Years ago, when I was new in town and causing trouble, Rich Miller phoned me, out of the blue, and invited me to lunch. As I recall, he gave me something like 15 minutes notice to show up at a downtown restaurant. I figured his real lunch appointment must have canceled and I was a last-minute sub, but so what? I wasn’t about to miss a bull session with a guy who has, for the past two decades, devoted heart and soul to covering Illinois politics.
Miller started his career in 1989 here, at Illinois Times, making $50 a week and living in a basement coal bin; he now makes a very comfortable living writing a syndicated column for about 150 papers (including IT), a weekly column for the Chicago Sun-Times and churning out a thrice-weekly hot sheet called Capitol Fax, a subscription-based enterprise he launched in 1993. He also produces a juicy up-to-the-minute blog (thecapitolfaxblog.com). Did I say he covers Illinois politics? He’s all over it.
Not surprisingly, lunch with Miller isn’t for the faint of heart. He’s a big, loud, hairy dude with a wardrobe of tie-dyed shirts and a vocabulary
that could give Gov. Rod Blagojevich a run for his money on the bleepometer. “Do you mind if I smoke?” Miller asked me. “Because, if you do, you can just go sit way the [bleep] over there.”
So I wasn’t entirely unprepared when I called him the other day and asked if I could interview him for my column. His answer was the word “no” artfully arranged as the thematic motif in a fresco of profanity. I talked him into it anyway.
Miller got news of Blago’s arrest early on the morning of Tuesday, Dec. 9, and instantly confirmed the tip by calling one of the governor’s neighbors. In that moment, he says, life turned into a “crazy blur.” Over the next week, working mostly from his home in a remote area of Springfield, he stole naps but spent about 20 hours per day mining sources and writing. He has two phone lines, a fax machine, text messaging, AIM and an interactive blog; they all stayed lit up, all the time. With his wife out of the country visiting relatives, he was left to fend for himself.
“I got to know the pizza delivery guy a lot better,” he says. “But I discovered you can only eat so many pizzas. I was eating stuff out of cans.” He pried himself away from his computer only when he ran out of coffee and cigarettes, sometime the following Friday.
I’d say that Miller has a love/hate relationship with this unfolding circus, but that would be putting it too mildly, on both sides. His exasperation with cable TV reporters who try to sponge off his expertise was born during Barack Obama’s presidential campaign; the Blago fiasco has turned it into a blood oath. He refuses to watch them, much less talk to them.
“First, they don’t seem to know what they’re doing, and second, I don’t like this [bleep] about ‘We’re the national media so you need to help us.’ Well, no, I don’t,” he says.
Similarly, his disdain for Roland Burris — the former attorney general turned lobbyist and unlikely though apparent heir to president-elect Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat — is palpable.
“Nobody’s taken him seriously since 1994. He’s an egomaniac and a goof. He hasn’t won an election in 18 years, of any kind,” Miller fumes, riffing that Burris couldn’t win a seat on a condo association board.
His attitude toward Blagojevich — who granted him “more private face-time” than any other reporter, up until Miller let slip that he used these interviews to check Blago’s sanity — sounds like a mix of fortune, fury and pity. The chaos the governor created drove more subscribers to Miller’s Capitol Fax. But he says he was preparing to publish an editorial urging impeachment when U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald jumped in and arrested the governor.
“If he had a [bleeping] ounce of sense in his [bleeping] head, he would walk into
Fitzgerald’s office and get a plea deal,” Miller says. “If he doesn’t do that, he’s gonna go behind bars and away for a very long time. It’s just too bad.”
This whole scandal would be easier for Miller to endure if he didn’t care so much about Illinois, and if he didn’t care about his profession. But as anybody who knows this truly unique journalist will tell you, he’s passionate about both.
“I love this state. I love it with everything I have. It’s one of a kind, and I like it that way,” he says. “To a lot of reporters, this is just a beat. They go home, they take vacation
during the last week of session. To me, it’s my whole life.”
Contact Dusty Rhodes at firstname.lastname@example.org.