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Editor's Notebook: Two books, two lives, describe the past. They might also explain the present

Peggy Boyer Long
WUIS/Illinois Issues
"It was true that over the years I consistently evoked strong feelings, but voters had elected a fighter. What's wrong with confronting a problem and fighting for the right solution?" Dan Walker The Maverick and the Machine: Governor Dan Walker Tells His Story

Illinois political history is a long-running study in character. It's a morality play intoned by a Greek chorus and a solitary plea from the wings. It's heroism and tragedy, and sometimes comedy, in an endless series of acts. 

We are reminded of that this year as two Illinois political figures, key players in back-to-back dramas, return to the stage. W. Russell Arrington, the late legislative leader, is the subject of a biography, and Dan Walker, one of the state's four living ex-governors, has written an autobiography. 

Two books, two lives, tell us much about the past. They might also say something about the present, though complexity of character and ambiguity of plot would challenge Euripides.

Arrington set the scene for much that followed. And in this issue of the magazine, Christopher Wills, a Statehouse correspondent for The Associated Press, reviews Powerhouse: Arrington from Illinois by political biographer Taylor Pensoneau. 

Arrington, a Republican, began staffing the General Assembly, which put that branch on a footing with the governor's office and professionalized policy deliberations. By 1969, he was Senate president, and that's when former Republican Gov. Richard Ogilvie tapped him to sponsor Illinois' income tax. 

In countless ways, both men played major roles in pushing Illinois into the modern era. Yet the tax, a gutsy move, is credited with helping to end their careers. Arrington never again took the political lead. 

Wills notes that Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich and Democratic Senate President Emil Jones Jr. must be mulling this history, the similarities and the differences, as they push a new revenue source, a plan that would constitute the biggest tax hike in state history.

Walker, too, in his autobiography, The Maverick and the Machine, recalls lamenting that there wasn't anyone with the "stature and statesmanship" of an Arrington in the Senate GOP caucus — though it's difficult to imagine these men sitting across a table from one another. 

I wasn't around to see Arrington in action, but as a Statehouse reporter for public radio, I did cover the back half of Walker's administration, through 1975 and 1976. It can be said, most charitably, that Walker wasn't one for sitting down and horse-trading. He saw politics and governance in blacks and whites and demonized anyone who disagreed.

Walker campaigned as a champion of "the people," those mythical little guys who work hard and hope officials will listen and do right. His descriptions of the 1,197-mile walk across the state and the successful creation of a statewide get-out-the-vote organization during his first race are the most compelling parts of his book. He was a long shot who had no Democratic Party backing. And he was the first to pull off a lone-wolf, made-for-TV campaign — and administration.

He was called confrontational, though he prefers the term fighter. And fight he did. He fought the Chicago Democrats, who, in those days, really did constitute an autocratic political machine under the control of Mayor Richard J. Daley. He fought lawmakers. He fought reporters. 

As governor, he was the first to bypass Springfield and the Statehouse press corps, taking his message on the road. In an effort to control the way his budgets were portrayed, he would drop them on lawmakers and reporters at the last possible moment. 

To his credit, when he did brief the media, he went through a budget agency by agency, line item by line item. He was a hands-on manager with a detailed knowledge of what was going on in his agencies. A former Navy man, he compared reforming state government to turning a large ship. 

Yet Walker governed as a fighter long after the fight seemed relevant. And, in the end, this brought him down. He had natural enemies, true, but he also had enemies of his own making. And by the end of his first term, he had alienated many of his early supporters, especially liberal Democrats. Some turned on him after he signed the measure reinstituting the death penalty. But many simply tired of his style. 

After he lost the campaign for a second term, Walker left his wife and began a new life, one that led to federal prison at age 65. The man who had seen himself as a lone fighter was then truly alone.

The arc of this life and career is compelling and poignant, as is any Greek tragedy. 


Déjà vu 

A matter of style

Gov. Rod Blagojevich has his work cut out for him in the final days, or weeks, of the legislative session. He dropped a fully drawn plan for near-universal health care and increased education spending — and a major tax overhaul to fund it — on lawmakers and the media, then described the ensuing battle as Armageddon. 

He cast this as a fight between those in the right and those in the wrong. The ones wearing the black hats would be the corporate fat cats, the lobbyists who wear Gucci shoes and the legislators who hang with them. 

As of two weeks before the constitutional deadline to draw up a budget, Blagojevich's plan wasn't faring well. His pugilistic style of governance appeared to be wearing thin, too. But in mid-May, as we went to press, no one could count him out. This is a governor who has, to date, successfully demonized lazy state workers, Soviet-style bureaucrats and reporters who make small children cry. 

Enemies make good politics. At least for a time.                               

Peggy Boyer Long

Peggy Boyer Long can be reached at Peggyboy@aol.com.

Illinois Issues, June 2007

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