Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Mike Royko’s Opinions

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, May 8, 2001

“Let us be proud,” Nixon said, “of those who sacrificed, who gave their lives that the people of Vietnam might live in freedom.”
Why kid ourselves? They didn’t die for anyone’s freedom. They died because we made a mistake. And we can’t justify it with slogans and phrases from other times.
It was a war that made the sixties the most terrible decade in our history. It tore us internally. It left many with a lust for revolution, and others with a lust for repression. It saw young people crossing borders or going to prison rather than fighting.
If we insist on looking for something of value in this war, then maybe it is this:
Maybe we finally have the painful knowledge that we can never again believe everything our leaders tell us. Maybe the next time somebody says that our young men must fight and die somewhere, we will not take their word that it is for a worthy cause.

Mike Royko would have been almost gonzo if he’d been more Libertarian. Certainly, he was growing that way before he died, especially with his views on drugs and modifying his stand against gun control.

RecommendationPossible Purchase
AuthorMike Royko
Year1983
Length320 pages
Book Rating6

“Sez Who? Sez Me” covers the Nixon years, and through Jimmy Carter into Ronald Reagan. But Royko covers a lot more than politics; life in Chicago is itself gonzo. Royko is as much Chicago as Bill Daley, Lex Luthor to Daley’s corrupt, gutsy Superman.

Much of his writing takes place in a place called “The Billy Goat Tavern”, a special quasi-real, partially imagined place underneath Wacker drive in downtown Chicago. The Billy Goat Tavern remains proud of its association with the columnist. But from restaurants to bars to the strange inefficiencies of local, state, and national politicians, Mike Royko always has something to hang his typewriter on.

“Sez Who? Sez Me” is where I first heard of Chicago novelist Nelson Algren. It took me about ten years to get around to reading any Algren books, but it was still Mike Royko who set me up for it. Algren wrote “The Man with the Golden Arm” (which I strongly recommend), set in the “slums of Chicago”, specifically the Division Street area.

Slum? I was offended. That was no slum. That was my neighborhood. Curious, I went ahead and read the book, and I was stunned. It was the first time I had read a novel that was set in a place I knew. And Algren had captured it. He had the people, the sounds, the alleys, the streets.

If I appreciate Royko for nothing else, I appreciate introducing me to one of the best novelists of the twentieth century.

Like I Was Sayin’” covers the switch from the The Daily News to The Sun-Times. Highlights include the loss of his friend John Belushi—And Belushi playing a “Royko-like” character in “Continental Divide”—and the Nelson Algren Street fiasco.

When a reporter called and asked him his opinion on a high school banning his book about Mayor Daley, he replied that:

I feel fortunate that a book of mine, that has absolutely no sex, and only a few quotations containing swear words, should have a chance to be banned anywhere.

The reporter still didn’t understand. “Why do you want it banned? Don’t you want people to read it?”

Of course I do. That’s why I want it banned. There’s nothing that can stimulate interest in a book as quickly as when somebody tries to ban it.

Now I know how the one hundred-year-old man felt when he was hit with a paternity suit. “I didn’t do it, but I’ll be downright proud to plead guilty.”

I think my favorite Royko editorial is in “Like I was sayin’…” where he wrote a follow-up editorial to his annual Cub quiz and the joke question about forties Cub shortstop Lennie Merullo—and Lennie Merullo contacted him and sent him a photo. Look for it toward the end, “Punch Line for Lennie”.

The original collections are no longer in print, but there are two new books that collect some of his editorials, One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko and For the Love of Mike: More of the Best of Mike Royko. This is a two-volume set that collects what his friends and family think are the best of his work.

September 22, 2015: For the Love of Mike: More of the Best of Mike Royko

Mike Royko remains funny as hell, and I laughed a lot while reading this collection. But the problem with a collection like this is that it juxtaposes articles that the author must have hoped would never be juxtaposed. Consistency was never one of Royko’s qualities.

For example, in 1968, when an anti-Israel nutcase named Sirhan Sirhan killed Bobby Kennedy, Royko blamed it on violent movies. In 1981, when Nancy Reagan blamed Hinckley’s assassination attempt on violent movies, Royko blamed it on Reagan.

Not all of his contradictions are reprinted. For example, when Bush chose Dan Quayle there’s an article on the horrors of a vice presidential candidate who was a draft dodger, in which he shoots down the idea that the zeitgeist of the sixties was for draft dodging; but they don’t reprint his later article absolving Clinton of draft dodging because, after all, the zeitgeist of the time was for draft dodging. It makes Clinton a sixties guy, and is a “badge of honor”, not a minus.

But get past that, and he’s still a brilliant writer for his time, joking about high rises, race relations, and especially Chicago politics.

Reading this now, while Donald Trump is high in the polls, it becomes a little easier to understand why Trump is high in the polls. A lot of people like Daley-style politicians who speak unfiltered and openly graft. I can easily see Trump saying something like “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder. The policeman is there to preserve disorder.”

And despite complaining about Daley a lot, Royko liked that style, too. He complained about the son—and then when the same came around to run for mayor, he supported him.

In fact, one failing Royko might have had is that he was so steeped in Chicago-style politics he had no idea that winning isn’t the only thing in politics.

In November of 1995, in preparation for the 1996 presidential election, he wrote an article about how Republicans had voiced so many worries about Colin Powell’s disagreements with Republican principles that Powell decided not to run for President against Clinton. Powell, Royko correctly writes, was a sure thing that year, there was pretty much no way he could have lost. However, while I don’t actually know much about him, simply because he didn’t run and get scrutinized, the way Royko describes Powell, the guy was practically Bill Clinton without the draft-dodging. Name a conservative position and, according to Royko Powell was on the Democrat’s side, from abortion to quotas to gun control1.

June 30, 2015: The Best of Mike Royko: One More Time

Mike Royko is the proverbial study in contrasts. Pretty much his entire career was built on showing how government doesn’t work. Government is always captured by the powerful, not against the weak, because the weak don’t have anything worth taking, but against the middle.

“We’re supposed to take it on faith,” he said, about the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, “that this agency does its job.” He said the same thing in different words pretty much about every government agency that crossed his pen.

It isn’t surprising that Royko didn’t look to Republicans for solutions: at the time, Republicans meant people like Richard Nixon and Nelson Rockefeller, who were more progressive—more for big government—than Democrats. But he should have known better once Reagan was elected instead of somehow claiming that Reagan was wrong, and that the system that produced Leroy Bailey’s Veterans Administration and John Karpowicz’s Chicago should be given more unconditional power.

Yes, the Veterans Administration hospital system, that the left was praising just a few years ago in order to push the ACA on us. Mike Royko knew it was a mess of government sloth over forty years ago. And the very next article in this collection makes fun of Chicago politicians who say that the city government works, when instead it ignores hard problems (crime) and hounds the middle class when they are victimized by either crime from below or crime from above.

Mind you, Leroy Bailey was when Nixon was president. When it came to Democratic politicians, Royko tended to be more forgiving of government corruption. In Whitewater Almost Too Far Out There, he argued that the Clinton scandals were just what everybody did, and that the “McGoofy Group” talking about it should just talk about baseball instead. And then, after Representative Dan Rostenkowski was convicted of felony graft and illegal use of taxpayer money, Royko wrote, in Rostenkowski’s Sin Was Not Changing with the Times that graft was really a good thing. It was how politicians got things done for the little person. Royko writes that “The rules keep changing. Things we could once say or think are now taboo.” Which, while true, misses the point: paying people for jobs they never do and taking bribes may be common in Chicago, but for the rest of the United States we realized it was wrong back when Tammany Hall was busted.

Royko himself realized it when writing about Republicans. Nixon, for example, deserved whatever he got for his own corruption, and “the Republicans” deserved scorn for attending the same lavish balls that Democrats had during the Carter, LBJ, and Kennedy years.

April 6, 2015: Dr. Kookie, You’re Right!

Dr. Kookie, You’re Right! includes a smattering of Royko’s Chicago Tribune pieces from 1984 through 1989. This would be immediately following his leaving the Sun-Times because he couldn’t stand working for Rupert Murdoch. In order to avoid working for Murdoch, he went to work for the “conservative” Chicago daily, and I have a suspicion his work here is extra-shrill because he wanted to distance himself from the paper for which he’d once promised he would never work.

But even given that there is a lot in here that makes me realize Royko was part of the Democratic media machine, at least nationally. At one point he takes Reagan to task for praising Truman and FDR on the national campaign trail rather than, say, Lincoln. Nowadays, I recognize that Republicans praising Lincoln for being a Republican is mostly unreported because it is against narrative. The press seems to want to think Lincoln was a Democrat. So it is possible that the same media filter was active in the eighties.

Royko, however, blames this praise for Truman and FDR on a racist Southern strategy; he does this in a passive-aggressive way to make it harder to call Royko on the accusation. But this was more likely a Democrat strategy, to the extent that it was a strategy at all. You don’t get Democrats to vote for you by praising Republicans. You get there by praising Democrats. And while, certainly, in those parts of the South where Democrats still dominated racism still abided, attracting them by praising Truman and FDR hardly seems egregious.

But take Royko at face value that hidden racism was worth mentioning. A few essays later, Royko talks about Senator Byrd. Now, I had no idea Byrd founded his own KKK chapter until long after the eighties, when the Internet ran an end-run around the media. But it wasn’t a secret from the media. Royko doesn’t go against narrative here either; he simply doesn’t mention it. Real racism by Democrats is less important than manufacturing racism by Republicans.

I remember Royko as more independent than this, and checking the previous collection on my shelf, my memory isn’t deceiving me. Of course, in Chicago, if you’re going to criticize politicians you have to criticize Democrats, because that’s who runs Chicago, especially in the era of the Daley machine. But this book was disappointing compared to Sez Who? Sez Me and Like I Was Sayin’. His criticism of national Republicans vs. national Democrats seems much more blatant in this selection.

Mike Royko’s Opinions

Mike Royko

Recommendation: Possible Purchase