It Pays To Know The Right People

It Pays To Know The Right People

Inauguration of Mayor Lori Lightfoot 2019

I hopped on the number three bus at Chicago and Michigan Avenues having no clue when to pull the cord for the Wintrust Arena. It was 7:30 A.M., too early for rush hour but people dressed in their finest stepped up at every stop as we moved on down the avenue. There was no mistaking the Wintrust bus stop. The cross streets swarmed with jaywalkers, Uber poolers, truants, bus trippers, policemen, VIPs and parkers from the garages. Parades of citizens streamed toward the entrances lining up for the eight o’clock opening. Volunteers in blue “Bring In The Light” t-shirts hoisted colossal signs pointing to the ADA entrances.

“What’s going on?” asked the bus driver.

“Lori Lightfoot’s Inauguration,” I said.

“Oh! The new mayor!” he said. “Great day. End of the Machine.”

Inside the Arena, old friends who’ve fought entrenched politicians for decades worked the event. Hi, Regan! Hi! Hi! I heard victorious voices all around helping me and other revelers find our way. They directed me to two seats, eight rows from the stage. The personification of old-style politics, the Daley clan, took their seats behind me. Even they couldn’t stop the trickle of joy dripping from their upended well-oiled machine.

A Chicago policeman came running over to say hello. Matt Baio and I have known each other since we both worked for Speaker Michael Madigan in the late 1980s. Matt’s official post is guarding the inside entrance of City Hall. We’ve seen each other every time I’ve marched into that building protesting the previous mayor, or bought a dog license, or renewed my senior bus pass. I greeted him laughing, anticipating he’d be tickled about the new mayor.

“Matt, I just finished writing a book and you’re in it,” I said.

“What? No way! When’s it coming out?” 

“Early 2020. But I changed your name to protect you.”

“Is it about the time you asked me to be Bill Clinton’s driver?”

Yes, it is. And we had a riot reliving the story of what Matt, the silent navigator, overheard at the wheel in March 1992 during Illinois’ presidential primary.*

“Is it too late to use my name? It won’t hurt me. I’ve never been in a book. I’d be proud. Use Matthew Baio. I’ll buy a bunch and pass them out at City Hall. I gotta go tell my daughters. I’ll be over there by the stage if you need anything.”

My friend Peter arrived via train and bus from the far southwest side of the city. A security guard said he was ticketed for the bleachers and prevented him from joining me. As it turned out, I was also ticketed for the bleachers. I had been inadvertently led to the VIP seats. I eyeballed Officer Baio through crowd. After a brief kerfuffle including murmurs on the security guard’s walkie-talkie, Peter and I secured our prized seats. Reverend Jesse Jackson’s bodyguard sat down next to us keeping eyes on The Reverend in the row ahead.

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Reverend Jesse Jackson and Peter Feldman

After the elected officials paraded onto the stage and took their seats, the diminutive powerhouse, Lori Lightfoot, was sworn in and came to the microphone. The articulation of her vision for Chicago hit every issue. And right smack in the middle of her speech she highlighted a fear I’d expressed to her during a meet-and-greet in a friend’s condo at the beginning of her campaign. 

“I’m looking ahead to a city where people want to grow old and not flee. A city that is affordable for families and seniors,” she said.

Was it because we were so close that Peter and I felt as if our new mayor was talking directly to us? Would we have sighed with relief feeling she actually cared about us if we’d been in the bleachers? I don’t know. But I do know that it still pays to be friends with the right people in Chicago.

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Officer Matthew Baio Lori Lightfoot Inauguration May 20, 2019

 

*To find out what Matt overheard, go to City Hall and ask him. Or, even better, read my book I Want To Be In That Number, due in early 2020.

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Returning home from work one evening I found my houseguest, Jim, wearing my almond-colored wool cardigan. I had fallen for the horn buttons on the shawl-collared sweater at the Saks Fifth Avenue sales rack a few months before. Jim was on the small side, and in those days I was large but not yet extra large. It fit him. He was out of work, out of money and out of luck.

Jim had been caught in a leather bar in the one of the last police raids of its kind in Chicago. News outlets had stopped publishing names of raid victims in the mid-seventies. But in 1983 some obtuse Sun-Times reporter or editor or publisher had decided to let one last story rip through the city to sell a few more papers, and, in turn, destroying the lives of the closeted men.

The day the story broke Jim called to say he’d been fired from his job. I left work and hurried to his apartment. He put the paper in my hands, folded to the story. I questioned why he was in that bar. 

“Regan, I’m a homosexual.”

We had been inseparable friends. I had no clue, no suspicions, no wonderings. And there I was, feeling my deepest sympathy for my best friend, yet unable to conceal my shock. I had no words of comfort. I didn’t know how to be the same friend I was the second before he told me.

The oversized couch in my second-floor one-bedroom apartment was the perfect landing for my old friend. When he lost his apartment, there was no question that he’d stay with me until he could get his life back on track. The problem is that I couldn’t keep our friendship on track. At first I welcomed his coming out. Giving free voice to his homosexuality put him on a pink cloud of joy. 

I always thought he’d been too traumatized by his marriage and divorce to date other women. Now he was suddenly talking about dating men. He was so happy in his new freedom to tell me the details. I feigned interest, but after a while I couldn’t stand listening. I resented the sweater-wearing incident but brushed it off. A few days later I came home to Jim wearing one of my dresses.

“I hope you don’t mind,” he said.

“Is this how it’s going to be? You’re going to start wearing my clothes?”

I did mind.

My dear funny sophisticated friend had transmuted into his true self. I had no room in my experience for this new kind of man and hated my own callousness. The next day I returned home and Jim was gone. He took a room in the Chicago Avenue YMCA but would not return my calls. Then he disappeared. I searched for him for almost ten years. His family eventually reported he was living in Washington. When he finally called I flew to him. AIDS had ravaged his body. I made amends without reliving our past.

We watched the first days of the Clinton Administration during Jim’s last days in the VA hospital where he died.

Jim wasn’t the first, nor the last, to come out to me, just the biggest surprise. He had been in the Army and Clinton’s campaign promise to repeal the ban on gays in the military gave him reason to contact me at the last. He wanted to celebrate what he thought was the beginning of the end of discrimination against him. 

Jim died before Congress betrayed him by enacting legislation to keep the gay ban policy in place. In the end Clinton was forced to compromise with Congress and directed the Pentagon to “don’t ask” military applicants about their sexual orientation, and for those in the military, “don’t tell” you are gay. Forcing homosexuals into their military closets was infuriating. In 1993 it seemed we had come so far. But I understood. It was my same sentiment when Jim came out to me ten years earlier: it was ok to be a homosexual, just don’t talk about it. 

Don’t-Ask-Don’t-Tell was finally repealed in 2011. In 2019 Chicago overwhelmingly elected a mayor who is married to her wife. And a man announced his candidacy for the President of the United States with his husband by his side. 

I march with Jim in love and spirit in saluting these and other saints who refuse to allow themselves to be excluded from American life.

When Is This Nightmare Going To Be Over?

When Is This Nightmare Going To Be Over?

On November 8, 2016, I settled into an election night victory party in Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood. The first bit of bad news came over the TV early: Indiana Democratic Senate candidate Evan Bayh lost. Wizened political operative Keith Lesnick flashed a guttural look, “That’s bad.” 

Fourteen hours later, fellow campaign volunteer Susan Keegan and I drove home to Chicago. We had no victory, no trophy, no good news. What we did have was despair, hopelessness.

Years before, in April 1992, I returned from a grueling 90-hours a week job in the Bill Clinton primary campaign. A psychiatrist treated me as if I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Within a few weeks, Hillary Clinton came to Chicago to speak at a women’s forum. I stood alone in the back of the room, away from the crowd. Someone came to me and said Hillary wanted to see me backstage. She greeted me with a teary hug, said she was sorry I left the campaign, asked if I would consider working at the Democratic Convention in August. I told her I was too tired, that I wouldn’t survive. She understood, thanked me for all I did to get the campaign off the ground and assured me her door was always open. We parted as friends, equals really. When I later worked in the Clinton Administration, I saw her many times. My admiration for her superior intellect increased, always undergirded by her unscripted and genuine kindness toward me. 

I felt a thousand little cuts during the 2016 campaign, watching her withstand the cruelest name-calling and ugly attacks not only by her opponent but by my own friends. For months after the election I felt like she died, like I died, like the country died.

At the end of that bleak November, I looked out over out my MacBook Air, watched three crows bounce from bare tree limbs to the ground and back—caw, caw, cawing at each other about their Thanksgiving dinner. I believed they knew me, saw me looking at them. They restored me, enlarged my soul, allowed gratitude to seep in, grateful for them if nothing else. I wondered for the millionth time since election day what Hillary was doing.

All of a sudden, something popped up in the corner of my screen: “White House forced to reverse course on Trump’s golfing.” I instantly broke off communing with my wild pets and opened the link to this urgent story. I don’t dislike golf, but I’m not interested either.  th-3  th-4Unknownmsnbc-logo_0  However, I had involuntarily begun to relinquish my time to so-called breaking news. I clicked. The next thing I knew a little box appeared with a photo of a pair of shoes I coveted. Hmmm, I wondered if those were on sale. I clicked. As I lifted out of my chair to take a break, I saw two pop-ups I had to read first:  “Is a ‘deep state’ subverting the presidency?” and “Bald Eagle Population Booming In Chicago.”  

It’s two years later and this compulsion, this savage addiction is my sentence for seizing the fantasy that something is going to happen to reverse the outcome of the election.

Any day now.

Crossing Paths with Putin

As part of the White House advance team, I traveled to Birmingham, England in April,1998 to help with President Bill Clinton’s schedule during the G-8 Summit, a meeting of the world’s leading economies. At Clinton’s behest Russia became a member of the G-8 the previous year (Russia was removed in 2016 because of their annexation of Crimea). Assigned to make arrangements for Clinton’s one-on-one bilateral meetings with G-8 world leaders, I learned Clinton’s meeting with Russian President Boris Yeltsin was my most important duty. It had to be discreet, secure and comfortable.

For ten consecutive days before the summit began, I tried to meet with my Russian counterpart at the Russian headquarters hotel. The Russians use KGB officers rather than civilians for their advance teams. Our US Secret Service generally didn’t commit resources until these tentatively scheduled meetings were established by the White House advance person. Even though the press speculated Boris Yeltsin was too ill to attend the G-8, the US pressed the Russians hard to accomplish the bilateral meeting as a show of Russia’s support for the latest nuclear non-proliferation agreement.

We got word at the last minute that President Yeltsin would meet President Clinton upon Yeltsin’s arrival at the Russian headquarters hotel, 24 hours after the start of the G-8 summit. That signaled the KGB to admit me to the secure floor of Russian Command. As I exited the elevator and entered an open door at the end of a typical hotel hallway, I faced men and women sitting at long tables stretched the entire length of the hotel. The hotel rooms’ walls had been removed, and tangles of wires dropped from the exposed ceilings to telephones, fax machines, computers, cameras and ominous electronic components. I announced my name and asked for my contact.

The nearest of the twenty-five or more Russians laughed out loud. “We know who you are,” one said.  

You do?

Wide-eyed at the cornucopia of visual information, I gawked at the long stretch of KGB agents wearing headsets and staring at video screens. One ferret-looking guy strutted around glancing over the others’ shoulders. My Russian contact approached, and we proceeded to a room on the hotel mezzanine reserved for the off-the-record meeting between the two heads of state. I called my Secret Service counterpart and the three of us performed our obligatory walk-through, agreeing to the safest route for both presidents through the hotel, with enough exposure for the media to observe the two men strolling casually together.

The day Boris Yeltsin arrived in Birmingham, he fell down the stairs getting off the plane and was carried to his car. His KGB detail helped him into the hotel elevator but he lumbered on his own down the exposed hallway to greet Clinton. My job completed, I left for the staff room in the US headquarters hotel where I saw a televised report saying Yeltsin appeared inebriated and the two presidents may have had a less than fruitful conversation.

I met the Russian team once more, a year later in Auckland, New Zealand during the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. Though Russia is not a part of APEC, Vladimir Putin flew to Auckland to secretly meet Bill Clinton. I secured a space and told the Russian team when and where to bring Putin. When I briefed President Clinton on the logistics of the clandestine meeting, he told me Putin was a real bad guy. I asked why he was meeting him. Clinton said he was going to be the next President of Russia.

I led Clinton to the undisclosed site and saw Putin for what I thought was the first time. Later, in the staff room, it struck me that Putin had been the KGB puppet master in that room in Birmingham the year before.

Boris Yeltsin had a reputation for public drunkenness and erratic behavior. Foreign service officers gossiped that KGB chief Putin secretly kept Yeltsin plied with vodka and drugs to render him ineffective so Yeltsin would either be forced to resign or drop dead. In August 1999 Yeltsin appointed the little-known KGB chief Putin as Prime Minister. Yeltsin retreated to the presidential dacha outside Moscow to recover from various illnesses and abruptly resigned five months later. He appointed Vladimir Putin as acting president.

Father Hungry

Father Hungry
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Arkansas Governor’s Mansion

The week before Thanksgiving, 1991, I called my father from Little Rock to tell him Governor Clinton had told all campaign staff to go visit their families. 

“He said we’ll be busy and out of touch from December until the end of the primary season,” I said, letting my father know I’d be back in Chicago on Thursday. 

“What are your plans for Thanksgiving?”

I was so caught up in the excitement of my co-workers’ plans to visit their families that I’d forgotten my father never made plans to celebrate holidays. Nor birthdays. Nor graduations. Nor milestones of any kind.

“Dorothy doesn’t want you joining us for Thanksgiving,” my father told me over the phone.

I can’t remember whether they were married yet or whether Dorothy was still just another one of the girlfriends. I had no particular ax to grind with her outside of her unnerving naiveté. She actually believed my father was going to provide a secure home for her and her son. When she showed me her engagement ring the previous summer and asked why I didn’t jump for joy that they were to be married, I thoughtlessly answered, “You’re kidding, right?” 

Like she knew what I knew.

Furious, alone and full of self-pity, I abandoned the trip to my home town and settled into catching up on the never-ending details of planning events, logistics, contingencies and recruiting new advance people for my candidate. When asked, I’d feign, “I’m spending Thanksgiving in Chicago with my father.”

The hunger to be normal is one of my fatal flaws.

But Governor Clinton was on to me. Late that Wednesday evening he called out of the blue and invited me to “come on over to the house” for Thanksgiving.

I drove into the guest parking lot at the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion about 3:00 pm and recognized cars that belonged to staffers from the Governor’s office as well as the campaign. Bill answered the door, introduced me all around and took me into the kitchen to meet the chef.

He bragged that Clarence was the best cook in Arkansas, that he was once on death row for murder but that shouldn’t scare me because he’d pardoned him.

“Thas right. Thas right,” said Clarence.

People who study psychology say if a girl grows up craving attention from her father she will gorge herself on various substitutes to satisfy the longing. I certainly proved that theory while stuffing myself at the Clintons’ dinner table that Thanksgiving. The Governor kept telling Clarence to bring out more food. He insisted we all eat up, and my self-consciousness around overeating in public disappeared into 2nd and 3rd helpings.

After dinner Governor Clinton had us all go “out back” to play touch football. I sat on the sidelines with Hillary and others. The First Lady laughed and joked with us about the goofy footballers and told funny stories about Clinton’s well-reported inept sports activities.

On the way back to my apartment, I stopped by the campaign office to type some final touches into Clinton’s schedule for the next week in New Hampshire. Alone, but no longer angry, lonely or hungry, I paused, called my father and wished him a Happy Thanksgiving.

The Day I Was Posted to the White House

The Secretary of Education in the Bill Clinton Administration hired me as his Director of Scheduling and Advance based on one simple fact—I was from Chicago. An honorable and wily statesman, Richard Riley assumed experience in Chicago politics gave me a certain expertise: I’d be able to withstand  the numerous hoodoo scheduling proposals that plagued his staff, particularly those from White House advisor and fellow Chicagoan, Rahm Emmanuel.

The lobbyist for Siemens International contacted me frequently inviting Riley to visit the company’s innovative partnership in Lake Mary, Florida. Siemens provided on-the-job training for students at the Lake Mary high school. The program exemplified Clinton’s school-to-work policy, so I put it on a list of possible events for the Secretary.

In the fall of 1995, Rahm, Assistant to the President for Political Affairs, decided a big flashy event  would be the perfect way to highlight Clinton’s School-to-Work Opportunities Act before the 1996 reelection campaign. He asked Secretary Riley for suggestions. Riley consulted me and we chose Siemens/Lake Mary.

Since I’d be organizing and managing all the details for the President’s visit to Lake Mary, I was immediately posted to the White House Scheduling Office. I tiptoed into my first day on the job as if I’d wake a sleeping giant who’d shout, “You don’t belong here!”

Within the first few hours at my desk in the White House, I received a call from a colleague at the Department of Education. He’d uncovered some unseemly intelligence: Siemens collaborated with the Hitler regime.

Uh-oh.

I immediately reported this to the President’s Scheduler. She hastily called a meeting of decision-makers and sent me with others to an afternoon meeting with Deputy Chief of Staff Harold Ickes and Rahm. These two were known for hurling f-bombs right at your face before you even sat down (“who the fuck are you?”). The fray of Chicago politics conditioned me for profanity, but these brawlers took it to another level. They were famous for not only sparring with each other but also lobbing the most obscene and demeaning sucker punches at ringside innocents.

Rumors were rampant that each of them offered outsiders access to the President in exchange for campaign contributions. My Nazi information put the Lake Mary event in jeopardy and in turn, meant a lost opportunity for big cash from Siemens.

The meeting participants rat-a-tatted around the room on the pros and cons of going or not going. Their only concern: what would the press report? My lips involuntarily clamped shut and quivered. Participation in this conversation would have been like throwing myself in the ring with Muhammad Ali.

I finally busted out, “They had a factory at Auschwitz.”

Heads turned and I felt dragon eyes spit fire in my face. My cheeks ignited.

“Are you saying we shouldn’t go?”

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White House West Wing

I knew my answer would either shorten or prolong my envious seat in a White House office.

“I’m saying Siemens helped fund the Nazi party and later used prisoners to work in their factory inside Auschwitz.”

And so ended my 8-hour post in the West Wing of the White House.

When James Carville Tried to Save Me

 

James Carville called in early March 1992.

“This is not your fault,” he said in that red-hot Cajun voice of his, ”I take full responsibility.”

I knew right then that the campaign advisors on the road with Bill Clinton were blaming me.

A few days earlier, Carville, chief strategist for the campaign, had directed me to schedule Clinton at a correctional facility in Georgia reasoning that a picture of Clinton strolling with black inmates and Georgia’s all-white male politicians would cinch Clinton’s appeal to the state’s voters.

It did.th

Clinton won the Georgia primary, but not without a price. The national press and the other candidates excoriated Clinton for his racial insensitivity. Jerry Brown said Clinton and the other politicians looked “like colonial masters” trying to tell white voters “Don’t worry, we’ll keep them in their place.”

And that was all my fault.

Five months earlier I’d been asked to give up my job in Chicago and relocate to Little Rock to be Clinton’s Director of Scheduling and Advance.  “You already know this, Regan,” Campaign Manager David Wilhelm reminded me, “the scheduler in any campaign has the worst job.”

It’s true. The person who plans the candidate’s calendar has an enviable yet risky position. An unplanned photo with an unscrupulous politician? Protesters blocking the entrance to an event? A rained out rally? It’s all the scheduler’s fault.

Campaign operations temporarily moved from Little Rock to the Palmer House in Chicago just before the Illinois-Michigan primaries in 1992. The extensive Chicago staff in Little Rock wanted to celebrate Clinton’s St. Patrick’s Day victories that would clinch

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March 17, 1992 Palmer House Chicago

the nomination.

An old friend of mine, a Chicago policeman, volunteered to be Clinton’s driver. He called me around 2:00 am the morning before the Primary.

“Regan, that Greek guy, George, and Bruce someone were in the car telling Clinton you have to go.”

“What?”

“Yep. But Clinton said he wants to be sure you have another high-level job in the campaign.”

“Really?”

“Yeah! Dees guys are strategists? Der talkin’ ‘bout firin’ you in your hometown — and your buddy drivin’?”

We howled at the strategic error.

I was offered a job that was already filled. Wilhelm shrugged when I asked if I was fired. The New York Times reported I’d been replaced by Bruce’s wife.

I took a trip to the Bahamas, became achingly lonely and came home early. Herb and Vivienne Sirott got me into a rental apartment across the hall from them.  Cook County Clerk David Orr hired me as Deputy Director of Elections. We worked hard that year to pass the National Motor Voter Act. A young community organizer, Barack Obama, walked into my office to plan a large-scale voter registration project.

Things looked good from the outside, but inside ego-busting despair maintained constant watch over my soul. Depression, sick leave, isolation, shame, all led to suicidal thoughts. Vivienne brought a psychiatrist to my apartment. That’s when I started Prozac, my first legal anti-depressant.