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Wednesday, March 21, 2007 09:12 am

Dan Walker tells his story

Memoir recalls an exciting yet disappointing chapter in Illinois politics

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Untitled Document Not long after Dan Walker took office as governor, in 1973, I interviewed him in his office in the Capitol. I was finishing a journalism degree at Northwestern while beginning a job with Lindsay-Schaub News-papers, in Decatur, that involved covering the Statehouse. He began by telling me that his office was rather small for a governor, which I’d noticed, but he didn’t think he needed the big formal room next door that previous governors had used as an office. Besides, he said, this room had sentimental value to him because it was the same room he’d used more than 20 years before, when he ran the governor’s office for Adlai Stevenson while Stevenson was away campaigning for president. Of course I included this interesting historical fact in the magazine article I wrote for my journalism class, just knowing that my professor would applaud my eye for detail. When I got my article back, I was surprised to see a less-than-stellar grade and a big red comment in the margin: “Dan Walker did not run the governor’s office while Stevenson was campaigning for president!” I hadn’t taken into account that my magazine professor, John Bartlow Martin, had been a close aide to Stevenson and was even then working on his detailed biography, Adlai Stevenson of Illinois, published in 1976. In that book, Martin reported that in 1952 the 30-year-old Walker had been an important helper to Newton Minow, whom Stevenson had designated to run the office while he was gone. I also hadn’t taken into account Dan Walker’s tendency to exaggerate, especially when it came to his own importance. He had flaws, but he had courage, too, along with a determination to succeed and a commitment to excellence that brought more excitement to Springfield than Illinois politics has seen since. All that came back to mind as I read his new memoir, The Maverick and the Machine: Governor Dan Walker Tells His Story, to be published in May by the Southern Illinois University Press. The only person challenging the Chicago Democratic machine is U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald, and today’s Illinois politicians seem just fine with that. The old Walker feistiness comes through in his introduction, where he notes that Barack Obama, on his overseas tour, criticized the corruption endemic in African nations. “One wonders what he and the senior senator, Dick Durbin, will say about the current plague of Illinois scandals when. . . they seek the support of the Chicago political organization very much involved in those scandals,” Walker writes. Now 84 years old and living in California with his third wife, Walker is still the Don Quixote who took on the machine and, for a short time, won. Illinois vaguely remembers Dan Walker as the author of the “Walker Report,” which investigated the violence surrounding the 1968 Democratic Conven-tion in Chicago, famously labeling what happened a police riot. But it wasn’t until the walk, in the summer of 1971, that he became a household name. The walk began at the Ohio River town of Brookport and zigzagged the length of Illinois, a trip of 1,197 miles, to the Wisconsin border and then, triumphantly, into Chicago. Cynics saw only a campaign gimmick in which a wealthy suburban corporate lawyer tied a red bandanna around his neck and tried to act like a man of the people. I was working at the Southern Illinoisan newspaper, in Carbondale, that summer. Just before Walker and his walk entourage showed up to be interviewed, our publisher supplied all of us in the newsroom with red bandannas to put around our necks. Poor Dan, who had no sense of humor, couldn’t figure out whether we were expressing solidarity or making fun. “We just wanted you to know you got it right,” our publisher told him. “This is what people wear in southern Illinois.” Gimmick or no, Walker learned a lot on the road that summer as he listened to people, gathered stories, and shed some of his stiffness. It’s telling that he devotes more of his memoir to the four-month walk than to his four-year administration. The administration was a confrontation a minute, but not only because the Walker people were sanctimonious. They were serious, not just about politics but about governing too. They schooled us reporters on the techniques of “zero-base budgeting” and “management by objectives” as they reformed the mental-health code, streamlined child and family services, and put muscle into the new Environmental Protection Agency. Walker comes close to admitting that his own arrogance kept it from lasting. Rather than make some accommodation for Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, he taunted Daley to “Bring it on!” — so Daley sent Michael Howlett and beat him in the primary. Walker reveals that he was always trying to measure up to the expectations of his demanding perfectionist father. Each chapter begins with a scene from the federal prison in Duluth, Minn., where Walker was sent at age 65 after pleading guilty to charges involving a savings-and-loan he owned. According to his account, an overzealous prosecutor and an inexperienced judge gave him harsh and unfair treatment because he had been a governor. The prison conditions he faced, with frequent strip searches and abusive guards, were shameful; that nongovernors endure worse in prison every day makes the conditions no less so. Walker was released after serving 18 months of his seven-year term and now seems to have found some peace in his later years. Let’s hope so — and hope that Dan Walker’s memoir allows history to judge him less harshly. At the end of his book he says he has no regrets for having confronted the Chicago machine. He writes: “Like my Texas father, whose genes and teaching are largely responsible for what I am, I hold high an independent head that has never ‘cottoned to bowing.’ ”

Contact Fletcher Farrar at ffarrar@illinoistimes.com.
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