by Harold Meyerson
Wednesday, December 10, 2008; Page A25
At moments like this, it's worth remembering that Illinois gave us both Abraham Lincoln and Al Capone.
It also gave us Ronald Reagan, Dwyane Wade, Miles Davis, Luis Farrakhan, Roger Ebert, and Vince Vaughn. But hey, I'm sure there is a reason why he picked Lincoln and Capone (both of whom were not born in Illinois).
Plainly, some sort of karmic balance controls the destiny of that heartland state. For every inspiring leader that Illinois produces, it must also turn out a scoundrel or two -- petty thieves in governmental office, egomaniacal monsters in corporate suites -- who share an indifference to the idea of a public trust.
He clearly doesn't know his Illinois history or politics. There have been a lot more bad than there has good. And oh yeah, Al Capone never held political office, but again, with Harold, that's just details.
On Monday, Sam Zell, the nation's only newspaper mogul who genuinely detests journalism, placed Chicago's signature Tribune Co. into bankruptcy -- effectively wiping out his employees' equity in the company and a share of their pensions, while still managing to come out pretty well himself.
If there is one thing journalists hate, it's Sam Zell and Harold seems to hate Zell more than most. You would think that Zell was a baby seal killer who kicked puppies while paving over a beach. God forbid someone different buy a newspaper. Has the Zell Era worked out? No, not really. But guess, what, neither is the Old Era.
Yesterday, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was indicted for allegedly trying to dispose of what had been Barack Obama's Senate seat in a private auction, with all proceeds to go to the care and feeding of Rod Blagojevich.
Just remember, Blagojevich's website in 2006 was www.rodforillinois.com. We should have known then that anything was possible with Rod, he is a Cub fan after all. But why does Harold bring up Blago right after Zell? I wonder what they have in common.
At their core, however, the stories of Blagojevich and Zell tell essentially the same tale -- that of men in positions of great power who believed that their only real responsibility was to themselves.
WHAT?!?!?! Did he just compare a totally corrupt governor to a real estate mongul—granted with a big ego—who hasn't broken the law?
It's been a great week for resurrecting stereotypes: Not only does Blagojevich come off as machine pol straight out of "The Front Page," but Zell has more than a passing resemblance to the guy who gets hired this time of year to play Scrooge.
No, no it hasn't been a great week for stereotypes. Blago is a sick, disgusting human being (if guilty). Zell is a businessman whose recent business move didn't work out. Big difference Harold. Very big difference.
But Dickens never contemplated a Scrooge with so much power. Zell disparaged and to a considerable degree dismantled the staffs of the major newspapers he owned, one of them (the Los Angeles Times) a great national paper. He did so to pay down the debt he incurred when he bought Tribune last year -- debt he incurred by refusing to put much of his own money into the paper.
Should we tell Harold that the old owners of Tribune agreed to the deal? That they couldn't give away the Tribune Co. two years ago? That in a weird way, Zell saved the day, and then being the savvy businessman that he is, he didn't put much of his money on the line. Should we also tell Harold that most business deals go down this way? Or is that too much detail?
...Zell stands to recoup a decent share of his own $315 million investment because he structured it in such a way that a bankruptcy court must treat him as a creditor. Smart guy, that Zell. As for the multitude of reporters, editors and other laid-off employees who are still collecting their severance payments, Tribune has announced that their payments will come no more.
Harold got one thing right, Zell is smart. But guess what, he didn't bring down the Tribune or the L.A. Times! There are major cuts at non-Zell owned papers like the New York Times and Boston Globe! But hey, let's compare Zell to Blago because they're clearly on the same level on the horrible people scale.
Zell isn't the sole culpable party in the disgrace that is Tribune.
The board members who sold him the company could have sold it, in disaggregated parts, to buyers who were willing to put up their own money.
So now you admit that Zell isn't the problem? So everything you said about Sam is just you running your fingers? Make up your mind Harold! Important people may be reading! So let's get to the end where I'm sure you'll tie this all up and clearly lay out why you're comparing Sam Zell to Blago.
It's been a rough week for employees in Chicago. Last Wednesday, the workers at Republic Windows and Doors were informed that their factory would close last Friday and that they would not receive the 60 days' pay mandated by federal plant-closing statutes. Republic's workers occupied the plant, pledging to stay until either their employer -- which seems to have bought a lower-wage plant in Iowa -- or its lender, Bank of America, paid them what they were owed. Yesterday, Bank of America agreed to do just that.
Good for the sit-downers. Blagojevich may be a throwback to a cruder age, and Zell may be the boss from hell, but in their lack of responsibility to the people who vote or work for them, they are emblems of the same moral fecklessness that the Republic workers fought -- fecklessness that has depressed the prospects of ordinary Americans throughout the long age of Reagan that is now, one hopes, coming to an end. Barack Obama means to build a more equitable nation, but it would help him in that task if more workers sat down, or hauled the Sam Zells of the nation into court. It's not just Illinois' karma that could use some upward balancing.
To quote Bill Simmons, I will now light myself on fire. What happened to Capone and Lincoln? Why did the Republic Windows guys come into play? And once again, why is Harold comparing Blago to Zell? And why didn't the Washington Post editors:
1) Edit this
2) Kill this column?