The first time I heard the Latin term sui generis, the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington was telling the City Hall reporters who covered him in the 1980s that it described him perfectly, and daring us to define it.
We couldn’t, so he told us: “Unique” or “one of a kind.”
OK, but I thought of interesting, outgoing, quirky people like that as “characters.”
Either way, Washington qualified, as did many others I’ve known over the years.
But few cleared the bar with more room to spare than Paul Green, the witty, acerbic pundit, political scientist, professor, author and civic maven who died unexpectedly just over a week ago.
Paul plied his trade on every media platform — writing books and articles, analyzing politics on TV and radio, speaking to large groups, teaching college students and hosting City Club of Chicago public affairs luncheons.
His personality combined a deep knowledge of local politics with an endless supply of one-liners that made you laugh or groan, depending on the day.
When we crossed paths in recent years Paul would acknowledge me with a jarring, sarcastic shout-out that sounded like an indictment:
“Andy Shaw! MISTER BGA!” Or, “Andy Shaw! MISTER Good Government Reformer!” Or, “Andy Shaw! The good government GOO-GOO!”
Our smiles generally gave way to jocular political banter, but I never asked the obvious question: What do you have against good government reformers? I mean, you’re smart enough and well-educated enough to appreciate the fight groups like the Better Government Association wage against the waste, fraud, inefficiency and corruption that characterize local and state politics.
So why belittle watchdog work instead of embracing it?
Paul is gone, so I turned to his close friend, academic collaborator and City Club colleague Ed Mazur, a retired professor and consultant.
“Paul actually despised the corruption that was and is a part of Chicago politics,” says Mazur, “but he recognized it as an evil that could be addressed from the inside as well as the outside.”
Mazur explains “inside” this way: “Paul was born in an infamous ‘Machine’ ward on the West Side. For several years he was a precinct captain on the North Side. His mentors were the classic old style politicians who delivered services and secured positions for their constituents.
“They might not use the best grammar and English,” Mazur said, “but in Paul’s opinion they understood their constituents in the neighborhoods better than the reformers did.”
The “inside” experience is what made “his books on Chicago politics and mayors classics,” says fellow political scientist Dick Simpson.
Mazur continues: “Paul found many reformers much too academic and impractical in their approaches. To him, those reformers talked the talk but didn’t walk the walk.
“He liked action, and decisions that were arrived at without extensive philosophizing. He admired pragmatic reformers who got things done.
“For instance, he worked for Robert Kennedy in 1968, and was a great admirer of Kennedy’s approach to politics: Producing measurable results rather than philosophizing.”
He had similar feelings about Mayors Richard J. and Richard M. Daley.
So tell me the truth, I asked Mazur: Was Green as contemptuous of our watchdog work as he seemed to be?
No, Mazur laughed. “He thought you were extremely pragmatic and he admired your work on TV and at the BGA.”
The City Club will celebrate Paul’s life on Oct. 4. I anticipate a lot of laughs, tears and a full house.
My one-line eulogy: “MR. Green! YOU will be MISSED.”
Andy Shaw is President & CEO of the Better Government Association.
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