unPHILtered – Phil Ponce's Blog

Who Knew?

In preparation for an interview that airs next week with PBS film-making team Ken Burns and Lynne Novick, I got a sneak preview of their new series, “Prohibition” which will air on Channel 11.  Chicago gets heavy face time in the series; some of the things I learned:

  • It was prohibition and the structure needed to sell illegal booze that gave rise to the Chicago crime “outfit.”
  • During the height of Chicago’s “beer wars” there was a drive-by execution in front of Holy Name Cathedral.
  • During prohibition, drug stores could still sell alcoholic beverages if they were prescribed by a doctor and Walgreens went from 10 drug stores to 500.
  • The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union was not just a one-note organization but was considered progressive and worked on many issues including womens’ education and rights, the rehabilitation of prostitutes and raising the age of legal consent to 16 from 10!
  • Al Capone had three portraits in his Cicero office:  Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Big Bill Thompson, the crooked Republican mayor he helped put in office.

And the nuggets about Chicago abound.  The “Prohibition” series is a fascinating look at a subject which is surprisingly nuanced and which continues to bear lessons.  Ken Burns says one of those lessons is the power — and vulnerability — of single-issue movements.  Hmm.  The series airs on WTTW the nights of October 1st, 2nd and 3rd.  I give it four stars!

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A Supreme Experience

I recently had the opportunity to interview U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer. He was in town to make an appearance at the IIT Chicago Kent College of Law and to promote his book, Making Our Democracy Work: A Judge’s View. The book deals with two main issues: how the public has come to accept the Court’s decision-making role as legitimate and what the Court can do to continue to merit the public’s confidence. The book is beautifully written — clear and accessible to a general audience. I recommend it; it offers compelling insights into the mind of a judge who appears to be at the top of his game.

But the real pleasure came in encountering the Justice himself. He was incredibly smart, articulate in a very accessible way and witty. But what really struck me about him is what a grownup he was. One of the points he made — and with passion — is that even though he’s been in the minority in several major cases, it is important to keep in mind that there are two sides to every case and that many decisions are closer than people might imagine. And he emphasized the importance of deciding the most contentious issues in the calmest possible way.

When one looks at the vitriol that is emanating from Washington, it was not only refreshing to hear someone so committed to a reasoned and civil approach to democracy, it was downright inspiring. He speaks eloquently about his regard for the Constitution, the country and its institutions and the sense that we are all in it together. And, as a member of the Court’s so-called liberal wing, he sincerely seems to hold no animus towards the conservative justices who currently hold sway. He’s clearly a big-picture person who loves this country. What a patriot. What a privilege to have interviewed him. Click the links below to watch the interviews.

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Assessing Emanuel

How is the new mayor tackling key issues since taking office, including budget cuts, layoffs, crime prevention and education? And how he has communicated his strategy to the public and the media?

Those questions will be the subject of what should be a lively discussion among a powerhouse panel I will moderate tomorrow night:

– Mick Dumke, who covers City Hall for the Chicago Reader
– Kristen Mack, political reporter for the Chicago Tribune
– Carol Marin, Chicago Tonight segment host, Chicago Sun-Times columnist and political reporter for NBC-5
– Charles Thomas, political reporter for ABC-7
– Laura Washington, Chicago Sun-Times columnist and political commentator for ABC-7

The forum will be held Tuesday, Sept. 13, from 6:00 pm to 7:00 pm at Loyola’s Water Tower Campus in Kasbeer Hall, on the 15th Floor of the Corboy Law Center, 25 E. Pearson Street. Click here for a campus map.

The event is sponsored by the School of Communication and Loyola’s Student Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. All are welcome. Hope to see you there!

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Nature Flips the Switch

Mother Nature made it pretty clear over the weekend that summer was over when she abruptly flipped the switch to fall.  And there was nothing subtle about it.  On Friday, it was in the mid-90s, and then over the weekend, I suddenly needed a long-sleeved sweatshirt to work in the yard.

Yesterday, Labor Day, everyone in my immediate family was together on a cool and sunny picture-perfect day.  And yet, I have to admit, that I suffered from a touch of melancholy.  I think the passing of the season had a lot do with it.  It underscored the larger arc of the passing of time–the realization that my children are all young adults, and no matter what our age, all of us are in the process of evolving to another stage.

And I won’t deny that all the coverage of the 9/11 anniversary is having an impact.  The stories can be ineffably sad.  The attack was traumatic and many people may still have something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder.  I know I find it painful to look at the images and–left to my own devices–would probably avoid the coverage all together.

But back to nature–the next couple of days are supposed to be beautiful, sunny and cool.  If summer is over, at least this stretch of weather will have been idyllic–a needed balm for a wistful week.

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