The Americas of McCormick Place

Last week, a man gave a speech at Chicago’s McCormick Place, the name of the bestower crowning a convention center – until it might be replaced by that of a financial services conglomerate or other titanic octopus of our era – though the bestower himself was now entirely forgotten. Colonel Robert McCormick was a publisher of the yellow press, a beating tomtom of a fist against all the effete egghead causes of anything approaching social justice and fairness. The papers of Colonel McCormick hated Roosevelt, and they no doubt would have hated the man who spoke on Tuesday night as well, would have hated him for even having the gall to think he was a man. As always in the United States, a country of constant tumult, a lazy writer would have his work already done for him, with every place strode by a man who might be its inverting mirror.

I lazily pick out a few of the best insights of McCormick’s – could you actually call it a mentality? A few men are described as all brain, some are labeled as nothing other than an ego and a penis, the papers of Robert McCormick call to mind the pulsing of another of man’s extensions, a booted foot kicking someone when they are down, again and again, the glee from all this justified in the man’s criminality, his liberality, or both – it need not matter, since both can be easily invented for the occasion. So, I lazily pick out one of the best insights into this cruel engine from Prime Green, a memoir by Robert Stone, who worked at McCormick’s New York Daily News after the Colonel’s death:

The spirit of editorial at the nineteen fifties Daily News was that of The Front Page and of all the lesser newspaper B movies of the period. These newspaper movies, for all their stock characters, had more zip than many film noirs, newspapers being after all something many movie writers knew a little about.

The reporters, whose names came first in the bylines, were out on the street or in the pressroom at Centre Street, New York’s Boss Tweed-era basilica of a police headquarters, or in some tenement hallway harassing the grieving mother of a newly electrocuted bandit. Star crime reporters, especially, were often rumored to be functional illiterates or mere neighborhood thugs who happened to have been at reform school with important successful mafiosi. They were portrayed in the movies as holding telephones in the crook of neck and chin and barking, “Sweetheart, get me rewrite!”

The politics and social perspective of the Daily News were what America calls “conservative.” This meant promoting American capitalism,
the most radical transforming power in the history of the world. Familiar social arrangements and structures crumble. The mass of people find themselves dislocated, alienated, and disenfranchised in its wake.

It was the role of papers like the News to nurse and manipulate popular prejudice in its own language and discover sources for the referred pains “progress” caused, sources safely distant from any suggestion of economic injustice. Yet class resentment was too valuable a weapon of the dominant corporate interests to dispense with; they wanted it exploited and intensified, yet separated from the notion that corporate America and its workers could have any conflict of interest.

Not that the “conservative” popular press was meant to calm suspicion and discontent. On the contrary. Threats were to be detected everywhere-in reefer madness, in immigrants, above all in ameliorative schemes that threatened economic elites. These had to be seen
as foreign-inspired swindles and worse. And the opponents of the status quo had to be identified as “phonies,” do-gooders trying to be smarter than everybody else, professors who’d never made a payroll.

“People,” as one editor used to say at the Daily News, “educated beyond their intelligence.” Such people tried to make themselves look clever by contradicting the teachings of revealed religion, laughing at authority and deriding the boss, encouraging blacks to get above themselves, fostering disrespect for the police. That is pretty much where we were at the Daily News, at the end of the linotype era, the beginning of the end of the newspaper era.

Downstairs, the Forty-second Street lobby had been transformed into a sunken exhibition hall where a giant globe representing the planet rotated furiously for the crowds passing in or out. The symbols of overheated populism were rampant. The room, lit to a cinematic semidarkness, a cross between a spaceship’s bridge and the reptile house at the Bronx Zoo, was an exercise in fascist art deco that outdid anything in Rome or Berlin. Metal silhouettes of a mob en avant marched along the wall. Over the decorations was a figure of Lincoln and a supposed quotation.

“God must love the common people,” Lincoln is pictured as saying, “he made so many of them.” Frankly, this blood-chilling celebration of American populism, the bonding spirit that informed so many lynchings in the good old days, was a joke to us.

This joke, of course, now comes with a slightly different twist, with intellectual notables such as Bill O`Reilly suddenly asking, why has our divine maker gifted us with so many of these common people? Why are so many of them brown? Why do they want so much free stuff? The Tribune, after leaving the grasp of the Colonel had risen to be a solid, reputable paper to be run into the ground by other grubby hands. The machinery of hate that ran under his auspices, now ran elsewhere, ready to pick any man out of the crowd – even a president – and brand him a villain, an intruder, a criminal, a killer for the murderous joy of the crowd. The crowd, though, had changed. Peggy Noonan, who I often think of as D.C.’s Dean Martin, since her sentences are somehow weak as apple juice but still have trouble getting down the stairs, confidently predicted a different victory last Tuesday, that the american people were cooking something up, something unknown to the all-seeing punditry. The american people most certainly were, just not the american people who are often thought of as american or even people.

The Daily News continues, its staff including the very thorny rose S.E. Cupp, but also Robert Reich, a man whose every word is committed to the betterment of those who struggle for work, or struggle in work that pays so little for work that is backbreaking, humiliating, destroying. The News presidential endorsement was for a man who cruelly mocked his opponent’s desire to do something about global warming as kumbaiya nonsense about turning back the oceans. For the next few months, the staff of the News will be working from another location, as their old offices have been so badly damaged by these same oceans. One piece from last week was “Good riddance to Mitt Romney”, while another from the week before bluntly suggested, “Name storms after oil companies — they’re the ones most responsible for climate change” by, of all people to appear in the News, Bill McKibben. The Colonel’s name may still mark a place, but his spirit has almost entirely left his papers.

A key phrase of last Tuesday’s speech dealt with the beliefs that bonded americans after a strifeful election: “We believe in a generous America; in a compassionate America; in a tolerant America, open to the dreams of an immigrant’s daughter who studies in our schools and pledges to our flag.” I would say the Colonel would be zero for three in sharing those ideas, and that those who wept for their country that night felt no kinship with them either. Those who have happily taken up their Colonel’s mantle to poke and prod every vengeance and spite for cheap gain, might mouth approval of such words when politeness required it, but when practicality beckons, and practicality always beckons, will happily go after any attempt to achieve them and do everything to burn it to the ground.

This suggests that struggles are unending, that our opponents are eternal, demons who move like electricity from one person or place to another, when I don’t think this is the case. There are fights that are won, there is ground that must be fought hard to be held, but is never taken back. On Tuesday, the machinery of hatred was finally brought to yield, and over the next few days all that could be heard was the whine of steam from an exhausted engine.

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