If you live in the vicinity of Cantigny — Colonel Robert McCormick’s Wheaton estate — the anguished screams and moans you’ve been hearing for the past few weeks have nothing to do with Halloween. They’ve been emanating from the Colonel’s grave, as he learns that his beloved Chicago Tribune, which was under his leadership the voice of Midwestern Republicanism, has endorsed almost nothing but Democrats this election season.
“The Tribune endorsed J.B. Pritzker for governor, Colonel.”
“Pritzker? His name sounds foreign. Who is he?”
“A Jewish Democrat.”
“The paper endorsed Democrats for all the statewide offices, the U.S. Senate, and all the local congressional races.”
In the history of Chicago, the only thing more astonishing than the Tribune becoming a Democratic newspaper would be Holy Name Cathedral hanging out a shingle declaring itself a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. The Tribune practically founded the Republican Party, not just in Illinois, but nationwide. Soon after the paper began publishing in 1847, it began promoting the new anti-slavery party, and the career of its most eloquent spokesman, Abraham Lincoln. Joseph Medill, who became the Tribune’s managing editor in 1854, was one of Lincoln’s closest allies. Medill helped Lincoln formulate questions for Stephen Douglas during their 1858 Senate debates. When the Republican National Convention came to Chicago in 1860, the Tribune beat the drum for Illinois’s favorite son.
“Lincoln — Honest Old Abe — by the great Republican party, is a guaranty that the country, wearied and outraged by the malfeasance of those invested with the Federal power, desires a return to the sterling honesty and Democratic simplicity which marked the Administrations of Jefferson, Madison, Adams and Jackson,” the newspaper editorialized. “Mr. Lincoln is the very soul of integrity. In all his life, now extending over 51 years, there is not an act of commission or omission, by which his thorough uprightness, his exact conscientiousness, his perfect integrity are impaired.”
When Douglas spoke in Chicago during the presidential campaign, the Tribune did its partisan duty by disparaging the Little Giant’s Irish Catholic supporters, speculating that they only joined his torchlight procession because they were paid “tin cints an hour,” which was more than they got for “coal-heaving, and hod-carrying and lumber piling.”
The Tribune’s native-born, Protestant audience would have gotten a chuckle out of that dialect humor. In 1860, Chicago was a Republican city. Lincoln defeated Douglas in Cook County, 14,568-9,516. Medill would serve as a Republican mayor from 1871 to 1873.
Medill’s grandson, Robert McCormick, carried on the Republican tradition, fulminating against Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New Deal, and American involvement in World War II. When McCormick was publisher, the paper prematurely declared Republican Thomas Dewey winner of the 1948 presidential election, producing one of the most famous (and inaccurate) headlines in newspaper history: “Dewey Defeats Truman.” McCormick was so provincial and paleo-conservative that one of his enemies called him “the greatest mind of the 14th Century.”
The Democratic machine took over Chicago during McCormick’s years as publisher, but there were still plenty of Republican readers in the suburbs. During the 1964 presidential campaign, the Tribune’s crusty Washington correspondent, Walter Trohan, who thought the New Deal was just another form of communism, went after businessmen supporting Lyndon Johnson, “who is campaigning as the good uncle, but may reveal himself as the big brother of George Orwell’s novel, ‘1984.’” That would have resonated with 17-year-old Hillary Rodham, a Goldwater Girl from Park Ridge.
Republicanism was such an essential part of the Tribune’s heritage, and its identity, that it continued supporting the party’s candidates, even as suburbanites — like Hillary — began turning into Democrats, and even as Illinois began voting for Democrats — like Hillary’s husband, Bill Clinton. Twice the Tribune endorsed George W. Bush. In 2008, though, the paper was faced with a dilemma: a Democratic presidential candidate who was not only from Chicago, but was popular in its suburbs. Refusing to endorse Barack Obama would have resulted in thousands of canceled subscriptions.
So the Tribune endorsed Obama — “the first time the newspaper has endorsed the Democratic Party’s nominee for president,” it wrote. “The Tribune in its earliest days took up the abolition of slavery and linked itself to a powerful force for that cause — the Republican Party. The Tribune’s first great leader, Joseph Medill, was a founder of the GOP. The editorial page has been a proponent of conservative principles. It believes that government has to serve people honestly and efficiently.” The Tribune rationalized its change of colors by declaring that “[t]he Republican Party, the party of limited government, has lost its way. The government ran a $237 billion surplus in 2000, the year before Bush took office — and recorded a $455 billion deficit in 2008. The Republicans lost control of the U.S. House and Senate in 2006 because, as we said at the time, they gave the nation rampant spending and Capitol Hill corruption. They abandoned their principles. They paid the price.”
Since then, the Tribune has not endorsed the Republican Party’s nominee for president. In 2016, the paper suggested a vote for Libertarian Gary Johnson over Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, but that was a last-ditch act of denial. In 2020, the Trib just got its party switch over with, endorsing Joe Biden for president. Chicagoland — a term coined by Colonel McCormick — is now thoroughly Democratic, city and suburb. The Tribune has no choice but to follow its readership. In this year’s endorsements, the paper praises candidates who support abortion rights and gun control. On the other hand, it opposes Amendment 1, the union-backed, Democratic-backed Workers Rights Amendment.
One could argue that the Tribune has not abandoned its founding principles of racial equality and good government — the Republican Party has, as its geographic base has shifted from the old Union to the old Confederacy. The Republicans of the 1860s have become the Democrats of the 2020s. Of the 18 states that voted for Lincoln in the 1860 presidential election, 15 voted for Biden in 2020 — including Illinois. Joseph Medill might approve of this year’s Tribune endorsements. But Colonel McCormick is screaming from his grave.