Journalists love to mark anniversaries because they invite reflection—they’re great opportunities to connect the dots between then and now, with color and context.
So when Shore editor Pat Colander gave me a deadline of January 21st for this column, the date rang a bell, and then I remembered why: It’s one day after President Obama’s first Inauguration in '09, and that’s when I said good-bye to ABC 7 in Chicago after covering politics for 26 years.
Inaugural weekend in Washington was bitter cold in '09, packed wall-to-wall with people, and a logistical nightmare for reporters who had to move around with camera crews to cover events and get them on TV.
D.C. was on virtual lockdown, with most vehicle traffic prohibited and armed law enforcement everywhere.
But there was “hope and change” in the air—the crowd epitomizing the campaign mantra and sense of history the Obama election represented—so we battled the elements and got our stories.
Very challenging and very satisfying, like a lot of breaking news coverage.
I knew it was my last hurrah because I had carefully planned my departure from ABC and the TV news job I enjoyed for so long. It was still fun, but after thousands of stories and thousands of hard deadlines, it was starting to feel like “Groundhog Day” and I was burning out.
Even so, I hemmed and hawed during those final months, had second and third and fourth thoughts, fought off bouts of doubt and pangs of panic, and eventually decided to go through with it—to exit stage left and get on with the rest of my life.
So on January 21st, the day after the Inauguration and four years before this deadline, I did my final wrap-up on the 6 o’clock news and bid a live farewell to the anchors, the folks behind the camera and the viewers who made our comfortable lives possible.
That was my version of “hope and change.”
If you had asked me then what I’d be writing about now, here’s what I would have said: Mary and I are taking a few months off and then I’ll explore my options in and out of journalism, including teaching, writing and political consulting.
If a new journalism opportunity comes along I’ll probably grab it; if not, I’ll cobble together enough part-time gigs to make a few bucks and stay busy.
The last thing I expected to do was take on the challenge of revitalizing a struggling Chicago-based civic watchdog organization, the Better Government Association, without any management or administrative or nonprofit experience.
I remember meeting a friend for a drink a few weeks into the job in the summer of `09. The first thing she said was, “What were you thinking?” It was the depth of the “Great Recession” and she thought I was crazy.
But she sent us a check for a thousand dollars anyway, probably out of pity.
Turns out we didn’t need pity. This was an exciting opportunity. Government was a mess at all levels, I knew how it should and shouldn’t work, the BGA had a great history, and the timing was perfect.
Board members stepped up with money and guidance, donors and foundations invested in our re-tooled program, pro bono consultants held my hand, and we slowly assembled a talented staff that made us a relevant anti-corruption civic watchdog once again.
We investigate, litigate, educate and advocate (guess I learned to rhyme by covering the Rev. Jesse Jackson) and we’re having an impact. Many units of government are beginning to spend tax dollars more fairly, accountably, honestly, transparently and efficiently, which is what we demand.
So I’m still enjoying a job I thought would last two years at most before I found something else to do. Mary’s been a great support and an enthusiastic cheerleader, even though she periodically wonders when I’m going to “retire” for real. I’m almost 65 and blessed with grandchildren and a great Michigan getaway house so maybe it’s not that far off.
F. Scott Fitzgerald was a great writer but dead wrong when he said, “there are no second acts.” Life, like theater, has many acts—some predictable, others totally out of left field. The BGA job is a lovely example of the latter.
So I happily took a pass on a Presidential Inauguration for the first time in 25 years. I enjoyed watching former colleagues fight the cold and the logistics to tell the stories I told for two-and-a-half decades.
And I marked the occasion with a toast to my Shore friends for letting me fill a page in every issue with a column, illustrating it with creative caricatures and, in this case, giving me a deadline that marks one my most important personal passages.
A chance to reflect on four fascinating years.
An unexpected “second act” that’s flown by in a nanosecond.
A very happy anniversary.