Tuesday, October 30, 2007
2 sides to Gov. Ryan
THE CHICAGO WAY | Why is it so hard to believe he was both sincere about the
death penalty and a crook?
October 29, 2007
BY TOM McNAMEE Sun-Times Columnist
I asked an editor in the Sun-Times newsroom, a guy I respect: What do you
make of George Ryan's moratorium on executions?
"A cynical public relations stunt," he said.
There you go. You hear that a lot.
>From the moment former Gov. Ryan declared a moratorium on executions in
>Illinois, shortly before he left office in 2002, hard-eyed realists across
>the state had laughed off any possibility that his motives were pure, that
>he acted sincerely out of a troubled conscience.
Ryan's conscience wasn't troubled, they said. But Ryan, himself, was in deep
trouble, soon to be indicted for a string of crooked dealings while he was
governor and secretary of state. He seized on the death penalty issue, they
said, in a shameless attempt to divert attention from his legal problems,
and, perhaps, in a bid to salvage his legacy.
To which I've always replied: How boring.
People -- even a by-the-numbers Republican like Ryan -- are so much more
complicated than that.
My own belief is that Ryan was and remains utterly sincere in his opposition
to the death penalty. But whether he knows it or not, he never would have
done the soul-searching to get to that point, or felt the freedom to do
something about it, had U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald not been chasing
Unseen forces shape us
Why do any of us believe what we believe? It's almost never just a matter of
"There are always analysts who come up with a primitive kind of Marxism, who
say that all we do is governed by rationally calculated self-interest," said
Andreas Glaeser, an associate professor of sociology at the University of
Chicago. "But I find that too primitive. I suspect your hunch is right about
somebody like Ryan. I have met politicians, and I was shocked to see the
human being in front of me."
>From his study of the secret police in formerly communist Eastern European
>countries, Glaeser said, he's found that the beliefs people claim to hold
>are heavily shaped by forces they don't even see.
"You have to look at their social networks," he said. "Their social
contracts, experiences in their jobs, who talks to whom, and what can you
talk about when you talk."
And when those unseen forces shift, so do our supposedly deepest
In the case of Ryan, almost everything in his life and career would have
discouraged him from questioning the death penalty -- even to himself --
until he became governor. As a Kankakee Republican, he moved almost
exclusively in circles where a belief in the death penalty was a given, and
where expressing doubts was political suicide.
But as governor, it became Ryan's job to personally review the last-minute
appeals of prisoners about to be executed, and by all accounts the job
"It was gut-wrenching for him," recalled his former press secretary Dennis
Culloton. "He was emotionally wrought."
And then in late 1999, Culloton said, the Chicago Tribune ran a series of
articles about former Death Row inmates who had been wrongly convicted on
the basis of bad evidence, bad witnesses and prosecutorial misconduct -- and
it pushed Ryan over the edge. What if one of those wrongly convicted men,
Ryan asked, had been executed on his watch?
It was during a back-office meeting with aides, Culloton recalled, that Ryan
first entertained the idea of declaring a moratorium on executions. He began
the meeting by repeatedly asking, "What do I do? What do I do?"
"Nowhere was there talk of the political calculation," Culloton said. "Not
once did he say something like, 'Will this get me off the front page of the
scandal sheets?' "
Also agonized over abortion
Do I believe Culloton's spin? Yeah. Because this isn't the first time I've
heard about Ryan struggling to reconcile his politics and his personal
When Ryan was running for governor, as Chicago-based journalist Jim Merriner
reported in the Sun-Times in April, he also agonized over his stand on
abortion. While Ryan was officially opposed to abortion except in cases of
rape, incest or to save the life of the mother, he secretly harbored doubts.
One day during the campaign, he met with a woman who had aborted a fetus
that had no brain. The woman then had gotten pregnant again and given birth
to a healthy boy, whom she had brought along to her meeting with Ryan.
Ryan, according to Merriner, listened to the woman's story and looked at her
baby and started crying. He turned to an aide, Scott Fawell, and said,
"Scott, I'm pro choice."
"No, you're not!" Fawell said.
"Yes, I am!"
And so on.
Ryan remained opposed to abortion, but pro-life activists never fully
'I can see now'
Ryan's harshest critics say he declared the moratorium and commuted the
sentences of Death Row inmates for bald political gains. But at that time,
it's probably fairer to say, nobody really knew what the political fallout
"The rather divided reaction of Illinoisans about his commutations was a
shock to most observers who had expected a firestorm of protests," said the
novelist and lawyer Scott Turow, who served on a panel that studied the
state's death penalty procedures. "He did what he did, in my judgment,
knowing that he might leave office loathed and face a jury as a complete
pariah. His actions on the death penalty throughout were dispassionate and
Courageous, yes. Dispassionate, not completely.
Ryan's own legal problems, during which he came to see himself as a victim
of an overzealous prosecutor in a rigged system of justice, undoubtedly
caused him to feel greater compassion for wrongly accused men and women
everywhere -- even on Death Row.
I am told that he has said to friends: "I can see how this happens."
By now, you must be thinking I'm the world's biggest George Ryan fan, so let
me be clear:
I think Ryan is guilty. Overwhelmingly.
I think Ryan is a shabby old-school pol who sold out the whole state,
sparing only his leeching pals.
And I think Ryan should go to prison as scheduled Nov. 7 -- no more delays.
But I also know it's possible for a man to fly high and fall low at the same
That, as Shakespeare said, is the human condition.
And before going off to prison, George Ryan should have won the Nobel Peace
Tom McNamee's "The Chicago Way" column runs Mondays.