Tale of Two Friends

Tale of Two Friends

When the Vietnam war was over, there were no patriotic homecomings for returning veterans—no sympathetic bystanders thanking soldiers for their service. The American public shunned them. The same politicians who sent them to die for no good reason

denied their health care for post-traumatic stress and any cancerous effects of the US-deployed Agent Orange.

I’d been working on Adlai Stevenson’s campaign for Governor in June, 1986, when Chicago held a long overdue welcome home parade for her Vietnam War Veterans. One of Adlai’s supporters, Kitty Kurth, asked if I would round up some volunteers to help organize the march with the vets.

When I asked my unemployed friend, Alice, to join me in the march, she asked, “How much will I get paid?”

“Nothing,” I answered, “it’s volunteering.”

“You want me to walk for four hours with people I don’t know, for nothing?”

My acceptance of the call to volunteer with the parade, forced me to confront my shameful scorn in the sixties and seventies for returning Vietnam vets. As I slow-walked with 200,000 battle-scarred military men and women in silence through downtown Chicago, a redemptive veil flittered around me. I felt honored to be among them.

I can’t remember the first time I ever volunteered for anything. My family considered volunteering beneath them. They ridiculed me as a a naive idealist at best, a do-gooding loser at worst. Perhaps I started volunteering as a show of rebellion. Perhaps I sought refuge in something meaningful. I’ve abandoned friends, family and many living-wage jobs to work on political campaigns, for no money, surviving on unemployment benefits or credit cards. By the time my volunteering spawned a paid position for work I love, I’d racked up a lot of experience and a lot of financial distress.

Kitty and I kept in touch. We saw each other at various political events and campaigns. Then in July 1991, she asked me to volunteer with Comic Relief at the Chicago Theater, a star studded Tribute to Michael Jordan to raise money for homelessness. Assigned to greet Jane Curtin at O’Hare Airport, I escorted her downtown in a limousine, led her to the dressing room and kept her on time for her performance. All the volunteers hung out backstage and met Billy Crystal (a real jerk), Patty LaBelle (the nicest person in the world), George Wendt (another jerk) and Siskel and Ebert. Roger Ebert asked me every detail of my car ride with Jane Curtin. He greeted her by quoting some of her lines from3cb4ef3277b51b27070c9f70f7c10864 the Saturday Night Live Coneheads skit. He was as starstruck as I was.

At intermission, Michael Jordan appeared backstage to meet and take photos with the volunteers.

When I later bragged to Alice about Comic Relief, she was furious I didn’t include her.

“Well, you have to pay your dues,” I said.

“What’s that mean?” she asked.

Kitty has a lively communications firm and invites me to events she knows I’ll enjoy. Alice, like my family, derided me as a naive idealist. But I discovered life is more meaningful and a lot more entertaining when I just say yes. I’m not ready to give that up. Not yet.

Screwed by Gary Hart

Screwed by Gary Hart

I knew I was in trouble as soon as I responded to a reporter about presidential candidate Gary Hart.

I was in Denver working on Hart’s campaign in May 1987 when The Miami Herald front-paged a photo of Hart in Bimini aboard the sailboat, Monkey Business, with a blonde beauty on his lap. Hart tried to conduct a normal campaign, but after a week of hounding from the media for answers to questions about his extramarital affairs, he dropped out of his race for President.

When the Hart campaign folded, I dispirited myself away to Indianapolis to manage an unpromising U.S. Senate campaign. I should have gone home to Chicago to look for a job there instead.

Six months later, Gary Hart changed his mind and started working his way back into the race. The day before Thanksgiving I was contacted by a reporter from the Gary Post-Tribune for a comment about the rumor that Hart was getting back in. My friend, Roger Ebert, a newspaperman for the Chicago Sun-Times, always cautioned me in my political work to never talk to the press.

“You’ll just screw yourself,” he said. “They’re out to trip you up.” 

Roger’s advice?  Say, “No comment.”

I heeded his advice religiously until this particular reporter caught me off guard. I picked up the phone on my way out the door to Roger’s vacation house in Michigan. I’d been invited to Roger’s legendary Thanksgiving party in 1987 and was looking forward to a weekend of great food, real characters and loads of laughs. I never gave the reporter’s call another thought.

Roger Ebert loved people. He bought successively bigger houses in Michigan to accommodate weekend guests. During those weekends we’d take caravan excursions to the used book store in Niles and to art and antique stores in Lakeside. At home we played poker and watched movies. In his well-stocked kitchen everyone chipped in to make big family style meals. Roger told the same funny stories over and over. I was his biggest audience and his biggest target. He teased me relentlessly about all my losing campaigns.

“If you wanna place winning bets on who’s gonna lose, find out who Regan’s working for,” he’d say to any gathering.

On that Saturday Roger returned from the store in New Buffalo with the Sunday papers, bagels and cream cheese. Someone brewed up a pot of coffee and the weekenders gathered at the big old dining room table. All of a sudden Roger screamed that I was onth-6 the front page of the Gary Post-Tribune. When he read the quote aloud, he laughed so hard he could hardly spit it out.

“It’s his (Hart’s) swan song. This is like a lover who woos you, then dumps you, then comes back, asks forgiveness, woos you again and dumps you again. I’m not falling for it.” Said I.

I never lived it down. For the rest of the day, all the next day and nearly every time I saw Roger for years afterwards he recited my quote.

Gary Hart did get back in the race. And I did help him get on the ballot in Illinois. He got four per cent of the vote in New Hampshire, then dropped out again.

My candidate in Indiana lost.

But I gave Roger one big priceless punch line.

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R.I.P. Roger. We miss you.