Chicago Sun Times
James Merriner takes the pulse of Chicago's corruption
Scandal city CHICAGO LIT | Author James Merriner takes the pulse of Chicago's corruption
Sun, 9 Nov 2008 04:00
By THOMAS FRISBIE Staff Reporter

Over the years, James L. Merriner has made an honest living writing about crooks in Chicago and Illinois.

Merriner, a former Chicago Sun-Times political editor, is author of four books and co-author of a fifth about Illinois politics, and in most of his books he takes a careful look at the way boodle -- a favorite word -- keeps changing hands in City Hall and Springfield.

"I never made a conscious decision to specialize in writing about political corruption, but this being Chicago, that is how it fell out," Merriner said. "Stories about Chicago politicians have a lot to do with corruption in office."

Merriner's latest book is the just-published The Man Who Emptied Death Row: Governor George Ryan and the Politics of Crime. And though there's lots about insider shenanigans in the book -- Ryan remains in prison today, convicted of political corruption -- Merriner understood there was more to the former Illinois governor's story.

"If he were just another crooked governor, he wouldn't be worth a book," Merriner said. "But he single-handedly overturned the death penalty in Illinois, and that was a radical act, especially for a conservative Republican."

In 2003, Ryan commuted the death sentences of 167 inmates to life in prison, but Merriner discounts theories that Ryan did so because he was trying to influence a future jury that might be deliberating on him as a defendant. Ryan never thought he would be indicted; nor was he liberal on criminal justice issues.

Rather, Ryan reacted as what he was, a professional politician, Merriner said. After 13 Illinois men were found to have been wrongfully sentenced to death in recent years (the number now is up to 18), he convened a blue-ribbon commission to study reforms, and later the state held hearings on the cases.

"George had all these hearings piped into his office, and nobody would give an inch," Merriner said. "There wasn't a state's attorney from any county in Illinois who would say, well maybe there's an issue we should look at. It was an election year, and nobody was going to call them soft on crime."

Ryan's term was nearing an end, so he used the power he still had as governor. He pardoned four Death Row inmates and commuted the sentences of the rest. (An earlier moratorium he had ordered on the death penalty also is still in place.)

"Now, you can argue that the power was misused," Merriner said. "But he had that power, and that is what he spent his life doing -- exercising power. He loved it. He did what he thought he had to do."

In an earlier book, Merriner examined the story of former U.S. House Ways and Means Chairman Dan Rostenkowski (Mr Chairman: Power in Dan Rostenkowski's America, Southern Illinois University Press, 1999). And Merriner notes parallels between the two men, each of them a powerful politician who wound up behind bars.

Both were charged after long careers in which they had reached a pinnacle of power. Neither would accept visitors in prison. And "both Dan Rostenkowski and George Ryan to this day believe they are innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted," Merriner said.

Rostenkowski and Ryan have a lot of company in the annals of Illinois political corruption. In perhaps Merriner's best-known book, Grafters and Goo-Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago, 1833-2003 (Southern Illinois University Press, 2004), he traces the long local history of governmental palm-greasing.

But despite the efforts over the years of the "goo-goos" (that's short for "good government reformers" in Chicago Machine lingo), little progress has been made, Merriner said.

"The public's 'scandal fatigue' seems to increase with every election cycle," he said. "There's this general overlay of disgust and cynicism, the attitude that all politics is dirty. I think that attitude is more dangerous to a free republic than all the nickels and dimes stolen by the likes of Rosty and Ryan."

Merriner grew up in Sardis, Ohio, in the state's southern Appalachian hills, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and got his master's degree from the University of Pennsylvania. He came to Chicago after eight years at the Atlanta Constitution, five of them as political editor. The difference in political culture was immediately evident. Shortly before he left Atlanta in 1980, an Atlanta alderman was indicted for an infraction of the election laws -- and it was front-page news. Then, after Merriner moved to the Sun-Times, a Chicago alderman was indicted.

"It didn't even make the front page," Merriner recalled.

After 15 years at the Sun-Times, Merriner moved on to writing books and a short stint as spokesman for 1998 gubernatorial candidate Glenn Poshard, and he keeps adding to his writing and political credentials. He is president of the Society of Midland Authors, a 93-year-old organization started by such writers as Edna Ferber, Clarence Darrow, Vachel Lindsay and Harriet Monroe. And with a brother living in Alaska, he has even field-dressed a moose, thus meeting, he said, the new Sarah Palin criterion for political genius. But right now, he is working on a screenplay instead of another nonfiction book.

That might change, however, if the right story comes along. Merriner points out there are survivors of the Richard J. Daley regime who have not talked publicly and could add to the rich lore of Chicago political history. And the future of writing about Chicago corruption might someday also produce a great novel, if not by Merriner then perhaps another writer.

"Jesse Jackson used to say Chicago is the Super Bowl of politics," Merriner said. "But the funny thing is that there is not that much great literature about it. There is no great Chicago book on the level of All the King's Men or The Last Hurrah. The only best-seller was Boss [by Mike Royko], and that is nonfiction."

Thomas Frisbie is the editor of the Sun-Times' P.M. edition.