I Like Mike

Culture and technology.
April 11 1999 3:30 AM

I Like Mike

Why Royko of Chicago was our greatest columnist.

One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko
University of Chicago Press; 312 pages; $22

23000_23424_roykobookcover

When Richard J. Daley was alive and mayor of Chicago, no one gave him a harder time than Mike Royko did. Maybe the funniest piece Rokyo ever wrote was an extended parody of one of Daley's frequent solecisms. Daley, responding to his critics, once uttered the phrase "Like a guy said a long time ago: 'He who hasn't sinned, pick up the first stone.' " Royko riffed on this through an entire column, as in:

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Moses, leading the Israelites out of Egypt: "Let's get out of here."

Ahab, sighting the Great White Whale: "Let's all get that fish."

Douglas MacArthur. leaving the Philippines in 1942: "Let's all come back here some time."

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In a less madcap vein, Rokyo wrote Boss, a devastating portrait of the Daley machine and probably the best book ever written about city politics.

Yet when Daley dropped dead of a heart attack in 1976, Royko sat down at his typewriter and banged out a column that was both an interpretation and an appreciation. Daley's abuse of the English language didn't offend people who weren't "that far removed from parents and grandparents who knew only bits and pieces of the language," Royko wrote. The mayor's abuse of power didn't bother those who had lived through far worse: "The people who came here in Daley's lifetime were accustomed to someone wielding power like a club, be it a czar, emperor, king, or rural sheriff," Royko noted. "The niceties of the democratic process weren't part of the immigrant experiences. So if the Machine muscle offended some, it seemed like old times to many more." It's hard to imagine a political scientist--or any other journalist for that matter--framing it so simply, or so well.

Reading these gems in the new posthumous selection, One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko, I found myself wondering: Why doesn't anyone write a newspaper column this good anymore? Royko wasn't quite a Twain, or a Mencken, but his writing was distinctive and memorable and in its time the closest thing to lasting literature in a daily paper. Royko could make you laugh and make you think, stir outrage at a heartless bureaucrat, or bring a tear to the eye when he flashed a glimpse of the heart hidden beneath his hard shell.

He performed this range of feats with a regularity and prominence that no city columnist, or any national one, can match today. Royko wrote his 900 words five times a week, sometimes six. Today the columnist who writes something decent twice a week is a marvel. For the better part of 34 years, everyone in Chicago read him, first in the Daily News, then in the Sun-Times after the Daily News closed, then in the Tribune after Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times. (Even after Royko said that no self-respecting fish would be wrapped in a Murdoch paper, "the Alien" refused to accept his resignation and kept reprinting his old columns. This led Royko to write: "In Alien's Tongue, 'I Quit' is 'Vacation.' ") Royko's fame spread nationally despite the fact that he seldom left Chicago and refused to do television. By the time he died in 1997, he was syndicated in 600 papers around the country.

Royko's hold came in part from his sense of place. He grew up in the Polish neighborhood on the northwest side of Chicago that Nelson Algren captured in one of Royko's favorite books, The Neon Wilderness, and he never left it in spirit. Royko's father was a milkman, and the family lived over a tavern. Before finding his way into journalism, Royko already had experience "setting bowling pins, working on a landscape crew, in a greasy machine shop, and in a lamp factory and pushing carts around a department store," as he noted in 1990. When he said he became a writer because it was easier on the feet, he half meant it. To his working class and working-class-once-removed readers, Royko was, like Daley, "one of us."

But where Daley often drew on the worst side of ethnic Chicago--its tolerance of corruption, its parochialism and racial prejudice--Royko spoke to its better instincts. A neighborhood populist, he celebrated the corner tavern and the weekend softball game. But Royko also challenged white Chicago's prejudices, skewering bigots who tried to keep a white couple that had adopted a black baby out of their neighborhood or a funeral parlor that didn't want to bury a black soldier killed in Vietnam. In the column he wrote the day after Harold Washington became the first black person elected mayor of Chicago, Royko began with one of his inimitable openings, "So I told Uncle Chester: Don't worry, Harold Washington doesn't want to marry your sister."

Of course, Uncle Chester, along with Slats Grobnik and Aunt Wanda, didn't really exist. I'm sure that Sam Sianis, the proprietor of Royko's beloved Billy Goat Tavern, didn't say many of the things Royko attributed to him. I'm not sure how many of Royko's readers understood that much of what he wrote was facetious or fictionalized. These days, newspaper writers are no longer allowed the kind of license he took. As journalism has become less of a trade and more of a profession, once common vices like embellishment, plagiarism, and binge drinking have ceased to be regarded as charming. Mike Barnicle, a second-rate Roykoesque columnist, was fired from the Boston Globe for blending fiction and fact in a way that Royko did routinely.

Nor is it possible for a newspaper writer now to be as blunt as Royko was. In 1990, the University of Missouri School of Journalism released a list of words for journalists to avoid, including such terms as gorgeous, lazy, sweetie, and fried chicken. "Fried chicken, fried chicken, fried chicken. I said it and I'm glad. Sue me," Royko wrote. His refusal to be sensitive got him in trouble in 1996, the year before he died. In a column lampooning Pat Buchanan, Royko wrote that Mexico was a useless country that should be invaded and turned over to Club Med. By then, Royko's tone had grown increasingly bitter and his irony was easy to miss. The result was an enormous protest outside the Tribune by Hispanic groups that took his comments literally and demanded that he be fired.

If journalism has changed since Royko's heyday, so too have cities like Chicago. White ethnics have ceased to be the dominant force in urban life. In 1981, when Royko moved to a condominium in a lakefront high-rise, he cast himself as a bungalow-bred Margaret Mead, studying yuppies by living among them. But yuppies--or at least the suburbanized offspring of Slats Grobnik--were increasingly his audience and his newsroom colleagues. Royko saw himself as more and more of an anachronism. Before he died, he quit drinking and unhappily moved to the suburbs.

So why don't we have newspaper columnists as good as him anymore? To summarize: We no longer have his kind of newspaper. We no longer have his kind of city. But mainly, we don't have another Mike Royko--a newspaper writer grounded in a place like Chicago, with a gift for explaining it to the world, and the world to it.

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