Looking Out for Big Jim

Big Jim Thompson of Illinois By Robert E. Hartley Rand McNally & Company, $9.95

REMEMBER THE TRIAL of former Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner Jr. in 1973 for extortion, mail fraud, perjury, conspiracy, and bribery? Do you care about the trial of former Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner Jr.? Have you ever heard of former Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner Jr.?

If your answer to any of those questions was "yes," you're probably from Illinois (which, if you're an easterner, is somewhere near Wyoming) and you may be interested enough to read Chicago journalist Robert E. Hartley's book Big Jim Thompson of Illinois, a thorough, but not very revealing biography about Illinois' current Republican governor, more politely known as James R. Thompson (he's about 6 feet-4 inches tall--hence, the nickname).

But what does former Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner Jr.'s trial have to do with Thompson? It--and the attendant publicity--gave Thompson a big boost in his eventual quest to win the governorship in 1976. The trial took place in the midst of Thompson's tenure as U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Illinois (which includes Cook County and Chicago), from 1971 through 1975. In that office, he attracted a great deal of attention for his reputed "swinging bachelor" life style--which Hartley says was a misconception--and his method of prosecution: going after the big names, leaking tantalizing tidbits of information from his office's investigations, and revealing the goings-on at secret grand jury proceedings.

He went after corruption among government officials--especially Democrats, not out of any overwhelming hatred for them, but because, as Hartley observes, most government officials in the northern district of Illinois are Democrats. His high-profile method worked, and Thompson became a successful prosecutor in terms of convictions and in terms of popularity with the media and the public.

Democrats, however--especially former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley--did not like him much at all. As Hartley points out in one of his rare moments of enlightened commentary, Thompson prosecuted and achieved convictions of government officials for such commonplace trivialities as bribery, extortion--part of the politicians' "unofficial understanding" of the American political system--and mail fraud "without the political system stopping him at some point."


BUT HARTLEY'S superficial treatment of the Kerner case--an event so important to Thompson's career--is a major fault of this book. It reads too much like an expanded news article. The short sentences and paragraphs of the journalistic style make for quick reading, but they also give the impression that Hartley does little more than skim the surface of Thompson's career and character.

Furthermore, Hartley emphasizes only the positive aspects of Thompson's career. Admittedly, his ascendence to the governor's mansion was a phenomenal success story for a relatively young man (41 years old when elected for his first term in 1976). But Thompson has been the center of controversy since his days as a U.S. attorney.

He was criticized back then for his manipulation of publicity and his liberal granting of immunity to obtain testimony in order to convict. Usually, the big-name politicians accused of committing offenses like bribery were not those let off the hook. But Hartley fails to include comments from people critical of Thompson's practices. Instead, he describes Thompson's philosophy on immunity: "one conviction is better than none."

Hartley's descriptions of the controversies surrounding Thompson's gubernatorial campaign and tenure as governor (he is in the middle of his second term) are equally one-sided and inadequate. He merely mentions that Thompson accepted donations and gifts from prominent Illinois businessmen and corporations.

The contributions to the 1976 campaign--his first--included a total of $299,834 from business interests: $46,580 of that from Ray Kroc, chairman of the board of McDonald's Corporation; $48,981 from medical groups, and $47,250 from construction contractors. Hartley covers the issues of possible political influence resulting from these contributions by quoting Thompson: "I've not made a single promise. Besides, what could I do for Ray Kroc?"

IN ADDITION to paying scant attention to criticism of Thampson, Hartley includes in the early part of the book cloying descriptions of Thompson's childhood like the following:

The father and son enjoyed a number of activities together, such as fishing and attendance at athletic contests. Both followed the Cubs and the Bears closely. The father encouraged his son's interest in animals--especially dogs--and helped him with photography by building him a darkroom. Reminiscing about her husband and oldest son, Agnes Thompson listed their similarities: "outgoing, friendly, kind and generous."

Sweet, banal stuff but why write pages of it?

A more significant problem is the apparent lack of any prupose for writing this book. In his preface, Hartley writes that the names that come to mind as practitioners of today's "modern politics" are Jimmy Carter, Jerry Brown, and Jim Thompson. At no point in the text, though, does Hartley pursue the similarities among the three men or the concept of "modern politics."

Hartley also believes that Thompson is worth writing about because he might run for the Presidency some day. However, the only other person in the book who thinks so is Thompson himself, who inscribed a friend's 1953 high school yearbook: "Jim Thompson, Pres. of U.S. 1984-1992."

It makes you think that Hartley's sublime reason for writing such a book was to assure his own entree into the envisioned Big Jim Administration.

AS IT STANDS, the major problem with Big Jim Thompson of Illinois is that most people couldn't care less about Big Jim Thompson. Fact is, unless you're from Illinois in general or the late Richard J. Daley's former kingdom of Cook County in particular, Gov. James R. Thompson of Illinois is probably as important to you as Gov. Ed Herschler of Wyoming (unless, of course, you happen to be from Wyoming--which, if you're an easterner, is somewhere near Alaska.).

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