Big Jim Thompson lives large at our expense
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. ●