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: The Best of Mike Royko: One More Time

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, June 30, 2015

Even for a New York magazine run by a bunch of women, it is a surprisingly dumb thing to write.

If you’re looking for a grand overview of Mike Royko’s essays, this is a great place to start. It includes his very first essay from September 6, 1963, and provides some of his best works from the sixties, seventies, eighties, and nineties, ending with his very last column from March 21, 1997, which was, fittingly, about both the Cubs and Sam Sianis of the Billy Goat Tavern.

RecommendationRecommended
AuthorMike Royko
Year1999
Length285 pages
Book Rating6

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.

Well, Royko was unquestionably liberal. Royko did start to realize that just pouring government money on a problem was not a solution, though it was just as Bill Clinton was about to take office. On December 1, 1992, he wrote that Chicago was already spending a whole lot of money for very little results, and that really solving the problem was going to mean getting parents involved in their children’s education.

Despite knowing that money doesn’t solve problems, he did complain that the money for Kuwait would have better solved problems on Chicago’s South Side. In hindsight, his very next article in this collection, about a member of a different South Side, tells us why it wouldn’t work. It’s about Los Angeleno Rodney King, and how King had “been leading the good life ever since” he got millions of dollars in damages from the Los Angeles Police Department.

But by the time King died, he was broke again:

He received a $3.8-million civil settlement from the City of Los Angeles, but pretty much all of it has disappeared by the time his fiancée discovered him on Sunday. As the LATimes reported in April, King was: “…jobless and virtually broke. Gone is the settlement money he got after suing the city for violating his civil rights. All $3.8 million of it. Huge chunks went to the lawyers, he says, some to family members, some he simply wasted.”

Rodney King wasted that money and that second chance just as Chicago’s South Side does. It seems a year doesn’t go by that Chicago, Illinois, or the federal government doesn’t allocate millions or tens of millions or hundreds of millions to revitalize some part of the South Side, from Cabrini Green to a new library to a new CTA terminal.

As with education, not enough money doesn’t seem to be the issue. You can’t buy “the good life” with only money. Royko realized that sometimes, but not others.

So with all that, why do I enjoy reading him? His solutions, in retrospect, were counterproductive at least as often as they made sense, and he knew enough about government that he should have known better. He literally made his living complaining about the incompetence and corruption of government wherever it currently had responsibility, and asking for government solutions to just about everything else. So what makes Royko worth reading? He answers the question himself, inadvertently, in his June 13, 1979 column, John Wayne’s True Grit:

During the late 1960s, I had a serious falling out with a liberal friend… I was a John Wayne fan and he couldn’t understand that. John Wayne, he argued, stood for everything that was wrong…

“You’re right,” I told him. “But I still like John Wayne. His movies make me feel good…”

That’s why the Duke’s fans went to his movies. We knew he would not become bogged down in red tape, or fret about losing his pension rights, or cringe when his boss looked at him, or break into a cold sweat and hide in his room, or moan about his impotence, or figure the odds and take the safe way out.

He would do exactly what he did in True Grit, my choice as his greatest movie, when he rode out to bring in Dirty Ned Pepper, whom he had once shot in the lip.

As all John Wayne freaks recall, he was alone, as a hero should be, and he was sitting on his horse confronting Ned Pepper across a long, lovely valley. Ned Pepper was accompanied by several villainous friends.

Wayne informed Dirty Ned he was bringing him in—dead if need be.

And Dirty Ned sneered and said something like: “That’s mighty bold talk for a one-eyed old fat man.”

Ah, it was a wonderful moment. And it got better when Wayne, in a voice choking with anger, snarled: “Fill yer hand, you sonofabitch!”

And it got even better when he stuck the reins between his teeth, drew a pistol with one hand, a repeating rifle with the other, and galloped full speed into the valley, steering his horse with his teeth and blazing away with both weapons.

At the time, a movie critic—a man in his thirties—wrote that he was so overwhelmed by that scene that he abandoned his critical poise and stood on his seat in the theater, waving his arms and screaming: “Go, John, go!”

I didn’t get quite that carried away, being of a more mature age. I simply stomped my feet and put my fingers between my teeth and whistled as loud as I could.

Foolishness? Maybe. But I hope we never become so cool, so laid back, so programmed, that nobody has that kind of foolish, odds-defying, damn-the-risk spirit.

Because my problem with Mike Royko can also be read the other way: Royko recognizes when government goes wrong and he tells us about it, even though it cuts against what he believes about government. And even if he didn’t connect the dots to realize that the government solutions he supported were the reason he had ideas for his column every day, he still took the reins in his teeth and filled his hand with lead when someone needed to ride across that valley alone to confront another evil of big government that would otherwise have gone unmentioned and uncorrected.

In response to Mike Royko’s Opinions: 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.

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.

The Best of Mike Royko: One More Time

Mike Royko

Recommendation: Recommended