One reporter’s decades-long dance with Mike Madigan

Politicians calculate what they say and do. Journalists turn what they say and do into stories. And every now and then they interact like normal human beings.

SHARE One reporter’s decades-long dance with Mike Madigan

Former Illinois House Speaker Michael J. Madigan

Sun-Times Media

Political reporters and the pols they cover have awkward do-si-do relationships. 

They see one another most work days, and while they generally display requisite cordiality and occasionally feign warmth, they’re actually clumsy dance partners because there’s no real chemistry. 

Pols calculate what they say and do. Journalists turn what they say and do into stories — often unflattering when they highlight conflict and controversy. 

Talk about a recipe for an ugly divorce. But it’s not an option. Temporary separations maybe but no permanent splits — they’re stuck with each other, at least professionally.

And every now and then they actually interact like normal human beings. 

Opinion bug


That synopsis captures my relationship with former Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan.

I covered the powerful speaker and Illinois Democratic chairman for years in my newspaper and TV reporting roles, and my stories frequently ruffled feathers. 

But Madigan was too disciplined and aloof to personally complain — that persona made him mysterious and, frankly, scary — so surrogates delivered the complaints. 

I always wondered how an Irish Catholic neighborhood kid—a disciple of the first Mayor Daley but as icy as his mentor was voluble — learned to play the political game his way, but it certainly worked. 

So imagine how surprising and yes — surreal — it was to briefly get up close and personal with Madigan in 1999, when he joined then-Gov. George Ryan’s delegation on a humanitarian trip to Cuba that I covered for ABC 7. 

One off-the-record social event — and I emphasize “off-the-record”—was a cocktail reception at a beautiful Havana mansion that served as the home of the U.S. attaché to Cuba.

Madigan and I were at the hors d’oeuvres table at the same time, and our initially awkward salutations warmed to a comfortable conversation about family. Turned out he was schlepping his son Andrew from their home on the Southwest Side every Sunday morning to confirmation classes at a Catholic church half a block from my family’s Lincoln Park bed-and-breakfast inn.

Madigan mentioned that he always had an hour to kill while Andrew was in class, so I suggested he wander over to our inn for coffee. He welcomed the invitation and we agreed to follow up after the Cuba trip.

Purists may accuse me of crossing the personal/professional journalistic line, but exploring the possible news benefits of a good relationship with the ultimate Springfield powerbroker felt like a smart move at the time. 

And no worries — the dance music stopped before we did a do or a si or a do. 

Back in Illinois we resumed our normal routines, time went by, and in 2001 — before we got around to a Sunday morning coffee — Madigan’s daughter Lisa, a state senator at the time, launched her campaign for Illinois attorney general. 

Her Republican opponent, to the surprise of no one except an uncharacteristically naive Mike, made him the issue: His fundraising machine paying for her campaign, his clout ensuring her endorsements, and their family ties making it unlikely she would ever investigate alleged corruption in his Springfield kingdom. 

Despite the Lisa-as-Mike’s-puppet theme, she won handily, but he was so angry, he stopped talking to the media, me included, for years.

Mike was never a readily accessible politician. I think he believed the less said publicly, the more the “Madigan Mystique” would burnish an aura of power that made people cower. But this was a near-total boycott. 

So there would be no coffee on Sundays and no scoop any other day. 

The silent treatment unexpectedly morphed into open warfare a decade later, after I had left ABC7 and signed on to run the Better Government Association. 

One of our BGA investigations revealed that nearly all of Madigan’s precinct captains and election soldiers had well-paying government jobs in Chicago and Cook County. Patronage writ large. 

Matching the names required visits to some of their homes, which prompted Madigan to distribute a widely-circulated letter accusing the BGA of “intimidation” and me of “acting like a boss.”

Those accusations from the ultimate intimidator and boss were laughable — the pot calling the kettle black — as I noted in multiple media interviews, and after a few thrusts and parries the public spat was relegated to newsroom morgues. 

But truth be told, I thoroughly enjoyed this one-on-one battle with MM, who played his game as fiercely as MJ played his. 

Since then, I’ve frequently written and spoken publicly about Madigan, and we’ve exchanged once-again awkward greetings when our paths crossed. How quickly we revert to our old habits.

But now that we’re both off the main dance floor, isn’t it time to lighten up?

We could exchange war stories and family updates over coffee, a glass of wine, a round of golf or a couple surgically dissected luncheon apples. 

But I’m not holding my breath. Years of clumsy dancing makes one wary of do-si-dos with old partners famous for deeply ingrained habits and infrequent ventures out of character — even ones you’ve shared a brief moment of humanity with. 

Andy Shaw covered politics and government at ABC7 before heading the Better Government Association. He now chairs a CHANGE Illinois board.

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