How columnist Mike Royko could have done better

May 18, 1997
Elisabeth Sherwin -- gizmo@

I've spent the past several evenings reading more than 600 electronic messages that have been posted at the Chicago Tribune Website mourning the death of columnist Mike Royko. "Simply the best," is the refrain most often seen in those messages. "The best columnist, the best journalist, the best, the best, the best."

If I posted an electronic message, it would be a little different. I would say: "Could have done better."

Don't get me wrong. I loved Royko and like many a transplanted Chicagoan I was delighted that my local newspaper, The Davis Enterprise, carried his column.

His last column, before he got ill and the reruns began, was vintage Royko. Remember? It was a scathing review of Garry Wills' compilation of the 10-best westerns ever made. Royko's club put together its own 10-best list, which included "The Magnificent Seven," a remake of the great Japanese movie "Seven Samurai."

Royko had no trouble with the fact that his favorite western was a remake of a Japanese movie. "If the Japanese producer had a choice, he would surely have made a western rather than a movie in which the heroes were stumpy, bowlegged guys who wore bathrobes and couldn't speak English."

I choked on my coffee as I read that last paragraph and envisioned a stream of angry letters to the editor arriving at The Enterprise. However, no letters came so I congratulate our readers on understanding Royko's brand of satire.

A lot of readers - mostly those rubes in Chicago - didn't always get it. Royko got in a lot of trouble in his later years from blacks, Chicanos and gays.

The best defense of Royko appeared in a column by R. Bruce Dold also of the Chicago Tribune who said: "The kind of writing Royko did has become dangerous. Some people thought that was because he wielded a weapon blunted by age, but that wasn't the case. Some people just started to insist that no one could be a target, intended or not. His best pieces, his most controversial pieces, were written as satire. And when he'd write satire, there were always a few people who didn't see it coming. At least once, he swore off ever writing satire again. He got a letter from a reader who said Royko was an ignoramous, and he was ugly and had a big nose to boot.

"So Royko announced in his column that he had gone to a plastic surgeon to have this deformity corrected. But the plastic surgeon had made a terrible mistake and had grafted Royko's nose to his forehead. The paper ran a doctored photo of Royko with a proboscis protruding just below his hairline. People called, in tears. People called, shaking in anger. They urged him to sue the doctor. Hard as it is to believe, some people believed he had a nose on his forehead. After that, he told his friends that he would no longer write satire."

Dold concluded: "If we figure out anything from what happened with Royko in the last few years, it's that newspapers have to take the risk of offending great masses of people. If we don't we're going to be very polite, safe and dull. It's as plain as the nose on your face."

I agree with Dold completely.

Yet, my favorite Royko columns were not satirical. They were straightforward stories - amazing but true stories about life in Chicagoland. Like the commuter who on the spur of the moment hopped a freight train to get a free ride into work one cold January day and ended up 180 miles from home with $1.45 and his brown bag lunch. Or the working stiff who painstakingly gutted and remodeled a home only to have the city of Chicago come along and bulldoze his pride and joy into a pile of rubble - a bureaucratic error, it turns out. The city bulldozer went to the wrong address.

So why, then, do I say that Royko could have been better? Because he could have, should have, lived longer. Royko - a man who had it all, talent, fame, love, money - was a drunk.

Or, as the carefully worded sentence appeared in his Tribune obituary:
"His nocturnal habits added colorful splashes to his reputation. But there were darker sides too: Once he was locked up after a saloon scuffle and in 1994 was arrested and charged with driving under the influence."

Royko had a reputation for being blunt. OK, let's be blunt. Alcoholism can be treated. Unless of course it becomes a macho badge of honor, unless you turn your back on recovery. I know another man, a drunk, who died of an aneurysm in Chicago: My father. Royko and my dad -- they both died too young. They could have done better: They could have, should have, found sobriety and lived longer.

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