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Echoes of a Golden Age

THE NEW DECADE dawns on a colder day in Illinois politics: Politicians aren't as fiery as they used to be. Some of the fire will go out of the legislative furnace with the retirement of several colorful legislators. At least that's the opinion of the Statehouse press corps, which has long championed colorful characters as the stuff of colorful copy.

Reporters will be sorry to see John L. Knuppel retire from the Illinois Senate next year, although they'll be glad to see C. L. McCormick return to the Illinois House.

Knuppel, a maverick downstate Democrat from Virginia, in the west central 48th District, says eight years in the Senate is enough. It's mainly temper tantrums throwing soup, ripping suits that's earned Knuppel a reputation as a "character." Even unwilling Knuppel watchers say wryly that "colorful" is not the word to accurately describe him. But surely his style high-shock, low-sugar stands out like red ink on the dignified pages of Senate proceedings. During the special session on sales tax last fall, for example, Knuppel delighted spectators, if not his pinstriped colleagues, by calling Chicago Mayor Jane Byrne a "heifer." He went on to predict that although Gov. James R. Thompson had "married" Byrne to sweeten his deal, she'd never "consumate the marriage" to sweeten hers.

On the other hand, McCormick says 18 years in the House is not enough after all. A Republican from Vienna who represented the southernmost 59th District from 1957-1975, McCormick is bound to be successful in his comeback campaign.

Reputation or no, reporters simply don't put Knuppel in the same league with McCormick. McCormick stories, usually those he himself told, are legend at the Statehouse. McCormick's pet issues took on Paul Bunyonesque proportions when he discussed them. Reporters rate McCormick second only to the late Paul Powell when picking the outstanding personalities in the Illinois General Assembly over the last 25 years. Third on the list of greats-within-memory is Corneal A. "Deacon" Davis, the preacher-politician who was the first black elected to the House and was its most reelected member when he retired 36 years later in 1978.

The Statehouse press corps looks beyond the notorious shoe boxes Powell left behind when he died in 1970 in the first year of his second term as secretary of state. (Reporters still argue, though, about why the cash turned up in the closet of Powell's Springfield hotel room.) The press looks back to Powell's three decades in the House, 1934-1964, especially to his three terms as speaker, 1949-1950, 1959-1960 and 1961-1962. That, they say, is the real legacy of Powell, the consumate politician. Powell was so skillful as speaker that he remains the standard by which subsequent speakers have been judged; he remains unchallenged as a legislative power broker.

The speaker's powers have always been great, but in those days, when House rules were somewhat lax, the speaker had awesome power over individual bills: assigning them to committee, moving them through the amendment process, calling them for a final vote on the floor. Powell, to whom politics was an art, wielded power with finesse and aplomb. He used every bit of that power; the legislators knew it and he knew they knew it.

If the Statehouse press corps recalls Powell as the Consumate Politician, they remember McCormick as the Great Entertainer and Davis as the Great Orator. When they talked others listened. They commanded attention on the floor. It was not merely what they said, but the way they said it, a matter of style.

With McCormick, it was homespun humor with a homily. Legislators still recite McCormick's famous "mosquito speech." The mosquitoes in southern Illinois were as big as horses that year. They carried flashlights and carted off farm tractors, McCormick said. "It's so bad you have to wear long underwear even in the summer, and it gets hotter than hell down there," he insisted. Southern Illinois women never had been able to wear miniskirts lord knows what that did to the economy. The result, of course was that the "mosquito speech" pulled enough votes to pass McCormick's $10,000 appropriation bill for "mosquito abatement."

Davis was an assistant pastor at a Chicago church, hence the nickname "Deacon." He was, however, a great believer in the separation of church and state except when he rose in debate. Davis' style could only be described as preaching. His sermons lulled legislators to sleep and then awakened them with a deluge of hellfire and brimstone. With Davis, it was that old-time religion and the House loved it. A civil rights advocate, Davis delivered his most memorable sermon on a bill which would have required clinical treatment for welfare fathers with more than an adequate number of children.

The best of the rest among colorful characters, reporters say, includes former Rep. Roscoe Cunningham and former Senators Bernard Niestein and Hudson Sours. Cunningham took on anybody and rarely lost. Niestein's violin solos broke the monotony on the floor of the Senate. Sours, an Ira League-educated attorney, had a habit of lapsing into Latin.

"I fear," sighed one retired newspaperman after swapping Powell, McCormick and Davis stories, "that oratory in the Senate isn't what it used to be." McCormick's possible return may revive the Golden Age of Entertainment in the House.

2/February 1980/Illinois Issues

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