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4/1/03 Mark Brown

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Daley's got an act to sell--if anyone's buying it

April 1, 2003

BY MARK BROWN SUN-TIMES COLUMNIST

The Supreme High Commander opened the door and strode into the room, feigning surprise at the overflow crowd of reporters who had turned out to hear his morning-after briefing.

"What happened?" he asked in mock astonishment, signalling how he would play this: the bully who had pulled a fast one on the playground and would laugh it off, smug with the knowledge that there was nothing that anybody could do about it now.

What had happened, of course, is that the Supreme High Commander had staged a sneak attack in the middle of the night, destroying a wonderful city asset in the name of "homeland security"--which apparently is now available to mayors and governors as cover for bad ideas just as "national security" has long been a favorite excuse of presidents for otherwise indefensible actions.

In destroying the runway at Meigs Field, the Supreme High Commander said he was calming the fears of a city that terrorists could use the airstrip to launch an attack, alleged fears that happened to coincide nicely with his long-held desire to get rid of the airport and replace it with a park.

Turning the airport into a park is a debatable question on which the Supreme High Commander might very well have been able to win on the merits.

The more important issue, though, is that the Supreme High Commander, recently re-elected with nearly 80 percent of the vote, may be laboring under the misconception that he no longer needs to conduct the people's business in the light of day.

Fear, you see, is a powerful motivator, and the Supreme High Commander was deathly afraid that if he allowed his plan to go through the normal political and legal channels, he might somehow have been thwarted yet again.

By striking in the dead of night, he avoided such complications as court injunctions and public debate.

But the Commander (no disrespect intended, I just need to shorten this) couldn't bring himself to admit that.

Instead, he clung to mealy-mouth statements such as:

"Why did we act so quickly? Because the fear exists right now. To do this any other way would have been needlessly contentious and jeopardized public safety--and prolonged anxiety among Chicagoans--for months and maybe even years."

Working himself into a lather as he spoke, the Commander admitted he wants his park, but wouldn't admit that it's his call.

"We'll talk to the Park District about it . . . It will be up to them," he said, forgetting that we all know that he is the puppeteer of the Park District, too.

The Commander swears that the law was on his side, which makes you wonder why he was so determined to make sure that the legal system couldn't get a chance to test his theory before it was too late.

To the Commander's credit, though, I don't recall him ever prattling on about the "rule of law." He knows that the "rule of clout" is much more effective, that power trumps all, at least temporarily.

The Commander trotted out a city lawyer named Pat Rocks to explain the legal justification for the city's vandalism, which apparently relies on a 1996 court decision and a position taken by the Federal Aviation Administration under a Democratic president.

Rocks not only asserted a "clear and unfettered right to close this airport," he went so far as to invoke a "legal obligation" to do so because the Park District had revoked the city's month-to-month lease. There goes that wild and crazy Park District again. What a bunch of renegades.

By the way, I'm sure Rocks is a very fine lawyer, but if you say his name fast enough, as kept happening Monday, it sounds like Pet Rocks, as in "pet rocks will explain that for the mayor," which seemed appropriate since the Commander had several high-ranking pet rocks on hand to back him up for his decisive action. They included Police Supt. Terry Hillard, who said he was "elated" by the "pro-active" measure.

Nobody can argue with the contention that somebody could use Meigs as cover to fly a small plane into a building, although I would submit again that they could accomplish the same thing from Midway, Palwaukee or Lansing without any possibility of interdiction. If that's a real problem, this isn't a real answer. The greater danger remains that somebody will drive an explosives-laden truck into the Loop, but the Commander doesn't want to hear that.

The sneak attack was immediately code-named Operation Meigs Freedom: the Liberation of Northerly Island by a quick-witted radio reporter.

After making a damage assessment of the craters created by the sneak attack, other City Hall intelligence experts thought it might have been the work of a Kreusi Missile, but the CTA general sometimes gets more blame than he deserves for the Commander's behavior.

Mayoral press secretary Jackie Heard said she thought H-Hour had been approximately 11:30 p.m. Sunday, which was just late enough to avoid the potential problem of getting caught by the late television news programs. The Commander is quite a tactician.

Heard didn't stick around long enough afterward to explain whether she had been "embedded" with the Commander's cavalry in advance or informed about it later.

You would hope that, whichever it was, her response was something along the lines of, "Have you gone crazy?"

E-mail: markbrown@suntimes.com

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