Patrick Quinn on Patrick Quinn

By Don Wycliff
Published January 2nd 2003 in Chicago Tribune
Patrick Quinn called the other day.

That's Illinois Lt. Gov.-elect Patrick Quinn.

Why is it, he wanted to know, that every time the Tribune refers to him in print it accompanies his name with the phrase "self-styled reformer"?

In literature such a phrase is called an epithet and, when it's virtually always attached to a particular name, it's a constant epithet. Anybody who has encountered Homer's "Odyssey" knows the phenomenon: The sea is always "wine-dark"; the dawn is always "rosy-fingered"; the goddess Athene is always "clear-eyed."

In the Chicago Tribune, says Patrick Quinn, he is always "self-styled reformer" and, since he has enjoyed more success than most citizens and a good many politicians in getting his ideas enacted into law, he wonders why.

A fair question and one worth addressing--except that Quinn wasn't waiting for me even to attempt an answer. It quickly became apparent that this phone call wasn't about discussing, but venting--and so I let the lieutenant governor-to-be vent.

"I'm not thin-skinned," he assured me, but the Tribune's behavior toward him was "Mickey Mouse" and "penny-ante" and far more appropriate to "the Pinkneyville Bugle" than to a newspaper that considers itself great. "That's not what the great newspapers do."

He ticked off his accomplishments as a reformer: the Citizens Utility Board; the so-called Cutback Amendment that reduced the size of the legislature; cleaning up two public offices he has held (state treasurer and member of the Cook County Board of Tax Appeals); and, most recently, the Inspector Misconduct Act, passed in 2002 by the legislature but which Quinn says he began championing back in April 1994.

The Tribune, Quinn contended, "blew the [licenses-for-bribes] story back in 1994 and a lot of tragedy ensued." But he was on the case, and was vindicated when the inspector misconduct law, which forbids those involved in state regulatory activities to solicit the regulated for political contributions, was passed in 2002.

I'd be the last to contend that the Tribune has always been ahead of the curve and as prescient as we'd all like to be, or that we've always given Quinn the respect and credit he deserves. Truth is, we've sometimes given him too much.

Quinn's most notable "reform"--the Cutback Amendment--arguably has turned out to be a deformation. It almost certainly has made the Illinois legislature a worse institution than it was and the state of Illinois a less well-governed state than it was.

That's not just my humble opinion. It's the view of a bipartisan task force, led by former U.S. representative/appeals court judge/White House counsel Abner Mikva and former Gov. Jim Edgar, which in 2001 came out in favor of a return to Illinois' old system of electing multiple lawmakers from each House district.

I almost wrote a column about this issue during the recent election campaigns after hearing Quinn respond to a question about it on WBBM-AM's "At Issue" interview program. To my astonishment, Quinn couched his defense of the Cutback Amendment in the narrowest, most simplistic terms, telling the questioner, "If you think we'd be better off with more politicians in Springfield ..."

Fact is, we might be. The old system, by giving the minority party in a district a chance, if not a likelihood, of representation, encouraged moderation and consensus-building. The new system puts a premium on partisan wrangling and rancor, and puts an obscene degree of power in the hands of the four legislative leaders.

But Quinn's approach made him sound like the very embodiment of Oscar Wilde's definition of a cynic: a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.

All that said, I nevertheless find myself in agreement with Quinn on the matter of the epithet "self-styled reformer." (It's not a constant epithet--we applied it to his name only four times in 2002 in fewer than 30 substantive references.)

Self-styled is one of those terms that's most meaningful when the person being written about is a virtual unknown. It's interesting then to know how the individual thinks about himself.

But when used about a figure as well-known as Quinn--and in combination with a term like reformer--it becomes a sneaky way of editorializing: Well, he calls himself a reformer but we all know he's just a publicity hound, don't we? (Wink. Wink.)

This strikes me as one of those cases in which we journalists, whenever we feel the urge to write "self-styled reformer Patrick Quinn," would be better advised to utter a small prayer: Lead us not unto that temptation.