The most famous headline in this newspaper’s long history appeared on the front page of the Nov. 3, 1948, edition: DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.
The presses rolled at 10:30 p.m. the day before and no one, and I mean no one, believed the result of the presidential election would favor Harry Truman. The recent issue of Life magazine, which was already on newsstands, featured a photo of Dewey with the caption “The Next President of the United States” and polls and pundits were solidly siding with Thomas Dewey, the crime-busting New York City district attorney who was the Republican candidate for the presidency.
Due to an early deadline caused by a printers’ strike, more than 100,000 copies of the paper with the wrong headline hit the streets before a second edition would announce “DEMOCRATS MAKE SWEEP OF STATE OFFICES.”
Though Col. Robert R. McCormick, editor and publisher of the Tribune, was furious for a time, especially after Truman giddily displayed the faulty front page for photographers in St. Louis, the mistake did not seriously damage the newspaper.
The year before, a Time magazine cover story celebrated the Tribune and its distinctive owner. “The big reason for his Tribune’s success is that McCormick has simply made it indispensable,” Time commented on June 9, 1947. “No paper in all Chicagoland can match its overwhelming coverage of the news. When a big story breaks, the Trib can throw a score of men on it to outreport and outwrite the opposition. In sports, in comics, women’s pages, signed columns and display ads it offers all things to all people. It is the housewife’s guide, the politician’s breakfast food, a bible to hundreds of small-town editorial writers.”
The paper flourished and grew even as the Depression arrived in all its deprivation, joblessness and pain for the nearly 3 million citizens of Chicago. Struggling and facing an uncertain future, people distracted themselves by all manner of entertainments, most prominent among them the 1933-34 Century of Progress Exposition and its Skyride tower, called by the Tribune the “highest man-made sculpture west of Manhattan,” and a fan-dancing sensation named Sally Rand, who told reporters, “I haven’t been without work a day since I took off my pants.”
There was also the arrival of a new “citizen” at Lincoln Park Zoo, when a gorilla arrived from Africa. He was named Bushman and he was, as one Tribune reporter put it, “like a nightmare that escaped from darkness into daylight and has exchanged its insubstantial form for 550 pounds of solid flesh.”
Sports offered plentiful distractions including a new one: Tribune sports editor Arch Ward created baseball’s first All-Star game, which was played July 6, 1933, at Comiskey Park, and the American League won 4-2, with Babe Ruth hitting a home run. People could watch sports at home by the late 1940s, after McCormick launched WGN-Ch. 9 television from studios at Tribune Tower. The station carried Cubs and White Sox games and started to produce entertainment shows. McCormick said, “in television, we have embarked upon another of America’s adventures.”
McCormick said a lot of things, using the Tribune editorial page to plead with readers to “bury (Republican candidate William) Thompson” in the 1931 mayoral election, writing, “For Chicago Thompson has meant filth, corruption, obscenity, idiocy and bankruptcy. … He has made Chicago a byword for the collapse of American civilization.”
Thompson would lose to Anton Cermak. He had been an alderman and in that job, and other positions, he exercised a great ability to recognize the power of, and to organize, the new ethnic groups — Poles, Czechs, Jews, Ukrainians, Italians and African Americans — that had begun to settle in the early 1900s. In so doing he became the father of Chicago’s Democratic machine, a system of patronage that controlled city politics for the better part of a century.
Cermak would meet a bloody end when shot in an attempted 1933 assassination of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Reporters heard his powerful if too-good-to-be-true “last words,” as he whispered to Roosevelt, “I am glad it was me instead of you.” Cermak has faded into history’s shadows as has, to a great extent, McCormick. But there is no way to underestimate his stature and influence. As A.J. Leibling would note in a series of articles he wrote for the New Yorker magazine in the early 1950s, later collected in book form which gave Chicago its durable “Second City” nickname, “The Colonel was the chief molder of the city” since the 1930s.
With the coming of the Great Depression and the election of Roosevelt, the Colonel had found his greatest foe. His newspaper hammered away relentlessly at FDR’s New Deal, an unprecedented intrusion of government control in people’s lives, as the Colonel saw it. Remembering World War I, he also fiercely opposed America’s growing involvement in the affairs of Europe as another world war loomed.
Still, when the U.S. entered World War II, Tribune correspondents were there, covering the conflict from the front lines with energy and distinction. But McCormick never let up on Roosevelt. As Lloyd Wendt writes in “Chicago Tribune,” “Not even death would end the fight between publisher and president for the Tribune continued to condemn Roosevelt’s works long after his demise.”
The city’s newspaper wars, always intense, heightened with the establishment, on Dec. 4, 1941, of the Chicago Sun by Marshall Field III, heir to the department store fortune. He did this in large part to combat McCormick’s steady criticism of Roosevelt. A merger of the Sun and the Chicago Illustrated Times in 1948 resulted in the birth of the Sun Times. The battle between the newspapers and their well-known owners often went beyond political differences, with McCormick referring to Field as a “hysterical effeminate.”
On June 10, 1947, the Tribune printed a 100th anniversary special section. It was filled with self-aggrandizing headlines and stories touting “Tribune’s Varied Promotions Bring Enjoyment to Millions,” “Tribune Makes Own Paper To Benefit World” and “Tribune Wages Many Drives For Betterment Of The People.” Four pages in the 32-page section were devoted to the Tribune’s 100-year fight “against the enemies of freedom and truth,” an account focused principally on the Tribune’s battles with President Roosevelt “and other leaders of the New Deal cabal.”
Even the rival Daily News was complimentary: “We salute the Chicago Tribune and its publisher upon the second century of exciting, meteoric and controversial journalistic adventures.”
McCormick and his newspaper had plenty of reasons to celebrate, selling slightly more than 1 million copies daily and 1.5 million on Sundays. It carried more advertising lineage than any other U.S. paper, even though its rigidly conservative, arch-Republican political stance was not exactly in keeping with Democratic Chicago.
McCormick and the paper dominated these years, warned against the Soviet Union, decried the United Nations, called on the “literary world to show some patriotism and the New York stage to stop being positively anti-American,” lauded Douglas MacArthur and opposed the Marshall Plan and the North American Alliance.
McCormick did most of his editorializing in print but also on WGN radio. In 1940 he created Theatre of the Air, which he called “radio’s greatest hour of music and drama,” a weekly program that featured opera, drama, comedy and commentary. McCormick frequently hosted the hourlong show, which took place in front of a live audience in Tribune Tower and was broadcast across the country by Mutual Broadcasting System. It soon moved into the Medinah Temple, where 3,000 to 4,000 people could watch the broadcast and listen to McCormick.
For all of his success and power, McCormick was an increasingly lonely man, living in an Astor Street home and on an estate he named Cantigny, for a WW I battle site, in west suburban Wheaton. The city would have its largest population, 3.6 million, in 1950, and then began a steady migration of residents to the suburbs.
McCormick began to drink heavily, usually downing a fifth of scotch every night. As the great writer John Bartlow Martin put it in a Harper’s Magazine story a few years before, “He is one of the few important survivors of the era of personal journalism. … Above all he is a lonely, patriotic, sincere man who believes that he is one of the few remaining bulwarks between this country and catastrophe.”