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With the Deaths of Smith, Caen and Now Royko, and Breslin Working On Books, Could This Breed of Newspaper Columnists Be at an End?

May 01, 1997|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Poor David Duke. The former Ku Klux Klan leader had taken plenty of heat in his 1991 campaign for governor of Louisiana--but he got special grief from Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko and his friend Mortie, a drinking buddy from the old neighborhood.

Irked that a TV interviewer had treated Duke too fairly, Royko reached into his grab bag of fictional Chicago characters, imagining what Mortie might say to the candidate:

"So, you used to celebrate Hitler's birthday, huh, kid? And wear swastikas and you said that Jews should be dumped in the ash bin of history? Well, I'm Jewish and I fought in the Marines in World War II, and I noticed you skipped Vietnam, and I can still do a hundred fast push-ups. So when the show's over, why don't we meet in a dark alley somewhere and I'll give you a reverse face-lift, you two-bit fascist."

It was vintage Royko, a blast of anger from the blue-collar streets he knew so well, and Chicago will miss him: His gritty, belligerent voice was stilled Tuesday, when the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist died at 64 after undergoing surgery for a brain aneurysm.

Speaking for millions, author Studs Terkel said: "Mike was Chicago. He did it all, and someday in the future, when people are trying to understand the city and the meaning of political power, they will have to turn to Mike. He knew the turf better than anybody."

Beyond the tributes to Royko, however, a different obituary might be in order.

Although columnists continue to flourish at newspapers across the country, Royko typified a generation of journalists who captured the unique personalities of the cities they covered. In recent years, the newspaper world has also lost Herb Caen of the San Francisco Chronicle and Jack Smith of the Los Angeles Times. Another giant, Jimmy Breslin, remains active as an author but no longer writes the bare-knuckled column that defined tabloid New York.

The passing of these writers from the scene leaves a void. Yet it is not because other journalists aren't laboring, sometimes brilliantly, to carry on their tradition. In a media age saturated with pundits and opinion-makers, there is no shortage of daily commentary.

Royko, Breslin, Caen and Smith excelled because of their ability to convey, even personify, the distinctive character of their hometowns. And their loss dramatizes not a fading of strong column-writing, but a fading of the uniqueness of America's cities.

Today, the identities of the cities reflected by each of these columnists are vanishing, replaced by a disturbing homogenization of American life. The rat-a-tat downtowns they described live on, but are increasingly dwarfed by the strip malls, fast-food franchises and quaint shopping districts that make cities seem alike from coast to coast.

"These older columnists deserve their own Mt. Rushmore, and I don't think we'll see people like them again," says Jim Squires, former editor of the Chicago Tribune, who hired Royko away from the rival Sun-Times in 1984. "Nobody wrote Chicago like Royko, nobody reflected the pace of New York better than Breslin, and for a long time Herb Caen was San Francisco.

"But how could one person reflect a city like that today? And where do you find the real heart and soul of these towns? They've changed; they're not the places we remember."

*

For years, Royko was the top dog of Chicago journalism. Speaking for himself and through his fictional characters, he reflected the anxieties and triumphs of people who lived in the city's working-class neighborhoods, far from the wealthy high-rises bordering Lake Michigan. Even after he moved to suburban Winnetka, he was a voice of blue-collar conscience and common sense.

He also offended ethnic minorities, gays, feminists and others, sometimes sparking demonstrations in front of Tribune Tower. His celebrity was intact, but the ground underneath his feet was shifting, as it has in so many other cities.

"A lot of the changes involving columnists deal with demographics," says Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. "The downtowns they spoke for don't exist now, since people moved to the suburbs. Different people live there now."

People who don't look, talk or necessarily think like Royko, Breslin, Caen or Smith.

"As a result," Bagdikian continues, "the traditional personality of a city begins to dim. New York isn't New York like it was 40 years ago. Today, it's midtown, it's uptown, it's Scarsdale and New Jersey."

*

In Los Angeles, the search for urban personality is even more difficult. When he started his column in 1958, Smith faced a unique challenge: How do you capture the essence of a place that has no center, unlike New York, Chicago and San Francisco? His genius was to comprehend that suburban sprawl is its own poetry, and that the soul of Los Angeles--as Times columnist Robert Jones once noted--lies in its backyards and patios, not in its big public places.

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