The Sad Saga of Bob Greene
When a woman from his past resurfaced, the columnist’s 33-year career crashed; then a family tragedy hit home.
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To classes of future writers at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern, Greene was a hero. "There was graffiti above a urinal in the men's bathroom downstairs that said, ‘Bob Greene pissed here,'" recalls Robert Feder, a Medill alum who today is the Sun-Times's television and radio columnist. "Anybody who went to Medill in the seventies, particularly in the early seventies, looked up to Bob Greene. He was doing the kind of newspapering we all dreamed of doing-a hip, cutting edge version of newspapering."
In 1972, after the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, Greene published a striking column that secured his reputation nationally. "It took this one night to make us know" what it is to be a Jew, he wrote.
"Rabbis were quoting it in High Holiday sermons," recalls Feder. "That's how big it was. It seemed to be deeply personal, deeply felt."
Apparently, it was not. In the mid-seventies, Greene returned to Northwestern to talk to students. The appearance was well attended-Feder was among the students eager to hear Greene speak. Alan Rosenberg, who today is an assistant features editor at The Providence Journal in Rhode Island, was also there. Rosenberg looked up to Greene, and he was curious about the 1974 column that Greene had written about President Gerald Ford pardoning Nixon. "It was so extreme in its emotionalism," recalls Rosenberg. "It was very virulent-‘We got this guy Ford and the one thing people had wanted of Ford was that he must not pardon Nixon. And now he'd gone and done that and now he'd have to pay.' I had wondered if Greene had felt that angry when he wrote it, and when it was time for questions, I asked him."
Greene said no, he had not felt that way. "He said that he had sat down and thought about what he should say. And that that was the way he normally conducted his business-calculate what the right reaction was, what would make a good piece." Then Greene went on to tell the story about how he had written his column about the Israeli athletes. He said he had been watching TV and having a drink when he heard the news about the murders. And the thought that had crossed his mind was, If I handle this right, I could be famous.
"It seemed so ethically bankrupt, to have this wonderful forum and to just calculate it, to weigh it, and to say what you think would bring you to prominence," says Rosenberg. "I could never look at him in the same way again."
Feder corroborates Rosenberg's story. "Greene said he didn't really feel anything. It was all just a device that he knew would resonate with people. It made us feel like we had been taken in."
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From the time Greene became a columnist, he pushed to be syndicated-a lucrative arrangement in which the Sun-Times would sell his column to other papers. But only in 1976, after Greene visited the Washington Star to discuss moving there, did Hoge offer him a syndication deal. From that point on, Greene's columns began moving away from a Chicago-specific focus toward broader based topics that would play as well in Omaha as in Lincoln Park.
In 1977, on the occasion of Greene's 30th birthday, the Reader ran a long Q & A with him. The interview was conducted by Beth Fletcher, who was then a receptionist at the weekly, and it featured a photo of a chubby-cheeked but skinny Greene wearing penny loafers, bell-bottom jeans, and the dress shirt, black tie, and jacket of a tuxedo.