Alive Today, Colonel McCormick Would be a 'Private'
Richard Carreño Junto Staff Writer Chicago The Chicago Tribune was never 'The World's Greatest Newspaper,' its motto for most of its 150-year lifespan -- until it got real sometime in the 1980s and ditched the hyperbole.
Overstatement and braggadocio was one of the hallmarks of its 20th century owner, the right-wing blowhard Col Robert R. McCormick. The paper is famous for the headline declaring 'DEWEY WINS' against Harry Truman, demonstrating more presidential wishful thinking by McCormick than reality.
When he died, and the paper's ownership slipped into the hands of various other controlling interests, The Tribune's peculiarities -- an American flag on Page 1, phonetic spelling (another preference of the colonel), an antipathy toward the English, and other quirks too many to mention, even remember -- went by the wayside. The fabulous neo-Gothic Tribune Tower, built by the colonel in 1925 on Michigan Avenue, near the Chicago River, remains a monument to his audacity as the king of America's former newspaper barons.
In late 20th and early 21st century journalism, there was no percentage in being different.
McCormick himself -- apart from his near fascistic vitriol -- was a walking contradiction. He hated the British, yet dressed in Savile Row suits and lived the urban/country lifestyle of the British squired elite. He was conservative, but never strictly a Republican. Moreover, he was a strictly take-me-home for a $1.99 Kentucky colonel, getting his rank through socially-connected reserve duty.
McCormick was old Chicago. Its names are legion: Palmer (Palmer House), the Armours and Swifts (meat-packing), the Fields (Marshall Field), and, more recently, the likes of newcomers like the Hiltons. The Palmers, Armours, and Swifts, and their political mignons, like Republican Mayor 'Big Jim" Thompson (who pledged -- shades of McCormick -- to kick the shit out of King George V if he ever set foot in Chicago) are all gone.
Marshall field today is Macy's. The Conrad Hilton Hotel on Michigan Avenue, once even more famous than its eponymous descendant Paris, is also long gone.
Irish Dems took over (Viz the Daleys, pere and fils), and it's all been downhill since then. At least, according to the WASP elite. What's left of it, of course.
There's no mistaking another, undisputed downhill slide, however. That would be the 'death' of Chicago journalism, once the best and the brightest; in fact enshrined in the kick-ass personage of Hildy Johnson in Ben Hecht's play, The Front Page.
It's not just a numbers game. Yes, many of the great old-timers, Chicago's American, the Chicago Daily News, and the like, have bit the dust. Today, only the Tribune (the cap 'T' in TheTribune, another by-gone quick of McCormick) and the Sun-Times still exist.
And what a sorry existence it is!
Both papers over the last decade have been pillaged, plundered, and raped. Convicted felon Lord Black sucked out the blood at the Sun-Times. The Tribune is in bankruptcy, with its ownership trying to gut -- in a shameless cost-saving scheme -- the last jewel in its ownership crown, the Los Angeles Times.
It's enough to make you long for 'the good old days' of McCormick.
One reason is money -- in McCormick's time, that is, in spending it. Plenty of it; McCormick's family was the beneficiary of riches bestowed upon them by the wheat harvesting combine.
The 'old' Tribune used to have news bureaux scattered throughout the globe. Tribune correspondents were among the best, in gathering news and in spreading McCormick's largess. They seemed to be everywhere -- and, as part of the paper's tradition -- would return to The Tower with stone that marked a destination in their travels.
If you check the The Tower's facade today, you'll see stones from Westminister Abbey, the White House, even from Philadelphia's Christ Church. A brick from McCormick's birthplace East Ontario Street also has pride of place. (Not surprisingly, no one ever questioned McCormick's ego, either).
A friend and I visited The Tower yesterday. As we pored over the stones, my friend, a reader of the 'new' Tribune, remarked, 'These days the Tribune would be lucky if it got a stone from Cleveland.'