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.

(page 9 of 15)

 

“When I was reporting that,” Krance recalls, “I was constantly tripping over stories about how Bob was always hitting on women.” The recollections of Greene’s modus operandi were all the same: He would invite a young woman-usually an aspiring journalist-out for drinks. His first bar of choice was at the Executive House, now Hotel 71, but he later switched to the atrium bar at the Marriott across the street from the Tribune. His standard line: “Imagine, we’re sitting here in this bar and above us there are a thousand empty rooms.” In the end, Krance’s article concentrated on Greene’s writing, saying that “he is the master of the tug at cheap emotion, the king of cloaking a banal observation in fake profundity.”

Even if that was what Greene was selling, Tribune readership surveys consistently reflected that the public was buying it. “When I was editor, our marketing surveys showed that Bob Greene’s demographics were exactly the kind we wanted,” says Squires. “They were basically women, 25 to 50, who spent the money and bought the products. He was the darling of that crowd. He wrote with a kind of Midwestern point of view, a sensible point of view. He had a good grasp for family, for children, all subjects that that group was interested in.”

Johnny Deadline, Reporter and American Beat are two of the best collections of journalism I’ve ever read,” says Bill Zehme, a Chicago-based writer and a contributing editor of Esquire. “Later he became more of a savior, and that’s somewhat less entertaining.”

* * *

In the 1990s, Bob Greene was best defined by two things: using his columns to defend a series of children seemingly failed by the courts and sinking further into nostalgia. The columns focusing on children started in 1990 with the story of Sarah, born six years earlier addicted to heroin and cocaine, then placed in the foster home of a Bridgeview couple. When Sarah was three, her biological mother, who had completed rehab, and her father decided they wanted their daughter back. Greene disagreed and he wrote passionate columns arguing his point of view. “The case caused something of an uproar, although 95 percent of it was generated by Greene,” says Bruce Boyer, the director of the ChildLaw clinic at Loyola University Chicago and an outspoken Greene critic.

Over the next ten years, Greene’s columns about abused children became very familiar to his readers: a seven-year-old Wisconsin girl forced to live in a dog cage; a six-year-old Indiana boy chained in a broom closet; the Henry children of Nebraska, who had been tortured by their father with an electric cattle prod. In a way, Greene was conducting old-fashioned crusades, the kind of noble and passionate journalism that gives newspapers life and purpose. He challenged governors-Jim Thompson and Jim Edgar in Illinois, Mike Johanns in Nebraska-to step in and take action. He reprinted devastating courtroom transcripts. And he got results, from intervention in cases he followed to an avalanche of gifts from readers for the victimized children.

Some critics, however, thought that Greene’s writing came close to exploiting the children. Because so many of the columns repeated background information and made teasing references to revelations that would appear in the next installment, many journalists came to think that the pieces had taken on an aura of shtick.

The most famous of Greene’s crusading columns involved Baby Richard, the centerpiece of perhaps the most dramatic parental custody battle in state history. Over a period of three years, Greene wrote more than 60 columns about the child. His mother had been estranged from her boyfriend, the father, when their son was born. She told him the child was dead and signed away her rights to the infant. Baby Richard was privately adopted. Later, when the father learned the truth and reconciled with the woman, they both wanted their son back. Greene argued that removing the child from his adoptive parents at this stage would be extraordinarily cruel to the boy; most of Illinois, it seemed, agreed. The state supreme court, however, eventually ordered that Baby Richard should be returned to his biological father.

 

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