Note: My interview with Mike Royko in April 1982 for The Cincinnati Post, upon his receiving the Ernie Pyle Award for human interest reporting, sponsored at the time by Scripps-Howard.
The world would probably be just as safe, and just as tough, without Mike Royko. Crime would still plague our cities. Ronald Reagan would still be president. The Chicago Cubs would still not win a pennant.
But with Royko around, there is that outside chance things won't get totally out of kilter, that real life won't seem totally out of whack. At least five times a week, 52 weeks a year, the tell-it-like-it-is reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times reminds his readers where it's really at, in words they really understand.
"There hasn't been a president any good since Eisenhower," he said in a brusk baritone voice via telephone Tuesday before preparing for a trip to Cincinnati today.
"I think we've elected a whole series of duds. Not one of them deserved to be in there.
The current officeholder? "He's the dumbest of the bunch," Royko said, holding true to an opinion he has unhesitatingly put forth in his nationally syndicated column ever since the former actor first entered politics.
"I've always thought he was dumb. He says dumb things. And any person who says dumb things sort of indicates to me that he is dumb."
Ronald Reagan is only one of a number of special projects the Pulitzer-prize winning columnist has taken on during 18 years as a daily voice in the Chicago wilderness. Anti-gun control lobbyists, rural "bumpkin" legislators and suburban rubes have all been undergoing Royko's merciless prose steambath.
Readers, including those who read his columns in The Cincinnati Post, also know him as a gifted storyteller, a reporter who can find the untold history behind any lonely face, then tell it with style and compassionate wit.
For that ability and talent, Royko is being honored in Cincinnati today by the Scripps-Howard Foundation as recipient of the Ernie Pyle Memorial Award for human interest reporting in 1981.
Chicago is a 'microcosm for the country and it's problems.'
In awarding him first place in the prestigious writing contest, the judges said Royko's columns "capture the mood and character of the Windy City in the way Chicagoans like to think of themselves; big and tough and yet with an abiding sense of humor and compassion for the little guy that was one of Ernie Pyle's trademarks."
Royko, for his part, seems to relish the role of tough guy in a tough city. He answers questions with unerring frankness, yet refuses to play the game of media celebrity despite an uncontested reputation as a reporter's reporter.
Chicago, he allows, "is a microcosm for the country and its problems," adding that one could do worse to live elsewhere.
"People generally consider Los Angeles as the place where you see social trends develop," he said. "That may or may not be true. But I'd hate to look at Southern California as a picture of the future."
The Windy City, on the other hand, "is a good place to actually see what politicians in Washington are talking about," to witness racial violence, social inequity and economic hard times "up close."
Is this man, who has the reputation as a writer who gets most of his stories drinking with the hardhats in the Billy Goat Tavern, as tough as he sounds?
"If I drank as hard as the legends have it, I'd be a bionic drunk, for God's sake," Royko insists. "Writing five columns a week is about as draining work as you can get. I don't take time off. I work with the flu, I work with broken limbs, I don't take holidays. I can't do that and maintain a level of quality and still spend time sitting on a barstool."
But he does find time to mingle with the boys "occasionally," sometimes for the sake of a good story.
"Something comes along anywhere you are. If you sit at a bus stop long enough, you'll find a story. But it can get awfully cold sitting around at a bus stop."
Like any serious writer, Royko takes pride in having a number of sides to his personality. He is the first to point out that the columns which won him the Ernie Pyle Award as "the voice of the little man," also won him an award named after H.L. Mencken, "who had great contempt for the bourgoisie and the little man."
But, like any serious writer with perception, Royko also has his tragic flaw: an undying allegiance to the Chicago Cubs.
It is a sad fate that has even made him overlook the foibles of the team's new corporate owners, The Tribune Company, which owns Royko's competing newspaper in Chicago.
"They have built what I consider a true powerhouse," Royko said the day after the Cubs defeated Cincinnati on Opening Day and skyrocketed into sole possession of first place with a 1-0 record.
"The Cubs this year are an awesome team. They are destiny's darlings. They are going all the way."
Postscript: The Cubs finished fourth in 1982 (in a five-team division), 19 games behind the St. Louis Cardinals. Royko died on April 29, 1997, at the age of 64, still waiting for the Cubs to win a pennant.