John Kass, The Chicago Tribune’s Man For All Seasons

November 13, 2012 § 5 Comments

John Kass

When newspaper columnists act like bartenders pouring out the talking points of their political party, they have failed to do their job. That’s one of the reasons I admire Paul Krugman of the New York Times—he thinks for himself. Steve Chapman, of the Chicago Tribune, also comes to his own conclusions and happens to believe in logic and the factual record, so, even though I often disagree with him, I find him worth reading.

There are other columnists at the Tribune I keep my eye on, including the venerable Clarence Page, Mary Schmich (who recently won a Pulitzer), Rick Kogan, and Eric Zorn.

John Kass, on the other hand, enjoys serving those party-sponsored sours to his readers. It’s true he mixes the hard stuff with his plain-spoken, Chicago tough guy persona, but the aroma of his breath is proof positive that he’s drinking and serving from the same nasty mash.

In the print edition of November 7, the day the front-page headline proclaimed “RE-ELECTED, Swing States Give Obama 2nd Term,” the former Columbia College film major offered up his trademark prose: “…He’s gone gray before our eyes. There are lines in that once-youthful face. He still flashes the smile, but it’s a hard smile and his eyes don’t smile much.”

Old steely-eyed Obama, flashing that hard smile!

By the way, how do you flash a hard smile? Sounds like the directions for one of those tortuous throat-strengthening exercises doctors recommend for people with sleep apnea.

Could it be that Kass’s elliptical style—the Kass code—is really a clever way of signaling his fans, a kind of wink that lets them know he is actually writing about something other than what he appears to be writing about? This could be a known unknown, or even one of the unknown unknowns that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warned us about a decade ago.

Smiley Eyes w/ a Once-Youthful Face

Of course I, too, am disappointed Obama didn’t show the genuine warmth of a candidate like Mitt Romney, otherwise known as “smiley eyes with a once-youthful face,” whose compassion, to use a phrase worthy of Kass, “touched the hearts of millions.”

“He flashed the smile, but it’s a hard smile and his eyes don’t smile much.” Is this a subtle reference to the song, “When Irish eyes are smiling?” Is Kass telling us he wishes “Obama” were “O’Bama”?

“Irish Eyes” was written in 1912, a time Kass prefers to our own judging from his screed against public education in which he praises the ideal school, a charter school  “where 100 percent of the students graduate, and 100 percent are accepted to college. A Roman Catholic all-boys school that draws from poor and working-class neighborhoods, a school where there are no cops or metal detectors, no gang recruitment, no fear (italics mine).” And no girls right?

So, 1912 sounds good. The 19th amendment to the U.S. constitution that granted women the right to vote wasn’t passed until 1920. There was no real need to educate women then, and no need now. But maybe I’m being unfair.  Maybe John Kass, through his code, was trying unsuccessfully, like a telegrapher during a noisy thunderstorm, to communicate something that didn’t quite come through.

“Like me” Kass continues, “you may disagree with him and his yearning for all that hideous federal muscle. But, to be fair, you have to credit the man. He risked it all to do what he though should be done. And he won. Now, though, it gets worse not better. He’s going to have a difficult time governing after the kind of campaign he’s run. Obama’s re-election proved one thing true about American politics: Negative campaigning really works when you don’t have a record to run on.”

Phew, I take it back. I think Kass ought to stick to the GOP talking points, so that we might at least understand what he is saying. He might consider cutting and pasting from the RNC website.

“All that hideous federal muscle”? I have no idea what he is referring to, and neither does he, but he figures this empty phrase will please his Republican audience and bolster his ratings.

I use the word “ratings” because Kass recently started doing time as a talk radio host. This makes a lot of sense, because he shares ideology and a predilection for personal attack with people like Rush Limbaugh. He doesn’t write, he jeers, and he’s fond of name-calling, recently mounting, via his column, a gratuitous (and unexplained) personal attack against Governor Pat Quinn to whom he refers as “Gov Jell-O.”

Although Kass writes like a high school student struggling through an English class, he has the highest profile of any columnist at a major daily newspaper and no one can figure out why. Is there civil war among the Trib execs? Maybe those who wanted to endorse the Republican presidential candidate in the last two elections lost out, and the consolation prize was the use of Kass as a conspicuous editorial surrogate? Well, that explanation doesn’t wash given the fact that his special status as a Tribune columnist is nothing new.

The Kass column is usually listed under “news” as one of the major stories of the day, rather than under “opinion and columnists,” and his pieces appear four times a week on page two of the print edition. Apparently, he is considered a “news columnist” as opposed to a columnist columnist.

The Kass penchant for personal attack and his caricature of Democrats reminds one of the days when only Republicans subscribed to the Tribune, which was known for its primitive red-baiting under the ownership of Col. McCormick. If the Tribune wants to thrive in the Chicago market, this probably isn’t the way to go.

I am not suggesting that the Tribune brass pull him from the line-up, I am simply saying that his columns ought to appear with the others, and that the era of Kass-worship should come to an end.

But back to the November. 7th column: “He risked it all”? What did Obama risk? I honestly don’t know what Kass means.

And “negative campaigning really works when you don’t have a record to run on.”? The truism that negative campaigning works is hard to refute, but its effectiveness does not depend on a candidate’s record, but on how the negative advertisements and statements released by a particular campaign are received by the public. In Romney’s case, since he had no plans for the future that he cared to clue us in on, his negative campaign against Obama did not work.

So, Obama has no record to run on, but at the same time he’s a champion of  “hideous federal muscle.”? The fact is Obama has a record as a state senator, a senator, and four years as president while his opponent served one term as governor of Massachusetts.

Next we learn the Kassian definition of “negative campaigning”:

“Gone was the optimistic young fellow of 2008, soothing a nation with soaring messianic rhetoric, talking of great ideas. This time it was all about class warfare and race and gender cards and anger.”

“Race and gender cards…” Can I get those from Hallmark?

“Class warfare and race and gender cards and anger.” Say that ten times real fast!

Apparently, it doesn’t qualify as negative campaigning to call your centrist opponent a Marxist or a socialist, that’s just telling it like it is. And, according to Kass, it isn’t negative campaigning to deliberately hack a few words off a sentence and broadcast those words as if they expressed the candidate’s views as Romney’s campaign did with “you didn’t build that.”  In fact, “you didn’t build that” became the rallying cry and the theme for Romney’s entire campaign.

What was to prevent the Obama campaign from taking the following sentence, uttered by Romney about Paul Ryan during his RNC acceptance speech, to show that Romney wants to encourage cigarette smoking?

I love the way he lights up around his kids.”

“After all we have learned about the health hazards of smoking as well as the dangers of secondhand smoke,” The Obama campaign could have said,  “Governor Romney has shown either a shocking ignorance or an outright contempt for the well-being of the American public. His shameless embrace of the interests of tobacco companies over the health of our children cries out for rebuke at the polls in November.”

Allow me once again to treat Mr. Kass to an inconvenient fact: The Obama campaign never did anything even approaching the dirty trick that Romney pulled in taking that sentence about the building of the national highway system out of context and offering it as evidence that Obama is a Marxist, an extreme leftist out to destroy and/or take over the American free enterprise system. The latter has been a central theme in the anti-Obama propaganda war since he started running for president.

And “anger”? Where has Kass been for the last twelve years? A political party replete with Christianist  and anti-government fanatics is not angry? A political candidate who asserts that 47% of the electorate is made up of a bunch of weak-minded, free-loaders has no anger, and his heart is full of the milk of human kindness?

In the unlikely event you missed it, this is what Romney said: “There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. There are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe that government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name it.”

And who might a white audience think of immediately when it hears about “victims” who are “dependent on government” and who are “entitled to….you name it” ? Does this evoke images of smiling Irish eyes? Or does it conjure up Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queen”?

David Koch

As for class warfare, Kass has it backwards. It is his political party and their allies like Charles and David Koch who have been waging war against working-class employees, both public and private, not only in Wisconsin and Ohio, but all over the country.

No one bothers to refute Kass because he has been the Tribune’s darling for so long, and his columns are so fatuous that most liberals and progressives simply shrug or sigh at his inanities. Others have turned away from the Tribune entirely.

Now, let’s look at his assertion that Obama waged a “negative campaign.” Here are three examples (and no doubt there are many others) of things that our current president could have mentioned but didn’t go near, because, unlike his opponent, he chose to run a decent campaign. In fact, so polite was Obama during the first debate, that everyone agrees he was the loser in that contest:

1. Bainport. At the time of the debates a company in Freeport, Illinois called Sensata Technologies which had been purchased by Bain Capital, a company originally founded by Romney, was in the process of moving its operations to China, firing all its American workers, and forcing those workers to train their Chinese replacements. While Obama mentioned Romney’s investments in China during the final debate, he stopped short of emphasizing the human cost of outsourcing, nor did he mention what was going on in Freeport. He could legitimately have mentioned it, because Bain Capital was created by Romney to carry out just this kind of thing.

2.  Romney’s IRA. Obama could have raised the question of how Romney managed to stuff millions of dollars into his IRA given the legal restrictions on the amount of annual contributions.

3. Mormonism. He could have made an issue of Romney’s religion, or worked behind the scenes to raise doubt about it, because most people know very little about the Mormon faith.  But, he chose not to.

Next, Kass picks up the GOP talking point about Obama’s use of the word “revenge,” an innocuous public comment seized on by the Once Grand Old Party desperate to score points with the public.

At a rally in Ohio where workers booed a mention of Romney because of the false claim in a Romney campaign advertisement that Jeep was shipping jobs to China, Obama said, “No, no, no, Don’t boo. Vote. Voting is the best revenge.”

So, Kass and many others took the lead of the GOP and tried to blow this up to make Obama look mean-spirited or evil. Kass may write like an oaf, but he is a savvy fellow and knows how to get ahead. He also knows perfectly well what the president was saying and that “living well is the best revenge,” is a common expression dating back to 17th century England. The president said this in an effort to direct the negative emotions of the moment into something more positive. “Don’t waste your time yelling” he was saying, “do something that matters and go vote.”

But, because the word “revenge” had been seized on by the political party for whom he works, Kass made it the center piece of the November 7th column I have been discussing.

Kass describes congressional Republicans as “Obama’s whipping boys,” an absurdity that even Eric Cantor would probably dispute, since Obama’s preference for compromise (agreeing to extend the Bush tax cuts for example) cost him support within his own party.

Obama’s “surrogates” says Kass, “accused Romney of all but infecting that steelworker’s wife with cancer and things got even more negative after that.” I guess a steelworker and his wife are so inconsequential that Kass doesn’t even bother to include their names in his column.

The fact that Kass refers to this incident without preface or explanation shows that he is writing for his fellow Fox news viewers, his base, not the broader Chicago public.

The Fox News website provides the background:

“The Priorities USA ad focuses on the story of Joe Soptic, a former worker at GST Steel. He was among those affected when the firm declared bankruptcy in 2001, following the takeover by Romney’s Bain Capital firm and other companies.”

Soptic and his wife lost their health insurance and his wife died of cancer in 2006.  I’ve watched the ad, and I see nothing wrong with it. What Soptic says about Romney having no idea of the devastating effects his profit taking has had on working people does not seem controversial to me. This is the kind of thing that results from leveraged buy-outs, when investors purchase a company, squeeze it like a lemon and go on their merry way.

“So” declares Kass, summing up his view of how Obama won, “it was revenge politics. Class war. Race politics, by proxy. A ginned-up ‘war against women’ all of it so he could rip up the American quilt he sewed in 2008 into pieces, and stitch it back together to win on Tuesday.” He forgot to add Karl Rove’s idea that Obama won by “suppressing the vote.”

It isn’t surprising that Kass, who thinks an all boys’ school presents a model of what American education ought to be about, is unable to imagine a Republican war on women.  He must also think that women are extremely stupid, falling for a political party that rallied them against a nonexistent problem.

Cecile Richards

Democrats did very well with women voters because the GOP does not support equal pay for equal work, nor a woman’s right to control her own body.

Let’s get back to the question of “that steelworker’s wife.” Kass may promote a “man of the people” image, that of a crusader battling the corrupt politicians (read Democrats) of Illinois in behalf of average folks, but this is faux populism of the sort evinced by Bill O’Reilly in his 2003 book, Whose looking out for you?

Kass pretends he is a friend of the little guy, but he is not. And he is very good at practicing what I describe as the Talk Radio Feint. This is when extremists at the microphone strike a vaguely conciliatory tone after a particularly nasty remark or string of offensive on-air comments. Part of the feint is to say, as Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have said, “I’m an entertainer,” so don’t take me so seriously. In the same way, Kass manages to serve up his reactionary drivel and then cover his tracks, and say “see, I’m Mr. Nice guy!”

Here is a quote from a Kass column entitled, “Thanks, Voters, for Caring Enough to Argue” which I found online with a date of November 7th, but which I was unable to find in the print edition:

“Thank you for opening those mouths and putting your lungs behind your words and ideas. Whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Socialist, Tea Party conservative, Green Party liberal or a member of Occupy Whatever, your political leanings aren’t the issue here.

What matters is that you stood up and spoke your mind. Some called you racist or stupid. Some tried to embarrass you into silence by comparing you to a sex act. Others were portrayed as Stalinist sleeper agents hoping to force us into singing the Soviet anthem.

Still you kept hammering away, talking to your neighbors, going to town meetings and writing angry, insulting letters to columnists like me with whom you disagreed. Thank you. Yes, thank you.

Somewhere we got the idea that messy and angry politics is something to be avoided. Why, because it’s messy and angry?

That’s the sound of freedom. Our founders understood this. Unfortunately, some Americans forgot. They’re bothered by loud talk and arguments. And many of these people want low voices and no rough edges. They’ve been coerced to think that quiet is best…”

So, meet John Kass, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the good cop, and the bad cop rolled into a single package.

In his November 11th column, “No Tears of Joy when it comes Down to One Vote,” [print and online headlines differ] he says, “anyone who knows me knows that I’m a big crybaby. Especially at the movies. If the dog dies, well, just forget it I’m a plate of quivering Jell-O. [he must own stock in the company he mentions it so often] When the man asks the ghost of his father for a game of catch, I’m a blubbering fool. When the warrior makes the big speech before facing the legions of darkness, pass me the tissues…”

But when a steelworker’s wife dies of cancer after losing her health insurance because of a leveraged buy-out by greedy entrepreneurs, she is unworthy of his tears.

One of the best books ever written about the Republican political project, “The Great Limbaugh Con and Other Right-Wing Assaults on Common Sense” by Charles M. Kelly, was published in 1994, but Kelly’s words ring true today:

“Remember this about demagogues: they always support the values and moral ideals of the people they wish to seduce. They can’t be successful unless they come across as the victim’s friend. Therefore, Limbaugh never says that low or middle-income workers should pay higher taxes; he says that higher taxes on the rich will eventually hurt the middle-income worker. Instead of saying the powerful businesses should be able to pollute the environment, he says we shouldn’t allow government to strangle small  businesses with environmental regulations.

The most important thing that Limbaugh lies about, however, is that he claims to value those who work hard for a living. Actually, everything he talks about ends up benefiting those who work least for a living—those whose activities are focused on milking democratic capitalism for everything it is worth.”

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