Welcome to the Middle Ground

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Springfield, Illinois
End of the legislative session. Springfield, Illinois

“Where y’all from,” asked the big bouncer at a nightclub called Stella Blue.

“Chicago,” someone replied.

“Welcome to the middle ground,” he said after checking our IDs at the door.

Upstairs, the club was an ironic polar opposite of its “Dead” namesake.

American-flag-themed Budweisers, a dance floor with bad dance music, a digital disco ball, five public radio employees and a whisky-voiced, bleach-blond bartender with electric-green-tinged contact lenses.

I drank three club sodas with real lime wedges.

Springfield, Illinois is a long way from Kyiv, Ukraine, my first foray into political journalism.

It was 10-years-ago this summer that I left my wife and sons behind for eight weeks to go try my hand at being a journalist.

I didn’t care for truck driving. Didn’t like the hours. And building houses took too long and wasn’t satisfying enough for me.

I wanted to be a New York Times bureau chief in some miserably hot tropical war zone.

But careers aren’t like wives, they don’t have mother-in-laws you can look at to see what they might look like with a few years and a few million miles on them.

The Middle Ground of Illinois is a long way from the political heartland of Ukraine, and Stella Blue was far removed from the political intrigue and backdoor deals that went down at the Baraban, Kyiv’s famous political bar.

In between, I covered legislatures in Salem, Oregon, Helena, Montana and Juneau, Alaska.

There is always a bar where the lawmakers hang out. There’s a bar for lobbyists, and there is generally a bar for reporters too.

Sometimes they three mix it up, but everyone needs a place to call their own.

Political reporting is not my thing, but you can’t help falling into it when you get too close. Politics have a strange gravitational pull.

There is nothing so messy and yet potent as the end of a legislative session.

Lawmakers that spent the last 90 days looking for the right dance partners are suddenly playing musical chairs. Bills are resurrected and killed with impunity, and a legislative cycle in an election year, even midterms, is like a paper airplane with a paper clip attached. Slightly erratic, completely unpredictable and when it starts to go down, it goes straight down.

I sat there on a bar stool in Stella Blue thinking back on the last 10 years of covering the waning days of legislative sessions.

 

The hard-charging journalists and political wonks that I’ve worked with left a mark on me.

Reporters and editors like Peter Wong and editors like Dana Haynes and Dan Bender in Oregon. Sometimes I only knew them by reputation and brief appearances at press conferences. People like Rich Mauer and Becky Bohrer in Alaska and Charles Johnson and Sally Mauk in Montana.

By contrast, the Ukrainians were passionate to the point of being dangerous. One of our photographers got beat up on the street outside the paper for taking pictures of election tampering.

Ukrainians drink hard. Ukrainian journalists are some many levels beyond that, and when I knew I couldn’t keep up, I waited until they left to dance or check up on a source and ordered ice water with lemon in shot glasses.

While still a green cub reporter, I became legendary for my ability to hold my liquor, only more than half of it wasn’t liquor at all.

I used to put my drunken comrades into taxies as the sun rose after we put the paper to bed.

They’d call me later in the day asking how I was feeling, and when I told them I was fine, they would lavish me with terms of endearment that referenced my super liver and my superb physical constitution and stamina.

Journalists and politicians must be responsible for a huge part of the alcohol economy. Which probably explains why the alcohol policies are so messed up.

After a long day of listening to politicians practice their bullshit rhetoric and watching journalists parry and thrust with all the weight of their convictions, hunches and unnamed sources, there is nothing quite like changing into street clothes and ordering that first martini.

When you know the legislature is crawling toward the cliff of closure, you can afford to let it out a little.

Like Thursday night partying knowing all you have to do is get through Friday to the well-deserved weekend.

Springfield really is the middle ground for me, geographically and otherwise.

I started into journalism late. By age 40, most reporters I know are so enmeshed into their beats, there is often no one more knowledgable than them about what they cover.

Or they have become editors and managers or even CEOs.

I still like to know a little about everything rather than a lot about one thing.

I grow as restless and bored with geographical locations and political boundaries as I do with topics like pensions and taxes. But like going to the slaughterhouse, there is something innate about watching life get butchered, processed and shrink-wrapped into something unrecognizable and yet staple.

After 10 years of watching this, I’m no longer the eager, green, cub reporter watching how the others conduct themselves, handle interviews, write notes in notepads or which drinks they prefer.

Here in the Middle Ground, I’m now the adult working with other adults, and it’s fun to watch the process go all smooth in the face of adversity and the unknowable.

To work with others my age and realize they not only know exactly what to do in any situation but to watch them execute everything with integrity and confidence is satisfying in the way a fine Scotch or a good Zinfandel is now satisfying.

It’s fun to watch the young up-and-coming journalists gathering around the edges watching us. Pitching us. And trying to guess at our drink orders.

Here we are, deep in what the French called the pays d’en haut, where almost two centuries ago, three distinct people groups made up of locals with an ancient history, pioneers in search of new lands and opportunistic fur traders built something tangible on the social terrain and geographical terrain of this Middle Ground, as Richard White described in his 1991 work, The Middle Ground: Indians, Empires, and Republics in the Great Lakes Region, 1650-1815.

That tenuous social contract was obliterated by greed, politics and manifest destiny.

But it existed.

And as we listen to the black caucus, the republican and democrat caucuses, downstaters, rural, urban, suburban and city politicians, I’m both disgusted and intrigued by this political process.

Because it’s enough to know that the ideology that drives this process once existed in practice here in the Middle Ground.

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