Leave it to Bob Greene, an old Chicago Trib columnist, to wonder in this CNN piece what the world would have been like if former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka had run for the Senate in 2004.
Greene has always had a unique point of view. This made him one of America’s great columnists in my opinion as well as an entertaining author. He wrote one of the best sports books ever published with Hang Time: Days and Dreams with Michael Jordan which was not only touching and funny but captured the real essence of perhaps the greatest athlete of the 20th century (yeah, yeah, yeah – so sue me. Maybe I’ll write a column explaining why some day.)
He doesn’t write columns anymore since being fired for a fling with a school age girl, revealed in 2002. And he’s apparently a kind of roué about women in general. But there is no questioning his talent. The man is a writer.
But Greene is spot on in making the point that an Obama-Ditka race would have been one for the ages. And I submit further that even if Ditka hadn’t won, it may very well have affected the 2008 race in very important ways.
The 2004 GOP primary was an expensive affair that year with eventual winner, businessman Jack Ryan (husband of actress Jeri Ryan – Seven-of-Nine in Star Trek Voyager and also a star of Boston Legal) defeating now perennial joke of a candidate Steve Oberweiss.
The Obama campaign was probably not directly involved in the effort to out the Ryan child custody files through a lawsuit filed by the Chicago Trib. But there is little doubt they were the ones who put the original bug in the ears of the press about some pretty strange stuff in those records – stuff they knew would sink Ryan.
The Wikpedia entry on the matter illustrates why anyone who trusts Barack Obama and believes him to be a different kind of politician should have their head examined:
As the campaign progressed, the lawsuit brought by the Chicago Tribune to open child custody files from Ryan’s divorce was still continuing. Barack Obama’s backers emailed reporters about the divorce controversy, but refrained from on-the-record commentary about the divorce files. On March 29, 2004, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Robert Schnider ruled that several of the Ryans’ divorce records should be opened to the public, and ruled that a court-appointed referee would later decide which custody files should remain sealed to protect the interests of Ryan’s young child. A few days later, on April 2, 2004, Barack Obama changed his position about the Ryans’ soon-to-be-released divorce records, and called on Democrats to not inject them into the campaign.
In other words, after Obama knew the files were going to be released anyway, he piously proclaimed that Democrats “should not inject them in the campaign.”
What an effing tool.
At any rate, the files contained sexual dynamite:
On June 22, 2004, after receiving the report from the court-appointed referee, the judge released the files that were deemed consistent with the interests of Ryan’s young child. In those files, Jeri Ryan alleged that Jack Ryan had taken her to sex clubs in several cities, intending for them to have sex in public. The decision to release the files generated much controversy because it went against both parents’ direct request, and because it reversed the earlier decision to seal the papers in the best interest of the child. Jim Oberweis, Ryan’s defeated GOP opponent, commented that “these are allegations made in a divorce hearing, and we all know people tend to say things that aren’t necessarily true in divorce proceedings when there is money involved and custody of children involved.”
It should be noted that Jeri Ryan made a point of continuing to support Jack’s candidacy – even though they were divorced. She made numerous appearances at his side and had nothing but praise for him when she was interviewed.
But the state GOP - who didn’t care for Ryan much anyway – knew he was dead meat and forced him to withdraw. Their problem? No one else wanted to step in and take Ryan’s place. The party asked two former Illinois governors, two state senators, and several wealthy businessmen – all turned them down.
But then a movement started to ask former Chicago Bears Coach, and one of the most popular celebrities in Illinois, Mike Ditka to save the GOP’s bacon. If he had accepted, would it have changed history?
A lot of people in Illinois thought Ditka had a pretty good chance to win, had he accepted the invitation to run. Remember: four years ago, Obama was a relative unknown. He was back in the state senate after having been defeated badly in a 2000 primary in which he sought to run for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Ditka, on the other hand, was one of the most famous– and in many, many places, beloved– people in the state of Illinois. He was controversial, yes, but that’s what his admirers liked about him. He was instantly recognizable in every corner of the state– he would have drawn enormous crowds to rallies. Mike Ditka, the icon, against Barack Obama, the novice?
“I am who I am,” Ditka told me. “People know that.”
Had Ditka run and won, there isn’t a way in the world that Obama would have been in the race for the White House now. And history would have been completely rewritten.
Greene may be overstating Ditka’s chances. Da Coach may very well have been a walking, talking gaffe machine whose ignorance of national issues would have made his candidacy problematic to say the least. Some of us were shuddering over the fact that every press appearance would have been white knuckle time. And make no mistake. Ditka is very, very conservative – a far cry from the usual Illinois Republican winner who tend toward the more moderate conservatism in the tradition of a Jim Thompson or Jim Edgar. Da Coach’s in your face style may have proved just too much for many people.
But stranger things have happened in politics. Ditka himself isn’t sure he could have beat Obama:
But what if Ditka had chosen to oppose Obama four years ago– and what if he had defeated Obama and been elected to the U.S. Senate?
“It would have been interesting, I’ll tell you that,” Ditka said over the phone. From our journey on the campaign road I had called him in Chicago, to see if he, too, had thought about what might have been.
“I don’t know what would have happened if I had run,” Ditka, 69, said. “I really don’t. Could I have beaten him? Maybe. Maybe not.”
Greene makes the excellent point that Obama was a relative unknown 4 years ago and a race against an icon like Ditka would have been close.The Democrat’s usual advantage in Cook County would have been considerably blunted. Any Democrat running statewide must come out of that county with at least 57% of the vote in order to overcome the GOP’s huge advantage downstate. No doubt Ditka would have done better than any other GOP candidate in Chicago where he is almost a God to many of the working class whites. Who knows? He may have even made inroads in the African American community. The point being, Obama would have been hardpressed to win enough votes in Cook County to win a statewide race.
As it was, the GOP committed political Hari Kiri and chose Maryland resident Alan Keyes (another walking, talking gaffe machine) to run when Ditka turned them down. Keyes was seen as a carpetbagger and made a series of fantastically inapt statements that doomed his candidacy.
Now here is where I think a Ditka-Obama race would have changed history even if Ditka had lost:
Obama ran the most successful Senate campaign for a non-incumbent in 2004, and was so far ahead in polls that he soon began to campaign outside of Illinois in support of other Democratic candidates. He gave large sums of campaign funds to other candidates and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and sent many of his volunteers to work on other races, including that of now-Congresswoman Melissa Bean who defeated then-Congressman Phil Crane in that year’s election. Obama and Keyes differed on many issues including school vouchers and tax cuts, both of which Keyes supported and Obama opposed.
Because he was so far ahead, Obama was able to campaign for several Democratic Senate and House candidates around the country while doling out money from his campaign to other races. This greased the skids with several important politicians in some vital states that Obama ended up winning in his brutal primary race against Hillary Clinton.
Might he have had those politicians in his corner if he hadn’t been able to leave Illinois? If Obama had been forced to spend every dime he raised and campaign in Illinois down to the wire in order to beat Ditka, would he have been able to beat Hillary Clinton?
That is a question that must remain in the realm of the counterfactual. We will just never know.