top of page

Hard Times

Big Jim Thompson lives large at our expense

Illinois Times

November 19, 1981

James R. Thompson was Illinois's governor from 1977 until 1991. “Big Jim” was big in every way. He had an outsized personality, outsized ambition . . .  and an outsized lifestyle. 


The governor says that how he spends his money is no one’s business but his. I would be inclined to agree were it not for three facts. One, it’s my money—and yours—he’s spending. Two, the governor routinely makes how I spend my money his business. And three, personal finances of high officials ought to be a campaign issue. Money—not how he makes it, or how much, but how he spends it—is a measure of a man, and taking the measure of a man is what campaigns are for.


The Chicago Tribune, you will recall, reported that Jim Thompson has repeatedly remortgaged his Chicago house to the tune of nearly $200,000 to get money for everyday living expenses. “Like a lot of Americans,” he explained, “I’m living off the value of my house.” The news disturbed many Illinoisans, who thought that by supplying him with a nice mansion and staff, tax-paid junkets, free transportation, plus $58,000 a year in pocket money they had provided rather handsomely for their chief executive. Yet here’s the gov, borrowing against his house to pay off his credit cards, even reduced to the extremity of bumming drinks off college students at football games. Times must be harder than we thought.


I wouldn’t have paid any mind to the governor’s plight if he hadn’t made that rash remark about his being like a lot of Americans. That made me mad. There are most definitely not a lot of Americans who can afford to spend three-quarters of their take-home pay on house payments, as the governor does, and still dine on lobster—at least not since the Reagan administration has put helicopters and butlers beyond the reach of the middle class.


I don’t mind it when well-heeled politicians portray themselves as The Common Man, although Thompson’s affected drawls test the limits of even my generous nature. The risk is that they may actually begin to believe their own charade. Since moving to Springfield in 1976, Thompson has led a lifestyle which can only be described as baronial. Back in 1978, Trib columnist Mike Kilian noted in a magazine profile Thompson’s “penchant for grandeur.” When it comes to making himself comfortable, Thompson (like most of his predecessors) spares us no expense.


He is one of that emerging aristocracy whose company also includes university presidents, admirals, and medical school deans who live like princes—not on old money or new money but on public money.

The fare at the mansion, for example, runs toward beef filet and kiwi fruit, with the result that Thompson has more trouble reducing his weight than he does state spending. When he travels to Washington on public business he stays in $300-plus-a-day hotel rooms. He shares the taste of his fellow Republican Reagan for lavish redecoration of his working and living quarters. He has stretched his job description to encompass foreign relations, or so his trips to Great Britain and Japan would seem to indicate. More than one experienced statehouse observer thinks that Thompson—who betrays no particular passion for government—covets the office because there is nowhere else he could satisfy his taste for high living at so little expense.


His lifestyle has already become a minor issue in the 1982 campaign. Thompson has a palace guard of state troopers which in 1980 were reported to cost taxpayers more than $1,225,000 a year. They are ostensibly a security detail, but their duties consist mainly of chauffeuring the gov, carrying his luggage, and, in Springfield, ogling passing women with the mansion’s remote-control TV surveillance camera. When Adlai Stevenson III complained that sixty-seven troopers were extravagant, Thompson testily replied that he has “only” fifty-two, and that only about fifteen of these are assigned to the mansion.


Thompson has also volunteered that he scrapes by with one fewer butler than Dan Walker had. I’m certain this news brightened the day considerably for the folks in East St. Louis. I am equally certain that it never occurred to Thompson to wonder whether it was proper to expect praise for having let one butler go when most people would consider him extravagant for having kept even one.


One would think that a state as big as Illinois could afford a butler or two. One would also think that a state like Illinois could afford better houses for its poor. Thompson has often said that being governor is different (“I’m not a clerk,” he snapped in 1978 during the pay-raise to-do). I suppose that it is, although I confess I sometimes find that drawing such distinctions of privilege is unbecoming to an elected representative of the people.


Naturally enough, Americans expect their leaders, especially their Presidents, to maintain a certain standard. But one must draw a careful distinction of one’s own here between the office and the man. (Or woman.) The U.S. Constitution unwisely placed both the head of state and the head of government on the same neck, and voters—not to mention Presidents—have been confused ever since.


The contrast with Great Britain is instructive. The British, oddly enough, showed little resentment over the lavish sums spent on the royal wedding in spite of the fact that it took place while youths rioted in the streets, unemployment in some northern industrial cities was pushing 25 percent, and the Thatcher government was cutting social spending. Yet a visit made by Thatcher to the riot- torn Toxteth district of Liverpool in a Jaguar stirred much criticism. How can a display of wealth by the Prince of Wales be applauded while a very much more modest one by the Prime Minister be damned as unfeeling? The reason is that Thatcher is a mere politician while Prince Charles is the embodiment of the State. (This also explains why the British press was so rude to Nancy Reagan, who showed up for wedding week with two hairdressers and trunks of clothes, a politician’s wife acting as if she were a queen. That kind of behavior is accepted here—as a republic, we must take our queens where we find them—but in Great Britain they already have one, and she’s much better at it.


However, a governor does not embody the state the way the President does the Union. Thompson acts like it sometimes; indeed, his lifestyle may be the only genuinely Presidential thing about him. But there is a vast difference between being head of state and head of a state, and although Thompson must occasionally receive delegations from foreign powers such as Commonwealth Edison, his duties on the whole are less than majestic. We thus owe any governor a tidy set of public rooms at the mansion and the use of a butler on formal occasions. We may even condescend to let him use the official car on a Saturday night, if he promises to put gas in it. But free trips to the summer house? Butlers at family meals? No.


Many readers will find these complaints petty. The money involved isn’t much really, and it is true that even Adlai Stevenson—the governor, not the senator—used to fly home on weekends on National Guard planes and once sent a state trooper to fetch a favorite toothbrush he left at a friend’s home. But the issue is not money. In flush times the spectacle of a governor spending himself into near-bankruptcy in spite of subsidy by the taxpayers would seem merely sordid. But to do so when his own party is counseling citizens to tighten their belts, when school lunch and medical care and welfare and jobs training and education funds are all being cut, is tasteless at best.


One may attach many different words to a political party whose right hand rewrites school lunch standards to define ketchup as a vegetable while it pours itself a glass of Domaine Chandon Blanc de Noir with its left. “Sensitive” isn’t among them.


Neither is “astute.” Resentment bids to be a major social and political force in the ’80s. I doubt if Americans, Illinoisans among them, have ever really thirsted for equality, but they bring a certain expectation of equity to their political thinking.


Jim Thompson is a man of limited experience of the world who had the bad luck to succeed early in life. When he uses words like “hardship” or “sacrifice” he has no more idea what they mean than does his dog Sam. In fact, when he speaks of sacrifice, it is usually to complain that his job doesn’t pay enough. Thompson is a lawyer, and like many lawyers he seems unable to see why a lawyer who earns $100,000 a year in Chicago shilling for the big corporations should get paid only $28,000 (to pick just one example) for doing the same work in the General Assembly.


It is usually argued that unless pay for public office is made roughly commensurate with that obtainable in private practice we will be unable to attract the best people to the mansion or the bench or the legislature. We are entitled to ask, I think, whether someone who won’t take such a job because it pays “only” $50,000 is really one of the best people. In the case of the governor in particular, a salary of $58,000 may be said to be a sacrifice, but it can in no way be described as a hardship. Besides, sacrifice is implicit in the bargain we all make as citizens. If big-time lawyers give up more, it’s because they have more to give up.


The Republicans have proposed that welfare recipients be forced to sell off all but $1,000 in assets to qualify for aid; perhaps the gov could sell off a few of his $70,000 worth of antiques to raise cash. Of course, Thompson may eventually have to sell his house because he can’t keep up with the mortgage payments; then he really would be like a lot of Americans, who are defaulting on home payments in record numbers.


Such an unhappy event might not make Thompson a better household budgeter, but it would make him a better governor. In the meantime, I recommend that voters who wish to learn more about Thompson’s political views study not his speeches but his waistline. That’s the problem with Gucci belts, you know. They’re designed so they can’t be tightened. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

bottom of page