Part 3 of The Patch Interview with Author Scott Turow
Q: When I moved to Chicago, Studs Terkel told me, “Chicago is not any more corrupt than any other city. It’s just that we’re proud of our corruption.” You’ve worked within government and legal circles for a long time, so I’m curious about your insight. What is it about Illinois or Chicago politics that brings this out about human nature?
Turow: Well, first of all, I loved Studs. He was wonderful to me, as he was to you. And he was just one of those, you know, those guys who came of age in the 30s, the guys who were really inculcated in that socialist tradition. They loved people. They really believed in humanity and that there was good inside everyone. And Studs just exemplified that.
I agree with Studs somewhat, in that corruption in Chicago is no worse than corruption in Cleveland or Philadelphia or Baltimore or Boston. Or Miami, my God. There are places in the country that are not as corrupt, especially in the West. The traditions don’t exist the same way. So that’s the caveat.
Chicagoans are just accustomed to the reality of it. There’s been a tradition of a certain amount of brazenness. I remember when my beloved older partner, Bernie Nath, started talking to me about what went on in the city council when he started practicing law. He said there were two aldermen who ran everything, one was called Hinky Dink and the other was Bathhouse John. And he looks at me and he says, “Can you imagine being publicly known as Hinky Dink and Bathhouse John?”
He says, “They might have worn a hat that said, ‘I’m on the take.' ” So when federal prosecutors in the 1970s began getting around to prosecuting it, it wasn’t too hard cause it was just laying there on the surface. So, you know, I think Studs is right. I don’t think people like it though, and I don’t think they’re really proud of it. I think they just accept it.
I think Chicago is like a lot of American big cities that came of age at the same time, where there were a lot of tribes, there were a lot of immigrants. And how do you get things done in that situation? Especially in a city like this, which is basically segregated. We were well aware of racial segregation, but we don’t think about the ethnic segregation that certainly existed when I was a boy.
I grew up in West Rogers Park. That was Jews, period. Period. Bridgeport was Irish, period. There were parts of towns that were Italians. Lincoln Square was German, period. So everybody’s in their separate enclave, and how do you make things work? ’Cause each group gets control of certain aspects of city life. So it’s pretty natural to go, “I’ll give you this for that.” And I’m sure barter works, but cash is better.
Q: [Laughs] But you were intimately involved in Operation Greylord, which battled corrupt judges.
Turow: That blew me away. And that was a longtime Chicago tradition. And the bottom line was: You could not get more honorable people to sit on the bench in the Circuit Court of Cook County. There were some, like Marvin Aspen, who was eager as hell to get out of there for just that reason. And the other bad part was the people who didn’t participate just turned a blind eye...and they knew they had to accept it.
Q: And speaking of moral reckoning, there’s a confrontation at the end of Innocent in which a prosecutor says to a defendant, in essence, “Listen. I will not prosecute you, just tell me the real truth.” Is there a case in your life or a defendant that you would love to have that conversation with?
Turow: Yes, but I’m not gonna name him.
Q: Can you tell me circumstance at least?
Turow: One of the judges I convicted. This is somebody who I thought was a good guy. And I’d just like to know, you know, “What the hell happened? How could you be doing this?” Some people speculated it was gambling debts. I remember one person telling me that he probably needed the money to support his elderly parents. But I would just like to be able to say, “Why? I don’t get it.” But he always comes to mind as a kind of moral enigma, because I thought he was a very good guy.
Q: Will you have the opportunity to have that conversation? Is that something that’s possible for you?
Turow: I might. I mean, he’s out and he’s around town. You know, we don’t have extended conversations, but we certainly say hello. It would be really interesting.
Q: I was always fascinated by that fact the Bob Woodward would have figures from Watergate as dinner guests. People he helped put in prison.
Turow: For years, I was neighbors with a guy I’d been responsible for convicting. I was one of the prosecutors on the case. There are people who understand that they are responsible for their own misfortune in this system, and that they did things they are not proud of anymore, and they got exposed. And they think to themselves, “If I was in the prosecutor’s or the reporter’s shoes, I’d have done the same thing.” And so, there can be some peace there.
You know, if you meet an actor who you’ve seen on the screen and on stage, you really already know a lot about them, ’cause they’ve revealed a lot of themselves. But the backstage actors are different. Like I told somebody last night, who was telling me how much she hates Barney Frank.
And I said, “I’ve known Barney since 1975, he was a year ahead of me in law school and by the way, he is one of the funniest human beings alive. He’s hysterical.”
And she said, “He is? I like him better already.”
So, sometimes the public persona, especially political figures, is very limited. They may be different people. The one that always gets me in trouble with my friends is when I tell them that George W. Bush is a really great guy. He’s good company. He’s incredibly honest, just unbelievable candid. A very engaging, funny guy, who’s great to spend time with.
Scott Turow will present the sixth Barbara Ballinger Lecture on Tuesday, Oct. 25 at 7:30 pm at Unity Temple, 875 Lake Street in Oak Park. A reception, book sale, and signing will follow the lecture. The event is free and open to the public. Doors will open at 7 pm. The Main Library's Parking Garage will remain open through the reception.
Read more of this interview
Introduction: Turow on ebooks and the future of publishing. "I refer to Amazon as the Darth Vader of the publishing industry."
Part 2: Turow on his writing process, the book he's currently working on and the influence of Chicago writer Saul Bellow on his work.
Part 4: Turow recounts the story of getting mugged and how it changed his thoughts about eye-witness testimony.