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Big Guy, Big Personality, Big Flaws

Former governor James Thompson dies

 Illinois Times 

August 27, 2020

This is a longer version of a column I wrote for Illinois Times upon the death of Illinois’s long-time governor, James R. Thompson. As I note in that piece, his rise as a politician coincided with that of the newspaper, and to those of us working at IT in those days he was a familiar, if often exasperating, character.

The piece was well-received. Mary Bohlen, associate professor emerita at what is today the University of Illinois Springfield after teaching journalism there for 30 years, was a young reporter for United Press International's statehouse bureau in Springfield during the early years of JRT's reign. That makes her what we used to call an informed source. The obits about the late governor were effusive and I was very pleased when she praised my version as one of the few objective pieces that saw print.  


James R. Thompson, the tallest (six feet six) and longest (14 years in office) governor Illinois ever had, died on August 14, 2020 in Chicago at 84. Senate President Don Harmon observed, “No one enjoyed being governor more.” Certainly, no modern governor did. Inside the big man was a little boy with a sweet tooth who in January 1977 found himself in his own candy shop. He ate it all up—the corn dogs, the applause, the press attention, the chauffeured rides.


Thompson was a better politician than he was a governor because his were a politician’s virtues. He was a mediator and a broker who led from the rear, where it was safer. Likable himself, he genuinely liked people and knew what they liked and he gave it to them. A candidate needs a dog, so he got a dog; a candidate needs family, so he got a family. Just folks go to the fair, so he went to the fair;  the glee with which he slid down the state fair’s giant slide on a gunnysack was genuine, and just folks loved him for it.  


His zest for campaigning was legendary. He was endlessly fascinated by Illinois’s many tribes and mimicked their ways and their speech while he was with them. This was not affectation or pandering, or at least not only affectation and pandering. He lusted to be a part of every crowd, not merely to be among it, and fell naturally into the cadences and intonation of his hosts. At a black church he felt the spirit; at the county fair, he went down home. Largely because of this, he was, with Frank Lowden and Henry Horner, that rarest of Illinois governor, a Chicagoan  popular with Downstaters.

His record suggests a politician non pareil—he won every time he ran—but he also was lucky. He very nearly lost in 1982 in a nasty campaign against the patrician Adlai Stevenson III, our Knight of the Doleful Countenance. (Stevenson said that campaign that if he was elected governor he would name the new state building in Chicago after Thompson, because “it’s big, it’s ugly and it doesn’t work.”) Stevenson that year was beaten not by Thompson but by the Illinois Supreme Court, which refused his request for a recount; in 1986, when Adlai III again ran against JRT, Stevenson was beaten by Lyndon LaRouche when the Democratic ticket was highjacked by his loony followers, forcing Stevenson onto a third party ballot and out of contention.


Thompson was praised by the people who worked for him. Reporters loved him too, even though they knew they were being played, praising him for his “accessibility”—meaning his skill at flattering journalists in return for positive coverage. His vanities were small and harmless, although his complaints about what he saw as the poor pay and perks offered governors were the least attractive thing about him. (See my 1981 IT column, Hard Times: Big Jim Thompson lives large at our expense.)


His pretensions were almost endearing (among them his boyhood dream to someday be President). Alas, he never had the national career he dreamed of. The conventional interpretation is that he was a pragmatic and moderate Republican at a time when moderation no longer was respected by that party. Perhaps more decisively, he seemed to strike national party elders as callow.


It’s been nearly 30 years since JRT left the mansion, time enough to judge whether he was any good at the job. Certainly, he had his virtues as a chief executive. Not until the election of J. B. Pritzker has Illinois seen a governor of Thompson’s intelligence (although Pritzker came into office with a better education and broader experience). He was a quick study and he realized that legislative politics was a matter of getting things done, not striking poses. His administration was remarkably free from scandal, given its length. He saved the Dana-Thomas House for the public and saved the governorship for Jim Edgar, whom he hand-groomed for the job.


Unfortunately, Big Jim never dared to risk his popularity to become one of Illinois’s great governors in the mold of Lowden or Horner or Ogilvie. Maybe that was just because he wasn’t interested enough in government. Not for him the Obama-ish mastering of every brief. He preferred to hire smart people and let them do the thinking. This worked well enough when it came to the mundane matters of governance, but on substantial issues on which Illinois needed leadership, he drew a too-convenient line between views of Thompson the citizen and those of Thompson the governor.


This was most disappointingly evident when it came to women’s rights. Thompson was for the ERA personally, but he refused to risk his standing with the right wing of his own party to push to get it passed. The governor's trick back seemed to give out every time an ERA vote approached so reliably that some reporters used the state of the governor's back to predict such votes the way some people forecast a storm when their big toes throb. That reticence was a big reason the amendment failed in Illinois, and thus in the U.S.


Pollution was another such issue. In the 1970s, it was believed that Illinois coal would play a big part in America’s energy future, and thus in Illinois’s, even though the obdurate opposition by electricity utilities to pollution controls meant that people would get sick. Thompson swore in a Chicago speech that he would be willing to breathe dirtier air for ten years or so until someone came up with a better way of doing things.


As a citizen he was free to be careless with his health, but no governor has the right to be so cavalier with the health of his fellow citizens. The choice was not, as Thompson has it, between energy and clean air. Rather, the choice was between cheap energy and clean air. Of the alternatives before Illinois, he opted for the easiest—a typical fault of a man for whom the best policy was always the most popular policy.


We saw the same tendencies when it came to the economy. He was a friend to labor but a servant to business; most of his preferred economic development policies such as bribing big companies to locate or stay in Illinois have since been discredited. Arguably the worst such deal was the one he brokered to keep Sears, Roebuck’s merchandizing headquarters in Illinois. (For more, see my 1989 IT column, Sears Moves to Beijing.) Emptying the treasury to fund incentive for a new factory like the Diamond-Star car plant in McLean County didn't stop a dozen other closings, although it had the happy effect of distracting people from them.


Thompson’s approach to revenue was piecemeal and ad hoc. He believed in happy endings, and was certain that if we could just get through this recession or that oil embargo, we would go back to being fat, happy Illinois again. He signed labor deals that would cost the state grievously in the long run. He liked to pose as “the taxpayers’ friend,” which in Illinois meant promising to never raise even necessary taxes; people remembered him for the promises, not for the fact that he never kept them, and that made him a more popular governor, if a lesser public figure. A soberly considered redesign of the whole revenue system would have been a legacy worth boasting about, but the example of Richard Ogilvie—another crime-busting Republican from Chicago but one whose advocacy of a new state income tax cost him a second term—was not one Thompson wanted to follow.


Seldom mentioned in the many remembrances of JRT in print and on-line was his role as a “law-and-order” governor, which meant rewriting the law to impose order on unruly populations. One of his first priorities was passing stiffer mandatory sentences for certain crimes. He reinstated the death penalty and invented a new category of crime, the Class X felony, conviction for which led to minimum sentences and, for third-time offenders, imprisonment without possibility of parole. Thompson thus made the state a party to the neo-Jim Crow system meant to keep African American males under control, turning virtually all the young men in some Chicago neighborhoods into felons. He gave little  thought to the possibility that the policy might simply trade one problem for another one; it won him votes in the suburbs, but it cost billions in prison construction and destroyed any chance of a future for a whole generation of poor men of color.


Grave misjudgments, but in spite of them Jim Thompson perhaps looks better now than then. Certainly, he was better at the job than most of the governors who followed him, but some of the praise lavished him his memory is misplaced. Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider listed as his accomplishments sending a corrupt governor to jail, rebuilding the state's infrastructure, keeping the White Sox in Chicago, and presiding over a “healthy and prosperous Illinois." The White Sox “incentive” was a payoff to an extortionist, no governor can take credit (or blame) for the national economy, and jailing Kerner was an abomination, and in any event we send corrupt governors to jail all the time, with no effect on our public life except to sour voters on government and politics. He did do a lot of building, although we can argue about that a lot of it was unneeded; while the State of Illinois Center in Chicago was an admirable failure, the new tax-paid park for the White Sox was an outrage second only to the White Sox game-fixing scandal of 1919.


Thompson’s career out of office was undistinguished. As the rainmaker for one of Chicago’s top law firms, he made himself rich as he always wanted, so presumably he died a happy man. But that career was blighted by his derelict performance as a board member of Hollinger International while Canadian billionaire Conrad Black looted the firm—a reminder that to a Republican, law-and-order applies to the streets but not to the corporate board rooms.

For all his faults, Thompson was remembered fondly by party officials and colleagues because he provided jobs for all of them. He was probably as good a governor as he could have been and maybe slightly better than Illinois deserved; a great governor can only be produced by a great state. ●


Big Jim Thompson of Illinois by Robert E. Hartley (Rand McNally, 1979) is good on Thompson’s pre-politics career. For a balanced assessment of Thompson’s political career, see the chapter on JRT by Peggy Boyer Long in Mostly Good and Competent Men (second edition), published by the Institute for Public Affairs, University of Illinois at Springfield, 1999.




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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. 

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