Putting the squeeze on bicentennial
Illinois needs a mascot
What with everything else going on in the world, getting worked up about Illinois’ bicentennial can be a challenge.
For one thing, there’s no mascot, and convincing folks to take Gov. Bruce Rauner seriously as a cheerleader will be a tough sell, especially since he already has said that he’s not in charge of anything. Everything from basketball to Olympic team handball is funner if there’s an oversized cartoon character wandering around giving high fives to kids and posing for photos. They understand this in Baton Rouge, where the city adopted a giant red stick (think a scarlet Gumby) as its bicentennial mascot a couple years ago. In Mississippi, Neshoba County last year invented Dr. Stumpy Needles, a foam rubber tree with a person inside, to help celebrate the state’s 200th birthday. At Robin Roberts Stadium on the north end of town, we have Speedy, the make-believe turtle who haunts Sliders games, horsing around on top of dugouts and generally acting goofy in a cheery sort of way.
But the state of Illinois has no one in a silly costume to help make us feel good about the state turning 200 and boy, we’ll need some cheering up. The official birthday falls on Dec. 3, just one month after Election Day in what promises to be a Bataan Death March of an election season, with candidates spending zillions to clog airwaves with reminders of everything that’s gone wrong, as if we didn’t already know. Incumbents and challengers alike acknowledge that things are horribly messed up, with people leaving the state in such numbers that Pennsylvania has overtaken us as the fifth-largest state in the union. Even as I write this, another bad-news email arrives from the J.B. Pritzker crowd -- this happens three or four times a day -- which lambasts the Department of Healthcare and Family Services for misdirected mail, including more than 2,500 Medicaid applications that were sent to the wrong fax number. Fax number? Even the time-honored tradition of high school prospects faxing letters of intent to college athletic departments is vanishing in favor of email, and that’s football, a sport, we’re told, that subjects participants to brain damage.
If only we could move this bicentennial celebration to an off-election year or move the election to a non-bicentennial year, but that’s not the way these things go. Last time around, in 1918, folks were so preoccupied with the aftermath of World War I that the state’s 100th birthday didn’t even make the front page of Springfield’s two daily newspapers. The curse is a national one, really. The Battle of the Little Big Horn, one week before the Fourth of July, put a crimp on national centennial celebrations in 1876, when Rutherford B. Hayes lost the popular vote but won the White House and promptly ended Reconstruction, decreeing that the South was ready to go its own way. It’s not like there was a lot to celebrate a century later, when we observed the nation’s bicentennial in the midst of a crippling recession and just one day after the U.S. Supreme Court decreed that the death penalty is constitutional.
On the plus side, we have 1818 Prairie State Farmhouse Ale, the official bicentennial beer that, if nothing else, will remind drunkards that Prairie State, not Land of Lincoln, is the official nickname for Illinois, regardless of what’s on license plates. It is fine stuff, invented in Petersburg and rivaling the best beer made anywhere. But beer, no matter how much you drink, cannot drown the sorrows that surround our state, which our governor has proclaimed to be in a “death spiral.” We need something both cheerful and realistic that can make kids laugh and encourage adults to think about our history. In short, we need Squeezy.
Former Gov. Pat Quinn did a lot of things wrong, which explains why he is where he is now, wherever that might be, but he was a man ahead of his time when he unveiled Squeezy the Pension Python back in 2012 to help illustrate the state’s pension crisis. The orange cartoon reptile was more daffy than dastardly as it wrapped itself around the Capitol on YouTube videos posted while Quinn teamed with lawmakers to craft a pension reform law that was unanimously declared unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court in 2015.
Squeezy was ridiculed as a symbol of a hapless governor, but we spent good money creating him, and so why not resurrect him as our bicentennial mascot? With the state a tick above junk-bond status, the issues that created Squeezy remain relevant. And Squeezy, despite the guffawing reception he got, has staying power. Squeezy gained just 191 Twitter followers and last posted in 2013, when he wrote “The first rule of a gimmicky campaign is you gotta stay in control of your gimmick!” A fake Squeezy (green instead of orange, and wearing glasses) is still at it, tweeting anti-Rauner messages to more than 1,400 followers.
It just might work, if we can take politics out of the python.
Contact Bruce Rushton at