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Thursday, Nov. 11, 2010 03:04 am

Dim reflections

Few Illinois governors write memoirs worth reading

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Former Illinois governora Rod Blagojevich (left) and Dan Walker (right).

It is always a relief to turn off the TV set and pick up a good book, and never more than after a political campaign season such as that just finished in Illinois. Indeed, reading is essential for anyone who wishes to understand the state’s politics. How much better than the blare and the rant of the TV spots is a measured, considered examination in prose of the process by which the state’s citizens choose, say, their governor, penned at the end of the last campaign when the victor has put away the suit bag and the kaopectate and, freed from the imperative to be all things to all people, reports with frankness what he has seen, done and learned.

Too bad then that Illinois chief executives have been no better at writing about politics and government than they are at doing it. The obvious instance is The Governor, Rod Blagojevich’s recent tea culpa, which fails to answer the only interesting political question of the Blago era – why did the voters of Illinois elect him not once but twice?

Reading Blago put me in mind (not for the first time) of Dan Walker. The political similarities between Blago and Dan Walker are marked, but the latter’s The Maverick And The Machine: Governor Dan Walker Tells His Story reveals them to be different men. Walker was nave while Blago was delusional, by which I mean that Walker entertained imperfect views of reality while Blago entertained imperfect views of himself. (In purely literary terms, Walker’s book was a confession in which he sought expiation, while Blago’s is an apology in which he seeks exoneration.) Unfortunately for the reader who is fascinated by Illinois politics, Walker told us nothing more sophisticated about politics than his comic-book notions of evil Machine tenders and knights errant.

Surprisingly few memoirs have been written by Illinois governors, and most might as well not have been. The title of the one written by Richard Yates the younger – Congressman, Son of Richard Yates, Civil War Governor; An Autobiography – tells you everything you need to know, indeed everything there is to know about the author.

John Reynolds’ History of Illinois: My Own Times has been useful to historians as an eyewitness account of the settlement era, but Reynolds was neither a thinker nor an administrator. Robert Howard notes in Mostly Good and Competent Men that Reynolds eavesdropped on his intellectual superiors for hints about how to handle major controversies such as banking and finance. What one learns about the practice of politics from such a man is the importance of remembering people’s names.

A model for the governor’s political memoir exists. I have mentioned before in these pages A History of Illinois: From Its Commencement as a State in 1818 to 1847 by Thomas Ford. (“Giving immortality to their littleness,” March 4.) Historian Theodore Pease called it “a book that only the disillusioned cynicism with which it is written has held it back from recognition as one of the clearest and most subtle analyses of American politics.” Modern readers will appreciate more than Pease did that disillusioned does not necessarily mean mistaken.

More recent governors might have reached Fordian heights. Sudden death deprived us of Adlai E. Stevenson’s account of his time in the Executive Mansion (although his many letters, cited by biographers, are a good substitute). Jim Thompson probably is the only living ex-governor who might have a good book in him. But Ford wrote his because he was broke, which Thompson is not.

Henry Horner was well-educated at the University of Chicago. A Chicago newspaper columnist described him as the “keenest intellectual . . . to hold the office of governor in Illinois in the [20th] century” (although one is entitled ask what a newspaper columnist knows about intellectuals). Unhappily, Horner died suddenly in office in 1940 and the memoir that might have been died with him.

To our list of books that might have been by Illinois governors, we might add a book by an Illinois governor who never was. Paul H. Douglas was the University of Chicago economist who left the classroom to serve as U.S. Senator from Illinois from 1949 to 1967. Douglas too was educated (Phi Beta Kappa at Bowdoin, with advanced degrees from Columbia University). Unlike Horner, he lived to write a memoir of his public life, In the Fullness of Time, which reviewers praised as “straightforward, frank and incisive” and the source of “articulate statements of political reality . . . in sophisticated language.”

Too bad the book was about his years in Chicago and Washington, not Springfield – Chicago pols disdained to slate him for governor in 1948 and ran him for the Senate, fearing that this former reformist alderman would use the powers of the state executive to harass the Democratic machine in Chicago.

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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