Love him or hate him, we need another Royko

Nick Moran

I told myself I’d never write a political piece, but that was before a book full of columns by the great Mike Royko made its way into my hands.

Royko was a columnist that embodied the spirit of Chicago, for better or for worse. His columns would lift up the poor tavern keepers who were buried beneath growing redevelopments. Yet the next day, he’d be taunting one of Chicago’s deeply established cultures, such as the Irish or Polish populations. 

Most days readers would be nodding in agreement, and other days it would be your turn to be the target. That’s the way it was — and that’s why people loved him.

If he was still around, you’d run into him a few drinks deep. You’d hesitantly approach him, and he’d greet you with a groan or hurl a slur at you. But by the end of the night, you would be sharing personal stories and discussing niche literature. That was Royko — strong, vocal and complex.

I’m 20 years too late on a eulogy. Let’s just chalk this up to a corny attempt to win over some extra credit from my Journalism History professor and move on. It’s easier that way. Maybe Mike would have seen that as spunky.

I bring Royko’s work into the spotlight because mulling through it will both inspire you and frustrate you. A part of that is because the world he comments on throughout the 60s and 70s has a variety of parallels to today with all of its political turmoil, distrust and radicalization. 

We still have the hundreds of columns he’s left behind, and those alone are powerful enough to drive home important messages in a socio-political climate similar to that of the 60s and 70s.

When the US was berating President Lyndon B. Johnson, Royko came to the defense of the man who couldn’t seem to catch a break.  

“Maybe he wasn’t the best president we’ve ever had,” he wrote in a column. “But we sure as hell aren’t the best people a president has ever had.”

Or when Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, Royko fearlessly blamed the entire country for creating a society that would allow a murderer to carry out the deed without a second thought. 

“We have pointed a gun at our own head and we are squeezing the trigger,” he wrote. “And nobody we elect is going to help us. It is our own head and our finger.”

Sound familiar?

We have a plethora of outstanding writers, advocates and figureheads of our own today. They’re lined up like a spartan phalanx, prepared to deflect a flurry of blows from all sorts of confrontation. 

And just like a phalanx, when we see one shield fly away and break the formation, the ranks crumble. Insults are thrown about, lines are crossed and things are taken personally. 

I’ve yet to find someone who has matched Royko’s critical prowess and fearlessness.

Now, more than ever, we need a voice like his; someone that isn’t afraid to throw a few punches. Someone who fights to make readers take a moment of pause. Someone who you can share a beer with at the end of the day

But there’s no sportsmanship in our daily conversations, no slap on the helmet and extending your hand to the other team before rallying the troops for the next play. Royko’s readers would take his hand when he knocked them on their asses. 

We won’t get another game-changer like Royko anytime soon.

Not until we learn how to take a punch.