California Forum

‘Moonbeam’ nickname given by Royko stuck, now embraced by Brown

Columnist Mike Royko wrote that Jerry Brown was attracting “the moonbeam vote” when he ran for his party’s presidential nomination in 1976.
Columnist Mike Royko wrote that Jerry Brown was attracting “the moonbeam vote” when he ran for his party’s presidential nomination in 1976. Chicago Tribune file

There never has been and probably never will be another local columnist, on any platform, like the late Mike Royko.

Mike was Chicago in full. To him the Windy City was never second, it easily earned its Carl Sandburg broad shoulder label, and it was always his kind of town. Any other place was somewhat suspect.

I had the privilege of working with Mike for eight years, first at the Daily News and later at the Sun-Times. And we were among the dozens who fled when Rupert Murdoch, of Fox and many other media properties, bought the Sun-Times. Mike moved across the street to the Tribune, and I came to Sacramento.

How good was he? Well, here we are four decades later and Gov. Jerry Brown is still clinging to the nickname Mike gave him all those years ago.

In a recent speech, Brown, commenting on President-elect Donald Trump and climate change, said, “If Trump turns off the satellites, California will launch its own damn satellite.” And then he reminded the crowd of the label Mike pinned on him: “Gov. Moonbeam.”

It was 1976 and Brown was seeking his party’s presidential nomination and Mike wrote that the governor was attracting “the moonbeam vote.”

The truth is he really liked Brown, and at the 1980 Democratic National Convention he wrote these words of praise:

“The more I see of Brown, the more I am convinced that he has been the only Democrat in this year’s politics who understands what this country will be up against.” And then he did a mea culpa for the Moonbeam nickname. He declared it “idiotic” and asked others to stop using it.

But as we know, Brown didn’t shed it, he redefined it as “creative and not hidebound to the status quo. It also stands for not being the insider, but standing apart and marching to my own drummer.”

That description would also fit Royko.

When Murdoch bought the Sun-Times, then a thriving tabloid with a major reputation for investigative journalism, Mike stopped writing and said “no self-respecting fish” would want to be wrapped in Murdoch’s newspapers. He then broke a five-year contract with the Sun-Times and joined the Tribune.

Murdoch sued and the battle moved to a Chicago court. Guess who won?

The Tribune ran a box score on the front page: Royko 2, Murdoch 0.

Mike was Chicago in full, the author of one of the best political books ever, “Boss,” about the late and original Mayor Richard Daley.

I remember one day in the early ’80s and he was holding court over lunch.

“Boy, I hope he runs for alderman and wins,” Mike said about a possible candidate, who was both dumb and dumber in one package.

“You’re kidding, right?” I responded.

“No,” he shot back. “He would be worth 50 columns a year.” When you are writing five columns a week for 48 weeks a year, 240 yearly, that kind of arithmetic makes good common sense, even if it’s not good political sense.

Well, the guy didn’t run, and Mike really didn’t need him. He never lacked for column material, not in his hometown. But just imagine if Mike were still with us today and what he could have done with this presidential campaign.

It would have been a feast of desserts for a journalist who used satire as his rapier and not as a hammer, a lost art in the Wild West world of tweets and blogs and, as young people say, whatever.

Mike was his own moonbeam, a true ray of light in a world too often cloaked in darkness. And a friend.

Gregory Favre was managing editor of the Chicago Daily News and the Sun-Times before joining The Sacramento Bee as executive editor. He retired as vice president of news for the McClatchy Company. He can be reached at Gregory@calkmatters.org.

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