Anatomy of Bob Greene

The Chicago columnist crusaded on behalf of abused kids. Then he got fired for having sex with a teenage subject.

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There is no shorthand to explain Bob Greene, no code. Unlike columnists such as George Will (bow-tied Washington elitist) or Jimmy Breslin (rumpled New York tough guy) or the late Mike Royko (ethnic Chicago wiseass), there is no simple way to describe the deeply weird Midwestern world that Bob Greene built through his column in the Chicago Tribune. That world shattered like a glass Christmas tree ornament hit by a brick last Sunday, after news of his forced resignation was tucked in the lower left-hand corner of the Trib’s front page, in a narrow box headlined, cryptically, “To our readers.” After nearly 25 years in the newspaper, and more than 30 as a Chicago columnist, he was gone, cashiered.

Bob (calling him “Greene” somehow feels wrong, like calling Elvis “Presley”) was the bard of Middle America, the defender of abused children, the relentless nostalgist who seldom paused from keening for the lost world of pre-1964 Columbus, Ohio, to notice anything positive in life today. It was all loss and decay, and a sense of sadness over what was and outrage over what is. In Bob’s world, children were routinely tortured and murdered while the legal system yawned, cherished institutions crumbled, the niceties of life were abandoned, and nobody cared.

When Bob did find something that met his approval, it was inevitably presented as a freakish anomaly, an unexpected flower growing out of our blasted and ruined landscape. When he found a high school string quartet that played diligently at a dinner he attended in South Bend, Ind., he presented the students as one of the rare “signs of hope” in a nation where otherwise “a lot of things” are “destined to go badly, to decline.”

Bob’s world was filled with odd contradictions. He liked baseball but not baseball players, Woody Hayes but not football, airports but not travel. He hated cities but lived in Chicago, lauded the wide-open roads of the Midwest but did not drive. He was the master of the unexplained dateline, filing from some city that had little or nothing to do with that day’s topic. His column might, say, carry a Tokyo dateline, but describe, not anything in Japan, but the hotel room, or the little soaps, or something on the cable TV.

Perhaps the most distinctive Bob characteristic was repetition. A columnist is supposed to provide a counterpoint to the steady drumbeat of the news. When the front page is chanting Iraq! Iraq! Iraq!, the columnist can cut across field, write something entirely different — hit some small curiosity one day, and the fate of the universe the next.

Not Bob. He would latch onto a subject — particularly the tales of tortured children he gleaned from trailer park America — and worry them like a dog with a beefsteak. Four columns in a row were unexceptional for Bob. Eight columns. A heart-wrenching child custody case, the Baby Richard saga, prompted more than 100 columns from Bob, each day repeating large blocks of background, lines like “the only family he has ever known” burning into the memory of his readers as certainly as Homer’s “wine-dark sea” and “rosy-fingered dawn.”

That this world could come crashing down in a sex scandal — with a high school girl, no less — was a shock to his fans and a delightful surprise to his detractors.

For the past 20 years, there have been two ways to view Bob: You could take him at face value — and a lot of people did. They viewed his concern for children as sincere, and made his books bestsellers. His column was syndicated. For a time, in the mid-1980s, he wrote the “American Beat” column for Esquire and filed reports for “Nightline.” He was pals with Michael Jordan, and his two hagiographies on the star swept away Jordan’s complex character in a blast of adoration.

Or you could mock him — and a lot of people did. They viewed his detailed descriptions of child abuse cases as an unsettling kind of pornography, and his take on America sentimental and sappy. The very first issue of the satiric monthly Spy, its October 1986 debut devoted to “JERKS,” featured five little square photos of Bob Greene, in a row, under the headline “The Illustrated History of Hair, Part I.” In the first, 1971 photo, he was seen on the phone, his bald pate barely covered by a pathetic tuft of hair. In the next four, he is shown in a series of patently fake toupees, lush helmets that would look ridiculous on Madame Pompadour.

The toupee seemed to symbolize Bob and his writing — a simulacrum of nature, an obvious falseness that he seemed to believe was accepted as real. He bared his soul, supposedly, but never a word about the wig. The ridicule swelled — Chicago radio stations aired sketches and running gags about Bob. The Chicago Reader ran my monthly column, BobWatch, for two years, cruelly dissecting the columnist’s passions and failings. The BobWatch philosophy was that Bob was so woefully bad, so frightened and out-of-touch and tone deaf, that he could be savored as a guilty pleasure, the way lousy 1950s sci-fi thrillers are enjoyed as camp.

And now he is gone, in a flash on a clear blue Sunday, gone like dial telephones and penny candy. Scandals unfold in a natural, almost mathematical progression, and this one is no different. First that morning’s shocking news, a spare gathering of fact: Bob Greene has resigned and “will no longer appear in the pages of this newspaper.” He was forced to resign after an anonymous e-mail touched off an inquiry uncovering “inappropriate sexual conduct some years ago with a girl in her late teens whom he met in connection with his newspaper column.” The Tribune “deeply regretted the conduct, its effect on the young woman and the impact this disclosure has on the trust our readers placed in Greene and the newspaper.”

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If the Tribune expected this vague scrap of fact to satisfy the local media, hungry on a quiet Sunday, it had, again, failed to grasp what people consider news. Bob is married, with two kids, one of whom he celebrated in the 1984 bestseller “Good Morning, Merry Sunshine,” the book that began the trend of writers commoditizing their children. Merry Sunshine is about the age of the girl he admitted to having sex with.

Reporters fanned out, hot on the trail of Bob and the girl, and battering at the Tribune corporate doors, which were barred. The Trib’s spokesman said merely that the statement stood on its own with no need for elaboration. Greene issued the standard, passive apology fragment, that he was “sorry for anyone I have let down.” The story led the local TV newscasts in Chicago on Sunday, except of course for WGN (which, remember, stands for “World’s Greatest Newspaper”), the station owned by the Tribune, which buried it deep in the program. So much for synergy.

There is a certain indignity that follows Bob like a cloud. When the Tribune inserted a “time capsule” CD-ROM in the paper the previous Sunday, it included a special warning — due to a glitch, clicking on the Bob Greene column caused the program to shut down. The scandal a week later was no different. Despite the seriousness of the reports, a subtle mockery filtered in. The local NBC station misspelled his name, “Green,” in its ID tag. The Fox reporter initially gave his name as “Mike Greene.”

Newspapers leak like paper bags filled with water. By Monday, the details were dribbling out: The girl was a high school student visiting the Tribune for a project. There was sex in a hotel room and Bob wrote about her in his column — not about the sex, of course, but a fond look at her naive questioning as part of the high school project.

As with all things Bob, there was a weird twist. After the girl — now a woman in her 30s — called Bob on the phone, twice, she was contacted by the FBI, who told her, her e-mail to the paper claimed, that she was threatening the columnist. Even the Trib, which at first tried to stonewall, carried a next-day story on the vigorous debate over Bob’s dismissal.

There was plenty to ponder. Just why was Bob forced to quit? For the sex? That seemed odd — his reputation for goatish pursuit of young women was an open secret. Everyone seemed to know women who had stories of Bob creepily singing his love song at them. I myself knew four. Why would the Tribune decide to act now, on this particular complaint? It couldn’t be the first.

Was it because he then wrote about his little missy in his column? That would be more in keeping with the Trib’s recent high-profile moralizing. The paper had refused to even look at the photos of a photographer at ground zero after learning he had accepted a free T-shirt from Chicago firefighters. That set people’s heads shaking — we’ve come a long way from the days when City News reporters occasionally kicked in the basement windows of a crime victim’s home to steal a photograph of the deceased off the mantle. They couldn’t let the path to coverage in the Tribune lead through Bob Greene’s bed.

Or was it something else? News stories do not always emphasize the most salient facts, and Bob’s apparent terrified rush to the FBI was a fact that was easy to overlook, particularly as the image of Bob Greene having sex with a teen was seared into the collective consciousness. His running to the FBI was not buried safely in the 1980s, but recent, this year. The Trib takes its ombudsmanship seriously, and can’t have complaining readers ratted out to the feds.

And what did the woman call about, anyway? The assumption is that, if she was actually threatening or blackmailing Bob, that would be somehow exculpatory, and the Trib would have mentioned it. What did she say?

At midweek, we are at the point where, traditionally, the wrongdoing, which initially was passed off as an isolated indiscretion, is found to have been a longstanding pattern of behavior. Radio talk-show phone lines heated up with women claiming to have approached Bob as admiring young fans and left him as despoiled groupies.

So far, the Trib has refused to entertain the issue of whether this was the first complaint or, like the Baby Richard columns, one in a chain of 100.

“We are dealing with one specific allegation, and that’s what we addressed,” said Ann Marie Lipinski, the Tribune editor.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about this entire episode is how quickly the Tribune cast its premiere columnist’s being fired for using the newspaper as a chick magnet into a moral triumph. The newspaper positively glowed with pride, in a flurry of self-administered back-pats.

“I’m also intensely proud of the people who run this newspaper,” wrote metro columnist John Kass. “Because they had the courage to do something painful to repair that trust.”

“Tribune journalists must,” noted an editorial, “under possible penalty of dismissal, abide by 12 pages of policies on ethics and business conduct.”

Now Chicago journalists are wondering how the Tribune — which in the past five years has lost such marquee names as Mike Royko, Ann Landers and, now, Bob Greene — will be affected, and if the Bob Greene story has legs. Midweek of the first week, interest in Bob’s Big Blunder seems to have not yet crested. CNN and MSNBC are preparing programs. Newsweek is investigating. And even his detractors are shaking their heads in amazement and feeling, perhaps, a twinge of regret over the loss of Bob’s warped world. Who will we make fun of now?

Neil Steinberg is a columnist and editorial board member at the Chicago Sun-Times, as well as the author of "Don't Give Up the Ship," a memoir recently published by Ballantine.

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