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What Recession?

November 16, 2008

By Neil Steinberg Sun-Times Columnist

OPENING SHOT . . . The problem with grasping a crisis is that while it's going on all over, it can still seem contradicted by localized events -- thus, on every cool day in July, those ideologically opposed to the idea of global warming get to shout, "See? Fifty-nine degrees in July -- some warming, huh?"

Or last week. We went to Abt, the electronics and appliance giant in Glenview.

A mass of humanity that defies description. Police cruisers parked on Milwaukee Avenue, cops using flares to control traffic. I think we got the last open parking space, a quarter mile from the entrance.

"What is this, 'Free Day'?" I asked my wife as we struggled like salmon to get in. "Isn't there supposed to be a recession going on?"

There is. Looking at Abt as evidence of financial hardiness is like pointing to the freezer compartment in the kitchen of a house ablaze and saying, "Fire? What fire? Look at all this ice." It's something they should teach in school, along with the alphabet, but don't: One example isn't proof.

LIKE THE FIRST NICK IN A NEW CAR

"So what do you think will be his 'Bay of Pigs'?" asked the wise old city editor, and I nodded and pondered.

The Bay of Pigs, for those just joining us, was the first big stumble John F. Kennedy made after he took office. The Eisenhower administration had cooked up a harebrained scheme to try to overthrow Fidel Castro by training Cuban nationals into a ragtag army.

The invasion was set to go, and Kennedy, worried that he'd seem weak if he spiked Ike's Cuban D-Day, gave it the green light. The whole thing was an embarrassing fiasco, evidence that our bright young president had flaws.

But somehow, the morning after Barack Obama's election didn't seem the time to speculate on future failings.

They will come, of course. The Obama presidency will have highs and lows, like any other. But trying to anticipate them is futile -- the weeks after Kennedy was elected, few knew about this lunatic CIA plot moving forward in the swamps of south Florida.

Futile, and a little overly cynical, even for me, who has a tendency to stand in the back of weddings as the bride and groom kiss, feel that one moment of sappy sentiment, then bat it away by reminding myself the truth -- that they'll both live their lives and grow old, and the man will die at 64 and the woman will go on another 25 years playing bingo and end up in an ammonia-scented day room somewhere, and the wedding dress she so carefully folded and preserved and stored on a shelf for 70 years will go into the trash.

That's the truth -- or, rather, it's a truth. The thrill of anticipation people are feeling now is also true, and one can embrace that, too, and probably should, because it was a long time coming, to quote the song, and it'll be a long time gone.

KEEPIN' IT REAL

Newspapers are too self-referential. The guy who delivers your milk doesn't pause to expound about the magnificence of the dairy profession, the gorgeous red sunrises, the solemn dignity of cows.

So I held back on the following, tucking it into columns and then plucking it back into the electronic limbo where bits and pieces wait for their chance at life in print.

But a marvel should not go unremarked upon. And now that the phenomenon is waning, I have to add it to the record.

Every day for a week after the election of Barack Obama, employees coming to work at the Sun-Times' building at 350 N. Orleans were greeted by an incredible sight: people lining up outside our store to buy back issues of the newspaper, particularly the one announcing Obama's election. Sometimes, the line has been 50 deep, and, yes, I counted, and asked, "Why wait in line?"

"It's a piece of history," explained Haroon Rajaee. "He represents the true American spirit. This is what America is about."

"So few [black men] on the cover they aren't looking for," added Gregg Parker, tamping down the protests around him with an indignant, "I'm just keeping it real!"

The Nov. 5 issue of the Sun-Times shattered our circulation records -- 900,000 copies, last time I checked. Nor is the phenomenon limited to Chicago -- across the nation, people are saving mementoes.

A reminder of newsprint's role as official imprimatur of fact -- if it's in the newspaper, it's true, in theory. People who can scarcely believe Obama won want to hold the confirmation in their hands.

"Give me the ocular proof!" Othello demanded, and a newspaper is just that.

They also want something to pass along to generations unborn, as Michelle Holmes, editor of the SouthtownStar, said, "Nobody bookmarks a Web page to save for their grandchildren."

Not yet anyway. There is an eagerness among some to embrace anything that squirts into their in-box as fact, however improbable. They'll get a text message, "SPACE BEES DOOM WORLD TUES." and start eating all the cookies.

For the rest of us, we like verification in print. Which raises the troubling question: If there were no newspapers, how could we be sure that anything really happened?

TODAY'S CHUCKLE . . .

The stock market has been fluctuating wildly for weeks. Yet the Wall Street Journal on Thursday felt confident dubbing the latest dive a result of the market cringing away from Obama's "anti-growth" policies. Which raises the humorous possibilities of wondering what other quotidian woes can be set at the feet of the president-elect?

I stamped inside Friday, brushing the rain off my hat.

"This rain. . . ," I thought. "It isn't natural, not for November in Chicago. It must be the heavens spitting cold disapproval down upon the Obama administration forming in Kenwood."

OK, so maybe you can do better. But it's hard to top what people are offering up sincerely.
Photo: Associated Press / President John F. Kennedy (left) walks along a path at Camp David, Md., with former President Dwight D. Eisenhower in April 1961, days after the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.;

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