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Illinois Issues
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Retrospective Part 4: Three decades of public affairs journalism

Illinois Issues has evolved dramatically over the past three decades. One of the more popular innovations was our annual midwinter arts issue, an effort to highlight the importance of the relationship between policy and culture. Incredibly, this is our ninth issue devoted to the arts. Yet the magazine has always sought to draw a connection between quality of life in Illinois and public support for imagination in all its forms. The range of our subject matter may surprise those who see public policy and politics reflected only in the activities in the state Capitol and city hall. We don’t. So we have written about literature, dance, theatre, music, pottery, sculpture and painting. And on this eve of our 30th Anniversary year, we celebrate with a look back at what we shared with our readers. 

The Editors

Editorial cartoons
Illinois is surely a paradise for political cartoonists. The scoundrels seem larger than life here, and the mishaps often draw national attention.

It is 6 a.m. in Springfield, and editorial cartoonist Mike Thompson is planning the day's attack on House Speaker Michael Madigan. In Chicago, Jack Higgins already has been up for two hours contemplating a pen and ink assault on Mayor Richard M. Daley. Downstate in Belleville, brothers Glenn and Gary McCoy soon will be discussing ways to blast U.S. Rep. Dan Rostenkowski (D-Chicago).

While other journalists are consigned to a life of dreary objectivity and nitpicky details, an editorial cartoonist can sound off like the guy on the next bar stool. "Reporters can't write their opinions," says Jack Higgins, 39, Chicago Sun-Times editorial cartoonist. "We can draw the naked emperor."

Mike Cramer, August 1994

Public art
Illinois was one of the first states to set aside dollars in building projects to promote art and the artists who produce it.

Some citizens may grumble about the art, but there is nothing in the Illinois collection that resembles the federally funded projects that have incurred the wrath of conservative congressmen. There are no homoerotic nude photographs by the late Robert Mapplethorpe or American flags on the Capitol floor similar to the controversial Dred Scott Tyler piece displayed at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1989.

Indeed, funding for the Art-in-Architecture Program has never become an issue among state legislators, largely because the money is tucked into capital appropriations for multibillion-dollar state buildings. The amount spent on art for each project is a fraction of the total cost. 

Michael Hawthorne, December 1996 

Political fiction
Sometimes novelists make the best sense of the political world. Freed from the facts, they can deliver the truth.

Journalists tend to regard politicians as one-dimensional: a role with a title. And they talk in a shorthand of labels that does more to obscure than illuminate: pro-choice moderate, fiscal conservative from the burbs beholden to the teachers' union or medical association or business lobby. We find that Candidate X is for schools, against taxes, pro-environment, anti-crime, for jobs, against governmental waste, a platform indistinguishable from that of Candidate Y.

Rarely do journalists show us the layers that make up the complex and nuanced characters drawn by our most skillful novelists because voters are less demanding than readers, and more easily fooled. 

Donald Sevener, December 1997 

Classic architecture
If Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley oversaw the postwar building boom, his son, Mayor Richard M. Daley, is intent on tidying things up.

Chicago is used to world-class architects walking its streets. The likes of Helmut Jahn live in its confines; the shadows of Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Harry Weese and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe loom.

But the big city is not so jaded that it couldn't get excited when architect Frank O. Gehry came to town last month. The southern California genius, who has been favorably compared to Wright, unveiled an impressive model of a bandshell and music pavilion that he designed for the city's Millennium Park, now under construction in a section of famed Grant Park.

Gehry is a hot architect, if there is such a thing. The 70-year-old design master won worldwide acclaim and attention with his new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. The silvery, spellbinding structure has been among the most widely discussed buildings of the decade and almost single-handedly reshaped the image of the once-troubled Basque city of Bilbao into that of a sophisticated international metropolis. 

Bilbao needed Gehry. But does Chicago? Yes.

Lee Bey, December 1999


Web literature
These days, computers are blamed for a decline in reading, even a decline in writing. Technological innovations do present new problems. They also offer new opportunities. And, besides, some scholars believe the early reports aren't really all that bad.

They say the book is dead. Journals and and magazines, too. Newspapers? An archaic remnant of the past. In their stead, we have 97 cable channels and the World Wide Web. If the written word has any future at all, it will have to survive in cyberspace, an adjunct to the explosion of color and light that will provoke the world of the mind in the new century. People just don't read anymore. Let the hand-wringing begin.

Says who? Frankly, such pronouncements seem a tad premature. Yes, it's true, newspapers and journals are struggling, and the book business is taking it on the shins. Yet I'm not terribly concerned. The way I look at it, America has the usual quota of devotees who would read if they had to steal scraps of newspaper from trash cans in the catacombs, and about twice that number who would not read anything if the technology were developed to scroll pages directly into their brains. Too much trouble, too much time. The rest -- the vast majority of the population -- will read occasionally, for fun or information, even if it's only the box scores. Reading will not die.

What has and will continue to change is venue, the way we obtain our reading material. I am one of the small minority of determined readers; big barn bookstores were developed to serve us. (If anything, modern society is an improvement to bookophiles; we can go to stores in any respectable city and browse among tens of thousands of titles.) As a serious reader, I do find myself resistant to advancing technologies. It's hard to curl up next to the fire on a rainy day with a computer screen, almost as hard as lingering over favorite passages of a book recorded on tape. Give me a clothbound book when I crawl under the covers at night with a flashlight. 

Still, I must admit the computer has opened a world of potentials to readers. I no longer have to go the bookstore or the library to obtain a copy of Machiavelli. 

Robert Kuhn McGregor, December 2000

Illinois Issues, December 2004

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