Staying at arm's length gives reporters a leg up
June 17, 2009
BY CAROL MARIN Sun-Times Columnist
Mike Royko wrote one of his best columns 15 years ago this month.
It was about why he wouldn't go to dinner at the White House.
In this media-swooning era of Obama, that must seem like heresy, but in point of fact it was considered heresy even back in 1994 when Bill & Hillary inhabited that glorious, historic mansion.
Royko took a lot of flak for turning down the invitation.
"Don't you realize what an honor that invitation is?" railed an irate reader. "The average American would be thrilled just to shake a president's hand. You are typical of today's media arrogance. Shame on you."
So Royko was forced to double back and write a second column explaining the first.
"I have to admit, I have never met a politician I didn't like," he said. "That might sound odd, coming from someone who has made a cottage industry out of bashing politicians. But it's true."
Then why not agree to a couple of pops and dinner in D.C.? Particularly, when it's with the leader of the Free World in a fabulous joint like 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.?
Because of what Royko called "my own rule of journalistic ethics: Don't get chummy with pols because you will like them, and when that happens, you can't beat them up."
The reason I bring up this old Royko column is because of what our own Fran Spielman wrote in Tuesday's paper ("Daley's tale hard to take," posted online at www.suntimes.com/metro).
It was a razor-sharp analysis of why Mayor Daley's protestation that he knew nothing, nothing at all, about his nephew Robert Vanecko's $68 million investment deal involving city employee pension funds was baloney.
"If voters are having trouble swallowing the mayor's story, it's for good reason," wrote Spielman, who explained the city's long and dubious history of rewarding the politically connected with lucrative opportunities. And how improbable -- even impossible -- it would be for the mayor not to get wind of his nephew's business deals, given that members of his own Cabinet sit on the municipal boards that approve those deals.
It takes, for lack of a more tasteful term, pretty big cojones to write what Spielman wrote because there she sits, day after day, year after year, right in front of Daley at every City Hall news conference he convenes. And he does his level best to dismiss her relentless questions, day after day, year after year, pointing out, in case she hadn't heard, that newspapers are in trouble these days.
Which takes me back to Royko.
Decades before the White House columns, he was writing about another generation of Vaneckos and Daleys and a disease he called "payrolliaitis."
"It isn't anything that would show up through scientific testing," wrote Royko in 1965, "but Mayor Richard J. Daley is a carrier of a fast-spreading germ . . . called payrolliaitis. The symptoms are easy to spot. A person gets close to the mayor. Crunch -- the payrolliaitis bug nips him. He wanders off in the direction of a city, state or county agency, sits down at a desk, and his name breaks out on a payroll."
Royko was talking about the hiring of Robert Vanecko's grandfather, Dr. Michael Vanecko, whose son married the late mayor's daughter. Shortly before the wedding, that Vanecko went to work for the Chicago Board of Health. And later, his son, Dr. Robert Vanecko, was hired as the physician for the city's municipal pension fund. And now today we have the third generation, as his son, another Robert Vanecko, lands a $68 million deal with -- what else -- city pension funds. He severed all business ties with the deal only after the feds began subpoenaing records.
I dialed Fran on Tuesday at City Hall to ask if she had ever been to dinner with the mayor.
"No," was all she said.
That's good. There's work to do.