By TAYLOR PENSONEAU and BOB ELLIS
Remember Dan Walker, the
last Democrat to be governor?
He won the chance to change politics
as usual in Illinois, but his unpredictability
led very likely to his defeat for a second term.
Never to make a political comeback, instead he may
be remembered as yet another governor who went to jail.
Dan Walker was the Illinois governor who made political history as a Democrat who beat the party machine run by Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Walker didn't exactly come out of nowhere, but he came into office by appealing to voters who wanted someone different, someone not of the usual political mold, someone who would change the way state government did its business.
He lasted but one term, losing the Democratic primary in 1976 to the reliable and seasoned partisan veteran, Michael J. Hewlett. Walker never returned to politics. He went into business and later to the federal prison in Duluth, Minn., after conviction for crimes related to his business and personal financial matters.
Reprinted below are excerpts from Dan Walker: The Glory
and the Tragedy, a biography written by two veteran journalists, Taylor Pensoneau and Bob Ellis, and published this
summer by Smith-Collins Company, Evansville, Ind. Pp365.
When Walker got the governorship, it was hard to fault his crew for looking ahead with covetous glances at Washington and the country's premier political prize.
Success in this business required — in addition to ability — gall, incredible self-assurance, pretentiousness, all the luck in the world and faith in more than the zodiac. Walker had all of these and another trait even stronger — an ambition to succeed that was for him an overwhelmingly burning desire.
Few around him could miss it. Certainly not George Kelm, who had much in common with Walker. They had met at Northwestern law school, later were law firm partners in Chicago and both lived in Deerfield where they were active in Democratic politics. To Kelm, who would go on to lead an Illinois coal company. Walker was an especially talented, industrious and productive attorney and, to boot, a very likeable guy. The only problem, Kelm found, was "knowing where Dan might be coming from because the guiding light in his life was his own ambition.
"His aspiration overrode everything else. He told me his ambition was to be president of the United States."
Surely, for Walker, being governor would be a great apprenticeship for the presidency.
He wanted to operate the machinery of Illinois government in the manner of a freewheeling board chairman, tinkering here, prodding there, refusing to fit any one philosophical mode, in no way handcuffed to the historic or recent traditions observed by most Illinois governors elected in a more conventional manner. If anything was predictable about Walker, it seemed to be his unpredictability.
Well, yes and no. Walker could be counted on to do what was expedient, thought many of those attempting to follow the performance of what they saw as a most difficult-to-define individual in the governor's chair. If that made him less than predictable, they surmised, so be it.
Walker didn't go in for labels anyway. Imaging was his thing. It was his political shtick, the root of his appeal. His candidacy was sold as an outgrowth of the general mistrust held by so many of the "little people" against those in power. Walker's handlers were not that concerned if the Governor came across as shallow to those only comfortable with the nice, clear-cut political categorizations.
The truth at the time was that Walker actually agreed with President Nixon and others who were critical of the
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This reading of the situation overlooked Walker's attempts to address concerns of Illinois business in other areas. He also got shortchanged on the labor side in that in spite of labor's leap forward with Walker's help in 1975 most of the Illinois union leadership knifed Walker politically when he sought re-election in 1976.
• • • • •
As governor, Walker insisted on austerity in everything, including his own image. He did not flaunt his security, like some of his predecessors, and he eschewed the fancy cars and other perks normally associated with the Illinois governorship. Walker wanted to identify with the common guy, who had put him in office, not the almighty elite. The gas jockey in Vandalia was Walker's person, not the heiress in Kennilworth [sic].
But Walker pursued a different life-style after leaving office, starting with a divorce from his wife of more than 30 years, Roberta. Walker felt at the time, to his later regret, that the former first lady of Illinois, shy and retiring to the public, was a cause of his disenchantment after leaving office.
He had no such feeling about another woman with whom he became involved after the end of his affair while governor. She was 14 years younger than Walker, beautiful and vivacious, a good businesswoman in his mind and, ironically, also named Roberta. She would become the second Mrs. Walker in a marriage that he just knew would lead to the good life that he felt had eluded him.
Roberta the second knew the world of high society, parties and balls, polo, country clubs and wealthy folks in places like Palm Beach. Admirers told them they made a dashing pair, right off a page by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It hurt to look back on it from the federal prison.
"We both opened doors to a very lovely life-style," Walker recalled. "We enjoyed each other and the glittering world we were entering. It was a life I had never tasted before. I grew up poor, learned the social graces at the Naval Academy, but never felt accepted by the glamorous side of society. I enjoyed seeing my picture, with my beautiful wife, being published on the society pages."
In time, the new Walker got into the expensive habit of buying yachts — two to be exact, each called the Governor's Lady.
"We sailed through the waterways from Chicago to Florida, entertaining the wealthy and elite on our yacht;
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pictures of us drinking champagne on a boat dock were published in Town and Country magazine. I was riding high. But like the champagne, it went to my head. It got out of hand."
Still, the good life continued. The politician who once had trudged through sun-baked fields in southern Illinois seeking votes from hardscrabble farmers now favored linen suits, Gucci jackets and tennis resort wear as he cruised to the Bahamas or flew to London for parties at the country manor of Lady Di's parents and receptions at Buckingham Palace.
Actually, to Walker, his new pursuits put him on a high comparable in a remote way to the euphoric stages of the governorship. One replaced the other.
As he saw it, "I was entitled to it. I had worked hard all my life. Nothing had come easy for me. And I had done it all honorably, to my knowledge, and except for my first wife, I had never consciously hurt anyone on the way to the top. And, by anybody's account, I had helped many."
However, Walker's fortunes were to take a disastrous yet familiar turn. While detailed attention to his businesses was ignored, his living expenses continued to mount — and so did the borrowing to keep the former governor and his new world afloat.
Walker clearly was in over his head in the management of his savings and loan, where he could not find a key to profitability. As for his oil change business, operations in St. Louis, Texas and Florida in particular were not doing well. Federal thrift regulators were clamping down on Walker's mixture of the two enterprises. Furthermore, Walker went to court twice to protect the oil change business against the vagarious conduct in the undertaking of his flamboyant business partner, Frank Butler. Wife Roberta the second was an officer of both businesses and worked with Walker in the managerial end of things.
Finally, with the conflict between Walker and Frank Butler getting out of hand, the oil change venture was sold at a bargain basement price to a large national firm. The savings and loan would slip, too, out of the hands of Walker and his wife, through the federal takeover, but not before Walker borrowed funds loaned by the institution to other individuals, including one of the former governor's sons, Dan Walker, Jr. Besides pleading guilty to federal charges of fraudulent conduct in regard to these loans, Walker also pled guilty to a charge of perjury prompted by his denial to federal authorities that he ever had benefitted financially from a loan to a member of his family by the thrift, First American Savings and Loan Association (his son had used the proceeds of a loan from the association to pay a $14,000 law firm debt on which his father Dan, several years before, was a cosigner).
In addition, Walker also entered a plea of guilty to the signing by he [sic] and his wife of false personal financial statements filed with other financial institutions. According to the federal indictment, the statements falsely exaggerated the couple's income and understated their liability picture.
Consequently, on Nov. 19, 1987, Walker was sentenced by United States District Court Judge Ann Williams to seven years in prison for his crimes, to be followed by five years of probation after the completion of the prison sentence. His wife, whose only direct involvement in the allegations involved her signing of the personal financial statements, escaped prosecutions. Later, after Walker went to prison, she requested and was granted a divorce from him.
At the sentencing in Chicago Williams said the onetime governor had "placed himself above the law" and charged that his "fall from grace, loss of stature, embarrassment and humiliation" were of his own doing.
Walker was not about to argue. A man who 11 years earlier had been a recognized contender for his party's presidential nomination was now, at age 65, thinking only of being branded a felon for the rest of his life.
Did he blame himself? Yes, without question. Was he bitter? No doubt of it, especially in his early months in jail when he joined many of his fellow inmates in looking longingly at those on the outside who had committed the same or far worse crimes and escaped retribution.
After all, untold numbers of businessmen filed exaggerated and even false financial statements every day, didn't they? Many savings and loan executives, as events not much later were to confirm, had plundered their institutions, but were still spending their days on country club golf courses. And how many persons have told untruths in sworn depositions and not been sentenced to prison for perjury?
Walker's bitterness went a lot further, though. He felt he had been singled out unfairly for prosecution because he was a former governor, and he viewed his sentence as unnecessarily harsh. Too, he perceived in the coverage of his case as a resurrection of the media hostility aimed at him, he thought, in the old days in Springfield. In his own mind. Walker also lashed out at his successor in the governor's office, Republican James Thompson, a successful political figure both envied and scorned by Walker. Envied because Thompson was thought by Walker to have benefitted from gentle treatment by the press and from extraordinary political luck. Scorned because of Walker's paranoiac belief that Thompson had conspiratorially orchestrated grand jury investigations of Walker and his administration, inquires extending beyond Walker's years in office, in an effort to discourage a political comeback by Walker.
• • • • •
For the record, when Dan Walker observed his seventieth birthday August 6, 1992, he was more than half way through his five-year probation period following his release from prison in June 1989. [Dan Walker now lives and works in San Diego. His was divorced from his second wife while he was in prison.] *
Taylor Pensoneau, the Illinois political writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch during the Walker administration, is vice president of the Springfield-based Illinois Coal Association. Bob Ellis is managing editor of the Daily American Newspaper in West Frankfort.
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