Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Influences Part 3: Mike Royko

     My mom is 91 and has moved into an assisted living facility. A lot of stuff from her house got thrown out, other things sold in an estate sale. What was left were the important things, the things that regardless of monetary value, mean the most to our family. These are the things that define who we are. In the end, it comes down to the contents of a few cardboard boxes.
     I finally got a chance to go through a couple of these boxes. They were filled with old photos, work done by us children when we were in school, and various mementos of a lifetime. There was a bell-shaped Christmas ornament my grandmother hung on the tree the year my father was born. There were pictures of my grandfather in his World War I uniform, and postcards from the lodge my dad once owned. But something I came across really surprised me, something that meant a lot to more than just my family.
     I came across two old newspapers, over thirty years old. One was the last issue of the Chicago Daily News, a paper that had been around 102 years. The other was an issue of the Chicago Tribune. What stuck out for me was that Mike Royko was on the cover of both of them. In the Daily News, it was Mike Royko who was permitted to write the obituary for the paper that was perhaps best known for, well, Mike Royko. In The Tribune, the front page announced that Mike Royko would be joining their paper to write his daily column.
     That’s how important Mike Royko was to us, that these two papers made it into these boxes of family memorabilia. And not just to my dad, or to me, or someone else, but to just about the whole family. And we weren’t that kind of family that agreed on everything political, either. I remember some intense arguments in the house and even a fair amount of yelling. But Mike Royko was the kind of guy that cut through all of the nonsense and got to the heart of the matter. He was able to speak to the conservative and the liberal with a common sense manner and Joe Average style of language. Everybody liked him.
     Well, not everybody. Mike Royko never shied away from going after the powerful and the corrupt, the kind of people that tried to make you see life through their eyes, tried to sell you their story and make it look right. He was merciless at humbling the mighty, tearing to shreds stories built on faulty premises. And as he did so, he was able to make you laugh. Because, see, when someone shows you an absurdity and builds it up so much that it starts to make sense, and then he pokes that bloated bubble of absurdity with a few well-sharpened points, that’s what humor is all about.
     There were many years I read his article on an almost daily basis, and I was always amazed at the way he could be so consistently perceptive and witty. And likeable. Those were formative years for me. His column would be the highlight of the newspaper, no matter what was going on in the world or how my sports teams were doing. Royko’s column usually spoke to the most important matters of the day and more often than not gave the definitive perspective on it.
     In my best moments as a writer, when words and ideas flow from my pen or keyboard, I permit myself to think I am somehow channeling Mike Royko, that somehow I am able to keep his spirit alive through my writing. This is pure egotism on my part, but it is undeniable that Mike Royko has influenced not only my writing but who I am as a human being.
Let me give you this one little taste, one of thousands of pieces he wrote over the years:

A Rich Lesson In Citizenship
Mike Royko
It`s always poignant when a boatload of half-starved Haitians tries to land in this country, only to be turned away because they don`t qualify.
But that`s the way our immigration laws are written. Not just anybody can become an American.
People can`t come here only because they want to improve themselves economically, as the skinny Haitians do.
If that were the only qualification, half the hungry world would be streaming into this country.
Thus, we have the limited immigration quotas, most of which have long waiting lists. And we take some people who are fleeing communist tyranny. (If you happen to be fleeing from a right-wing tyrant, you have a real problem.)
We also admit people who have a skill in short supply here. That`s how many foreign doctors and nurses made it.
So I`m a little puzzled by the matter-of-fact way Rupert Murdoch announced that he intends to quickly become a citizen of this country.
I don`t see how Murdoch qualifies.
For one thing, he`s not fleeing communism or any other form of tyranny. He`s already a citizen of Australia, which is a very nice, freedom-loving country. He`s treated with great respect in Australia because he`s rich and powerful, and anybody who doesn`t treat him with respect will feel bad in the morning.
Nor does he have a skill that is in short supply. By profession, Murdoch is a greedy, money-grubbing, power-seeking, status-climbing cad.
Since when is that skill in short supply? Stroll along Chicago`s LaSalle Street or New York`s Wall Street, and you`ll see thousands of greedy, money-grubbing, power-seeking cads.
Just read the financial pages. It`s all corporate raids, greenmail, hostile takeovers and other forms of modern-day piracy. If John Dillinger were alive, he`d put away his pistol, get an MBA, and if he could pull off a big enough heist, he`d be invited to join the best clubs.
So why does Murdoch want to become a citizen?
For the very same reason that those rejected Haitians and all the Mexican illegals want to come here - except on a much grander, greedier scale.
He`s already incredibly rich, but he wants more and more. That, in turn, will allow him to exercise more and more political influence.
Now, you might think that a man who is already one of the richest, most powerful men in Australia, and who owns newspapers and magazines all over the United States and in England, would be content with his bottom line.
But not Murdoch. Hundreds of millions aren`t enough. He wants billions. He wants all he can get, and then some.
To get it, he`s set out to buy a chain of TV stations in some of America`s major cities, creating his own network. That way, he will make even more money while tinkering with the minds of the viewers.
But a sensible law stands in his way. Because of the potential of television to scramble, shrink or soften our brains, only an American citizen can own more than a minority interest in a TV station.
And because of that restriction alone, Murdoch says he is going to become a citizen of this country.
Well, that doesn`t seem fair. If a Haitian on a leaky boat can`t come here to improve his pitiful economic condition, why should a bloated millionaire be welcome? And for the opportunity to earn a living, the Haitian would be willing to sweep stables, behead chickens or clean toilets. Murdoch? His approach has been to fire American workers and break unions in order to increase his own cash flow.
We might also consider the question of character, of which Murdoch has little.
For one thing, he is a proven ingrate. His willingness to switch national loyalties establishes that. If you had more money than you could ever spend, would you consider giving up your American citizenship just to add to the pile?
But Murdoch is willing to wave goodbye to Australia, because he`s already taken as much as he can out of his homeland. And in England, where he also wheels and deals, the antimonopoly laws frustrate him.
He`s also a proven liar. Only 18 months ago, when he bought the Chicago Sun-Times, he vowed to improve the paper and said he was making a journalistic commitment to this city. Some commitment. He promptly trashed and gutted that once-fine paper. And now he`s casually put it up for sale because he wants to switch to the TV business.
Finally, why would we want to give citizenship to somebody who has contempt for Americans? In his heart, if such an organ exists, Murdoch thinks we`re boobs. That`s why he publishes boob-mentality newspapers. He thinks that`s all we can understand. And he hires only Australian or English editors because he thinks American editors don`t understand what boobs Americans really are.
So if Murdoch is allowed to become a citizen - while we`re turning away people who are running from death squads or starvation - then we should make one small change in the plans to renovate the Statue of Liberty.
Get rid of the torch. Just have the lady hold up her hand - with the middle finger extended.

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