries published during the past seven months have been tampered with. The archives of both sites appear to be un-compromised.

Of course, I have not re-read every single word I have written at these two sites, so there’s always the possibility that some clown decided to try to rewrite me, for kicks or to satisfy some sort of ideologically-inspired grudge.

THAT’S WHAT GETS me about this whole affair. I’m not sure what to think of the motivations of the people who started a chain reaction that resulted in the sites sitting idle for a few days.

Is this the equivalent of some computer geek who thinks he’s showing off his technological skills by messing with someone else’s site (like the time the New York Times had their website tampered with and turned into a promotion for soft-core pornography), or is this someone who disagrees with me (I know they exist, they are good at sending me excessively lengthy e-mails telling me I am full of caca for what I write).

Am I really dealing with the equivalent of white supremacist groups who like to print up their fliers, insert them into copies of a newspaper that have not yet been sold, then have the gall to complain their views are being censored because they can’t force their view on someone else.

All I can say is that I have started again, and I intend to resume the previous publishing schedule. It feels good to know that commentaries and news analysis will resume early tomorrow, and will continue to be published daily through Friday, with a feature-y piece for the weekend.

I LIKELY WILL never know the exact motivations of the people who caused the site to die for a few days. If it is merely a computer geek, then this is just sad. If it is somebody’s idea of a political statement, then it is pathetic.

Regardless, I have never been the type of person who lets sad or pathetic individuals get the best of my work. I only hope whoever did this doesn’t have delusions of having a Hollywood film made about their activities.

Even though the City Council later absolved her of any responsibility, Mrs. O’Leary and her cow wound up being the focus of that fictionalized version of the Great Chicago Fire from 1937 known as “In Old Chicago.”


Thursday, July 17, 2008

Starbuck's closes its way into racial squabble w/ Chicago-area closing

I’ll give the people with Starbuck’s a little bit of credit – I don’t think the Seattle-based gourmet coffee retailer intended to provoke a race war when they picked which of their Chicago-area stores would be among the 600 nationwide to be closed.

But that is what they have managed to provoke with their choice.

WHEN STARBUCK’S RELEASED their list of coffee shops across the country that will be shuttered due to rising costs and declining profit margins, only one was a franchise located in Cook County.

Hence, only the people of Country Club Hills, a southern suburb, will lose their ability to purchase coffee in the various exotic blends and funky-sounding sizes that the retailer has used to create their corporate personality.

Now as it turns out, I have parents living in the towns both to the west (Tinley Park) and east (Homewood) of Country Club Hills. Both of those towns each have two Starbuck’s franchises in their boundaries.

So one can make a legitimate argument that the Starbuck’s store that was part of the strip mall at 167th Street and Crawford Avenue (in the city, we call it Pulaski Road) will not be missed. There are other Starbuck’s stores within a 10 to 15 minute drive of the soon-to-be-defunct location.

AND FOR THOSE who would argue that people without cars will not easily be able to get to the other locations, I’d argue that the strip mall in Country Club Hills was at a location distant from residential areas. No one from a nearby neighborhood with any sense was walking to the store in question.

So on paper, the corporate decision makes sense. But facts and figures on paper do not always take into account the raw emotions that exist. In this case, those emotions are racial, and they are behind the differing perceptions of the motivations behind the corporate action.

Country Club Hills (in 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau) is a town of 16,169 people, of whom 81.9 percent are African American.

The two surrounding towns that each will continue to have two Starbuck’s franchises are majority white. Homewood is 78.1 percent Anglo, although a black population was at 17.5 percent in 2000, and evidence exists to show it has grown in the past eight years.

BUT IT IS the other town that has the black activist in everybody upset. Tinley Park is a Chicago suburb of 93.2 percent white people (only 1.9 percent African American). And officials note that at a time when the chain is closing stores (and putting on hold plans to build stores in places such as the nearby suburb of Lansing), they went ahead and opened a second Tinley Park franchise – located directly across the street from the existing store.

These particular dueling Starbuck’s stores are about a five-minute drive from where my mother lives, and I can personally attest that Starbuck’s is not lying when they say that the existing location is in a strip mall with a set layout.

There was no way to amend the structure, particularly not if the goal was to have a drive-up window for people who need their gourmet coffee fix but are too lazy to get off their duffs and out of the car to make their purchase.

The new location on the east side of Harlem Avenue is a new structure, so the drive-up window was included in the design. Corporate officials won’t say so, but it would appear obvious that the old location will eventually be closed once its lease expires (which local newspapers report is in about two years).

SO FOR THE time being, Tinley Park, Ill., will go from being the home of the Bettenhausen family of auto racing fame to being the place where Starbuck’s fights a “civil war” of sorts for the loyalties of the area’s coffee drinkers.

Seriously, the SouthtownStar newspaper published a story Wednesday quoting locals who insist they will remain loyal to the old store, and don’t like the idea of having to walk across the street.

But to the people in neighboring Country Club Hills (the two towns are separated by Interstate 57, which is generally considered the demarcation point between the south and southwest suburbs), they see it as an issue of their predominantly black town losing a franchise so that their white neighbor can have two stores.

Even those black people willing to look at the issue somewhat rationally find it sad that their town’s economic demographics were considered unacceptable by corporate officials in Seattle to maintain the Starbuck’s store.

DOES THIS SOUND ridiculous?

To some, they will want to complain that Country Club Hills officials are guilty of “playing the race card” in being critical of Starbuck’s.

But I see the whole incident (which got significant amounts of airtime in a story broadcast Wednesday by ABC-owned WLS-TV) as more evidence of the way black and white people can perceive the same circumstances so differently.

In a way, it is no different than the poll commissioned by the New York Times, which on Wednesday reported on the differing perceptions of the presidential campaign of Democrat Barack Obama – based on the race of the person being questioned.

WHEN ASKED, “WHO has a better chance of getting ahead in today’s society?,” 53 percent of white people questioned said they think the two races are equal, with 35 percent saying white people have a better chance of succeeding in our society.

When it came to black people, 64 percent think white people have better chances of success, with only 30 percent thinking the two races have equal chances.

There also was the question of whether race relations in this country were “generally good or bad?” Fifty-nine percent of black people picked “bad” while 55 percent of white people picked “good.”

As much as I’d like to say these statistics sadden me, I have to admit they do not surprise me. I still remember how naïve I thought it was when the Wall Street Journal ran a lengthy story last November entitled "Whites' Great Hope?" about the Obama presidential campaign having the potential to be one that forevermore puts aside race as an issue.

HOW CAN WE be expected to put aside race when it comes to something significant like a presidential election?

We’re in a situation in this country where the closing of a coffee shop (particularly one as generic as a Starbuck’s franchise) can be cause for a racial debate. They might not be as blatantly offensive as they were a half century ago, but we’re nowhere near resolving the racial tensions of this country.


EDITOR’S NOTES: It lasted for barely over one year, but the Starbuck’s franchise in the predominantly African-American suburb of Country Club Hills ( is history.

Tinley Park’s “War of the Starbuck’s” is a case (,071608starbucks.article) of misplaced consumer loyalty.

We the people of this country can’t even agree on whether racial overtones exist with the closing of a coffee franchise. Why should we be expected to agree on the racial ( perceptions involved in the presidential campaign?

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Obama overwhelms others as “voice of black America” – or so says the poll

Remember back just over one year ago when people speculated that Oprah Winfrey was going to use her influence over the nation’s female population to bolster the presidential dreams of Barack Obama?

Well, if a recent survey is any indication, things are now reversed.

IT COULD VERY well be Obama who uses his personal touch to reach out and convince the people of this country that the queen of talk show television is still worth watching.

The Gallup Organization released the results of a poll asking people who they thought represented the voice of the black population in this country.

Surprise (heavy sarcasm intended). It’s Obama!

All the public attention he has received during the past year has made him a known commodity across the country. Remember back when people used to argue with a straight face that Obama couldn’t win because no one had ever heard of him?


The poll released this week contends that 29 percent (or almost one of every three people) think Obama is representative of the way black people think.

Of course, what this poll really shows is that black people themselves do not think in a monolithic voice. Obama may have received significantly more support than any one other individual, but so many others received some consideration.

Heck, even Bill Clinton (who takes a certain pride in the pundits who have unofficially labeled him the U.S.’s “first black president”) got some votes in this survey, as did failed Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary R. Clinton (both got 3 percent support).

IN FACT, THE concept of “no one” speaking for the black population received more support (7 percent) than any individual other than Obama.

This particular poll was inspired by the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s crude comments last week that implied Obama’s views did not represent the majority of black people in this country.

But this survey indicates differently. Obama expresses the viewpoint of 29 percent of the black population, while Jackson only speaks for 4 percent.

The one-time head of Operation PUSH who liked to think of himself as the leading voice for black people across the country, and particularly in his adopted hometown of Chicago has been surpassed by the Honolulu native who was just a punk kid out of college when Harold Washington advanced the concept of black political empowerment in this city.

JACKSON HAS EVEN been surpassed by New York’s resident black preacher. Rev. Al Sharpton got 4 percent support in this survey.

And what about Miss Oprah?

The talk show host who produces her nationally syndicated program out of a Near West Side studio only got 2 percent of those surveyed saying she speaks for them when it comes to race.

Then, there’s one other Chicagoan who got a mention. Rev. Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam (remember their mosque on Stony Island Boulevard?) was picked by 1 percent of recipients – which makes him just as prominent to those surveyed as such out-of-towners as Maya Angelou, Colin Powell, Bill Cosby, Tavis Smiley and Cornell West.

NOW ONE CAN argue that Obama is nothing more than the “flavor of the month” when it comes to this survey. He’s now, he’s happening, unlike all the other Chicago area people and national figures included in this national survey who have years of public exposure due to their varied activities.

A year ago, Obama probably wouldn’t have been given a second thought by people being questioned by the Gallup gurus.

Now, he’s the predominant black person from Chicago.

Of course, we’re going to hear from the crackpots that he’s not really black; he’s bi-racial. That may be true technically, but I am willing to give Obama the right to define himself, and he has always in the 12 years I have been aware of his existence defined himself as a black man.

THAT OUGHT TO be the end of the story.

Yet when it comes to this Gallup poll, my personal favorite statistic is 6 percent.

That is the number of poll participants who said they think they themselves are the best voice for what they believe in when it comes to issues of race. Any time that people indicate they are not letting someone else speak for them or think for them, I consider that to be a great accomplishment.

Independent thought – it’s what we ought to be all about as a society.


EDITOR’S NOTES: Most black people do not think of Barack Obama as their personal spokesman ( on racial issues, although they think more highly of him than they do many other outspoken black personalities in this country.

Republican presidential opponent John McCain plans to address the NAACP on Wednesday ( in hopes of gaining some electoral support come the Nov. 4 elections.