January 20, 2004

Iowa '04: U of C alum shakes up the political establishment

DES MOINES—Before Basil Talbott could settle into his chair, he was interrupted. Fred Barnes, one of the two talking heads of Fox News' show The Beltway Boys, was passing through the hallway and came over to say hello. Talbott discussed the political problems presented by entrance polls, giving the pundit food for thought before his show tapes next weekend.

But if Barnes were to be on television tonight, commentating as the Iowa Democratic Primary chugs along, Talbott probably wouldn't be watching. That's because shortly after the caucus results come in, he'll be giving political analysis for al-Jazeera—and that comes after a briefing that he gave this morning to a delegation of the foreign press.

For Talbott, a seasoned veteran in political journalism, it's all in a day's work. With phosphorescent white hair and icy eyes, Talbott has the stature to command, developed over a distinguished career in political reporting. Since graduating from the College in '64 with a degree in philosophy, he has never shied away from controversy. In fact, he has made a career of reveling in it.

Though Talbott is no longer spending the bulk of his time as a journalist—he now teaches the trade—his involvement in the Des Moines caucuses and his journalistic connections to the political landscape illustrate the real-world success of a product of the "Life of the Mind."

During his 35 years at the Chicago Sun-Times, Talbott reported on Chicago politics from Daley to, well, Daley. He also covered the civil rights movement, reporting on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Jesse Jackson from the city that Talbott claims had the most racially segregated housing in America at the time.

While in Chicago, Talbott reported on the mayoral campaigns of Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago; Jane Burns, the first female mayor of Chicago; Eugene Sawyer; and both the Daleys. He covered the council wars, and Senate and gubernatorial elections, as well as presidential elections from Lyndon B. Johnson onward.

Talbott was struck by the highly organized and hierarchical circle of Chicago Democrats. He came to know, and eventually watched dissolve, the system of job patronage, which the Richard Daley political machine had created and enabled. Talbott said it took the election of Harold Washington in 1983 to finally shake up the "Irish machine" that dominated city politics.

"To see a population that hadn't been part of the democratic process rise up against all the odds was really amazing," Talbott said, referring to Washington.

He also became a television celebrity in Chicago as the most frequent guest on the Chicago Weekly Review, a news program that aired for nearly two decades beginning in the 1970s. He looks back on this time fondly, as an era in which "every Chicago cab driver could give you the names of all the candidates off the top of his head."

Talbott recalls often being recognized on the street, and said that the race issue forced people to be highly attuned to politics. "People would stop me in the streets, yell at me," he said.

In his city coverage, Talbott said he never set out with a direct agenda, rather using his coverage to shed light onto issues, bringing them to the foreground of public discussion.

Talbott left Chicago in 1987 to cover Washington politics for the Sun-Times. While there, he watched his bureau dwindle from seven reporters to two. Ten years after his arrival, Talbott faced the decision to either return to Chicago or lose his job with the Sun-Times. He decided to stay in Washington, and the day after being let go, he began reporting for the National Journal and the Congress Daily. Shifting his responsibilities from Illinois-angled political coverage, Talbott was assigned to report on the Clinton impeachment full-time.

Reflecting on his days at the University, Talbott mentioned the final examinations that accounted for a class's entire grade, meaning that some students would never go to class and would still pass. His time at the University coincided with that of a student who would become another prominent journalist—investigative reporter Seymour Hersh. Talbott recalls often finding Hersh at the C-shop: "[Hersh] was so obnoxious. He was very public, very commanding. He took charge of his table," he said, careful to add that he thinks very highly of Hersh as both a reporter and a person, and that being obnoxious is, "in a way, a compliment."

After retiring from the Washington political scene five years ago, Talbott moved with his wife to Des Moines so that she could become the director of its art museum.

Teaching classes at the University of Iowa's School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Talbott splits his week between his family in Des Moines and a "busy three days" in Iowa City.