Another Reason Newspapers Matter: Jim Frost And The Mirage Tavern Bribes

UPDATE: I learned since posting this story that Jim Frost was the uncle of one of my high school classmates, Mike Frost. Small world for sure.

Last night while reading the digital edition of the Chicago Sun-Times I learned news photographer Jim Frost had died on March 1 at the age of 79. His fame is one I have come to know over the decades of listening to WGN radio and having a love affair with the Windy City. One who loves politics must also love the place where it is an art form. It was the darker side of politics that Frost helped uncover as a journalist, and with the power of a newspaper, he became a legend. A legend, it needs noting, that’s recounted in journalism textbooks to this day. As such, his story lands on Caffeinated Politics.

Sun-Times photographers Jim Frost (left) and Gene Pesek in their hideaway at the Mirage tavern.
Sun-Times file

His most famous images came while perched in what amounted to a journalistic deer blind at a dive bar on the Near North Side.

The game he was hunting: crooked city of Chicago inspectors.

It was all part of what came to be known as the Mirage tavern sting.

It took place inside a bar the Sun-Times bought in 1977, staffing it with reporters posing as workers in order to blow the lid off the culture of corruption involving city inspections.

In a lofted space in a back room at the bar, Mr. Frost cut a hole in the wall and covered it with a vent. From there, he and another Sun-Times photographer, the late Gene Pesek, secretly documented it all with their photos. The vent was new. But that wouldn’t work, Mr. Frost realized.

A cutaway illustration of the Mirage tavern showing undercover Sun-Times photographers Jim Frost and Gene Pesek ready to capture images of bribery and corruption that Chicago bar owners faced.
Jack Jordan / Sun-Times

“I took it home, and I beat it all up because it was not a pretty place, and a shiny vent would have been out of place,” he told the Sun-Times last year in an interview for his fellow photographer’s obituary. “The whole thing was hanging on me and Gene in a big way.”

Posing as a repairman, Mr. Frost would carry his camera equipment in a toolbox. He’d walk in and say something like “that fuse box again?” and disappear into the back, he recalled for the book “Chicago Exposed” that was published last year.

He kept the ruse alive when a plumbing inspector nearly discovered his secret spot.

The inspector was fumbling for a light switch in a back room when an undercover colleague yelled for him to stop because it would blow a fuse. The ploy gave Mr. Frost time to scramble up a ladder and hide the equipment beneath a tarp under the guise of searching for a flashlight. 

“My heart was in my throat,” said former Sun-Times reporter Pam Zekman, who played the role of a young bar owner. “Jim saved the day. The whole thing could have been blown.”

Mr. Frost would make sure the jukebox was turned up loud so the click of his camera’s shutter wouldn’t be heard.

He was a recent hire from the Daily Herald when his Sun-Times bosses called him in for a hush-hush meeting and offered him a yes-or-no choice on an important assignment that they would say nothing more about until he committed.

“I was chosen because I was the new kid in town, and none of the City Hall types would recognize me,” Mr. Frost recalled for the book.

“Not even my mom knew,” said his son Robert Frost. “He couldn’t tell her. He was so new at the time, he would have done anything. It was his dream job.”

The sting produced a 25-part series that ran for weeks and birthed a legend that’s recounted in journalism textbooks to this day.

“My favorite headline was ‘The envelope please . . .’ and showed an inspector holding the envelope,” Zekman said.

Working on the Mirage tavern investigation, Sun-Times photographer Jim Frost captured this memorable image of a Chicago fire inspector picking up a bribe. Jim Frost / Sun-Times

Former Wisconsin Governor Tony Earl Dies, Gentler Politics, Too

Tony Earl during a 1986 campaign trip in Door County, aboard Utopia with Gregory Humphrey

One of those politicians all would agree was a most pleasant and kind man died on Thursday.  Tony Earl, the former Wisconsin Governor was 86 years old, and though politics always creates a bevy of differences over policies it can be said he had genuine friends on all sides of the political spectrum.  I saw that play out in person as Earl sought reelection in 1986, a time when our state politics could be frothy but not yet downright mean.

That summer I drove my aqua-marine colored Chevet into the driveway of Fred Peterson, owner of the famed Peterson Shipbuilding family in Sturgeon Bay. I note the car type as I knew it did not blend harmoniously with the impressive home and lawns of a very successful businessman and shipyard owner. I knew he was a staunch conservative Republican and what I, the chairperson of the Door County Democrats, was about to suggest was plucky, for sure.  Earl had wanted to make a campaign swing through the county and his staff wondered if I might arrange for an event.  I pondered it for a couple days and then thought way outside of the box about an idea that was sure to generate press.   

Having lived in Door County for a couple of years I knew Peterson had constructed, in 1946, the famed staysail schooner, Utopia.  Soon thereafter he took three years to circumnavigate the globe. The stories of that trip were often talked about by locals.  Peterson greeted me warmly at his door and if was soon thereafter I suggested that he take Governor Tony Earl on a ride aboard his beloved schooner with some others from around the county.

Photo from Inland Seas Education Association

His first responses are ones that did surprise me and these decades later they are fondly recalled as they speak to a gentler time of state politics.  Peterson wondered what dates were being suggested, how many might be aboard, and whether there should be some snacks and soda served.  I do not recall he ever said yes, but rather just started planning how to make it happen upon the governor’s arrival.  That classy older man speaks to the way our politics once really did play out.

The scheduled day on the water was warm, and sunny, with just a few clouds above while perfect harmony was onboard. Fred was proud of his schooner and honored to have the governor out for a trip; my fellow Democrats were pleased to be there, a few local businesspeople I asked to join were able to talk with Earl about ideas, and his campaign staff was truly pleased with the event which garnered press attention.  It strikes me as I write about the death of Earl and that excursion on the Utopia how people from different ends of the political divide could unite. People who might be grousing about property taxes, environmental policy, or the need for more transportation funds were able to find common bonds while relaxing and viewing the beauty of Door County.

In 2006, I chatted again with Tony Earl following a concert at Overture Hall in Madison. We talked about the years that had gone by and reflected on the time when the tone and style of politics were gentler and seemingly less rhetorically driven. The former governor knew a boatload about state politics, the upsides of winning, as well as the sting of defeat. Through it all, as I reminded him, he was always a gentleman and gracious. His eyes still flashed, and his words still had precision and honesty; laced often with humorous phrasing which allowed him to be a great storyteller. When I asked Earl if he missed the excitement of the campaign trail he flatly stated he did not since politics had become just plain mean and nasty. He told stories of how he would have heated disagreements with his opponents, but at the end of the day the common bonds of friendship took control, and the arguments were retired. He added the personal assaults aimed at each other make politics harsher, and less fun.

The thing that struck me about Earl in 1986 was his genuineness, which was not a trait I noticed in every politician I would come to know. He was solid enough with his own set of principles that he would not campaign on Sundays when running for re-election, even though many tried to convince him otherwise. That type of person with strong inner convictions has always moved me in his or her direction. With the passing of Tony Earl, we know we have lost more than a man many respected and admired.  We also have lost another slice of decency and honor which was a staple of our state politics.

Lisa Marie Presley Dead At 54, Heart Attack Suffered At Her Home

The news of the death of Lisa Marie Presley at the age of 54 leaves a large swath of the nation heavy-hearted and hurting.  The only child of famed superstar Elvis Presley died from a massive heart attack this afternoon.  Her past comments about her battles with drug addiction is a painful chapter that very well could have played a role in her untimely death.

Within the international community of Elvis fans the shock and loss of Lisa Marie have sent heartfelt words across social media. Another sad chapter for the Presley family has come to an end.  An end far too soon, and needlessly so.

Just days ago she was at the Golden Globes and seemed not to be steady on her feet.

Elvis at times had talked about his daughter from the concert stage.

Frank Shakespeare Dies In Dane County At 97: RKO And CBS Division Presidents, Vatican Ambassador, Roger Ailes Friend In ’68 Nixon Campaign

Frank Shakespeare, a consequential man who lived a life at the intersection of business, media, politics, and diplomacy, died Tuesday at the age of 97. He had resided in Deerfield with his family for well over a decade.

If there was any single person in Dane County who merited an oral history recorded about his work and interactions with the likes of Edward R. Murrow to Pope John Paul II, it was Frank Shakespeare. Sadly, however, that never happened.

His resume ranges from being division presidents at RKO and CBS, ambassador to Portugal and the Holy See, and Chairman of the Board for International Broadcasting, an attempt to further the call for democracy during the Cold War.

Many years ago Shakespeare sat on our front lawn in the Adirondack chairs for just a friendly summertime visit. I can honestly say the quirk of circumstances that brought him into our lives is vastly far less interesting than the life he lived.

I will never forget Shakespeare describing, both with words and mimicking, the hand movements of the chain-smoking Murrow trying to balance an ashtray on the thin arms of a chair. When I asked about Walter Cronkite the response from Frank seemed to sum up the way he viewed most of the public names we easily recognize.

“They did not awe me, they put their pants on like any other man.”

When making an inquiry about Pat Nixon, Frank said, “I only knew of her”.

At one point I told him that anyone who knew Edward Murrow, Walter Cronkite, and Richard Nixon is always welcome at our home!

James Wilson, Gregory Humphrey, and Frank Shakespeare

Sitting there that day talking with him I wished it was a decade earlier so that the sharp recollections of a man who had lived and seen so so much history could have been captured on tape.

Though he was an unassuming man, history almost begs us to better know his views and perspectives. The sharper edges he required to navigate corporate boards or be heard in a political campaign, or parry with others at the Vatican as the Cold War was at a pivotal point is part of why a deep-diving series of interviews should have been conducted. How did it all look for Shakespeare decades later in the rearview mirror?

I know who would have been an ideal interviewer, too. Me. After all, the intersections of his life are the ones that I have concentrated on with books and history for the past 40 years. Frank and I would have had a delightful dialogue. I just know it. He enjoyed my coffee-making skills, too. His request was for some sugar and cream in the cup. (I admit to taking odd contemporaneous notes.)

When he was on our Madison isthmus lawn it was not my first awareness of the man or the part he played in Richard Nixon’s 1968 campaign. After all, I am a Nixon history buff. I had Joe McGinniss’ book on my shelves, The Selling Of The President 1968, which starts out with the first paragraph featuring none other than Frank Shakespeare.

McGinniss at the time was a 26-year-old former Philadelphia Inquirer reporter who functioned as part of the Nixon campaign team. What he witnessed in that campaign and the strategy for winning national support was illuminating at the time his book was published and serves now as a place in history where one can see a time before the ’68 race, and a time after.

Shakespeare was a professional image shaper who surely knew full well that the line from McGinniss about Nixon in the 1960 presidential election was true. “He failed because he had no press to lie for him and did not know how to use television to lie about himself. The camera portrayed him clearly. America took its Richard Nixon straight and did not like the taste.”

Page 60 “The Selling Of The President’

Another up-and-coming voice in conservative media who played an instrumental role in Nixon’s victory was Roger Ailes, who later in life would define factless television disguised as news. In 1968, however, he produced Nixon’s TV shows which were slick staged ‘town hall meetings’ that were as prefabricated as the cheap homes then sprouting up around the nation. Over the years, I have likened those 30 minutes of hokum as being a third cousin to Col. Tom Parker placing a live electric wire under hay so fairgoers would think chickens really danced.

Shakespeare was the one, as Rick Perlstein writes in Nixonland, who brought Ailes into the fold of the campaign.

Ailes and Shakespeare well understood how Nixon would need to look, stand, be lighted, and smoothed over for an electorate who knew the candidate all too well. Teddy White offers his readers in Making Of The President 1968 the view from Shakespeare that Nixon they presented to the nation was “spontaneous, with no rehearsal, in a serious posture with a mixed bag of questioners…”

As a decades-long Richard Nixon history buff the manner that he was marketed to the public in the 1968 presidential campaign, much akin to toothpaste or ketchup, was a defining moment in the further weakening of our politics. While messaging and artifice have long been political tools–who can forget the rail-splitting image of Abraham Lincoln–I have long hoped that our elections could be elevating experiences. The 1968 Nixon campaign was the exact opposite. And, of course, the history of the Nixon Administration shows what happens when character considerations are tossed aside for the salesmanship of a candidate.

So how then would one of the architects of the ’68 Nixon effort reflect on how our national politics emerged in the presidential cycles which followed? That is what I would have truly enjoyed discovering in an oral history with Frank Shakespeare.

Frank Shakespeare surely had a deep and abiding love for our nation, just as it is fair to say the television era changed and shaped our politics in detrimental ways. It was that thumbprint on history that I wished we had the chance for him to review.

And so it goes.

A Tribute To Country Legend Loretta Lynn, Dies At Age 90

There are many singers across the land, countless records pressed and sold, stories of kindness between the concert stage and the audience, and all are remarkable to hear and learn.  But when all those musical accounts are told and all the songs are played by artists young and old, one fact remains.  There is only one Loretta Lynn.

Today the classic country music legend died in Tennessee at the age of 90.  Her music was among the first voices I heard on our record player as a boy.  There was Jones and Haggard and Smith, of course, but there was always just one Loretta. Mom would remark that Lynn wrote songs about what she knew and the hurts she felt along the path of life. Such sentiments found their way into her penned lines again and again. Country music fans responded by requesting the music be played on country radio stations and then headed off to buy their own copy at stores like Woolworths. There was always a sense that Loretta was just like her fans, a person who made her mark by never forgetting her past.

Last year, I recorded a 17-minute podcast that in part pays tribute to Lorretta Lynn.  She is the first person treated with my thanks when I call out the best concerts I was privileged to attend. From memories of Loretta, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, along with WSM radio announcer Grant Turner and others this tribute looks at how classic country music still resonates across the land.  Heartfelt memories galore! I take listeners on a journey to the stages of country music shows.  The fiddles are warming up, now.  

Loretta started her life in Kentucky’s coal fields and grew as a powerful female singer to know she resided in the hearts of millions. Simply a remarkable life, creating music that will never cease to be played.

Remembering Bill Plante With Lesson About Why Journalism Matters in America

Though several days late there was no way I could not pay tribute on this blog to a solid reporter that most of my readers watched countless times from the White House on CBS News.  Bill Plante, who died last week at the age of 84, was one of those voices and faces that our nation turned to in times of turmoil and high drama that would play out at the White House regardless of the person sitting in the Oval Office, or the political party in power. As I will demonstrate Plante’s professional moves as a journalist underscore some basic truths about reporting and politics in our nation.

The New York Times wrote of his boyhood in Chicago, attending Loyola, and being hired as the assistant news director of WISN-TV in Milwaukee. He joined CBS News in 1964 and was quickly sent to Vietnam; it was one of four times, through the fall of Saigon in 1975, that he reported from there.

Shouting questions was a necessary part of the press corps’s job, even if that behavior appeared rude, Mr. Plante told the streaming service CBSN; if reporters did not, he said, “we’d be walking away from our First Amendment role — and then we really would be the shills we’re so often accused of being.”

One of Mr. Plante’s most disquieting moments as a White House correspondent occurred in late October 1983, when he learned that the United States was about to invade the Caribbean island of Grenada. Before going on the air with his exclusive, he asked Larry Speakes, President Reagan’s acting press secretary at the time, to confirm his information.

Mr. Speakes denied it, and CBS killed the story.

“Larry said something like, ‘Preposterous — where did you get that?’” Lesley Stahl, then a fellow White House correspondent for CBS News, said in a phone interview for this obituary last year. “And the next morning there was an invasion. At the briefing the next day, Bill was furious, and justifiably so, and, in that big booming voice of his, accused Larry Speakes of misleading him.”

The reason Plante knew the story should be reported, and why he was furious with the White House Press Secretary (acting or not and one who should never outright lie to a reporter), was because the military adventure in Grenada was a “look over there’ move by the Reagan Administration to deflect from the massive loss of American lives two days earlier in Beirut.

Fundamentalist militants attacked the US Marine barracks in Beirut with a truck bomb on October 23, 1983, which killed 241 American servicemen. History recorded that as the deadliest single attack on Americans overseas since World War II. Reagan did not, however, send additional troops to Lebanon, which was the theatre of obvious attention, but rather 7,000 troops to invade Grenada, the smallest independent country in the Western Hemisphere. Reagan would claim in a national television address about “fighting communism” but Plante was well aware this was nothing more than a political face-saving moment after the loss of hundreds of American soldiers.  Plante also understood the absurdity of needlessly “rescuing” around 800 American medical students on the island for the most dubious of reasons. The matter was far more about expedient politics than foreign policy.

Our national government allows for reporters to be very close to the seat of power.  Closer than any other leader provides for reporters in any other country around the globe.  The White House Press room is located just steps from the office of the press secretary. The relationship between White House reporters and the leader of our nation, regardless of political party or decade, is often tense and difficult.  As it should be.  As it needs to be.

To provide our democracy with the information, insight, and analysis needed for citizens to be able to evaluate the direction of the nation a robust press corps needs to probe and question all our leaders.  That often makes every White House uncomfortable.  That is one price of attaining power that each president must deal with.  The fact that reporters unearth and report on issues that otherwise would never come to light such as the famed example of the Pentagon Papers in the 1970s underscores the need for an energized press as they report and help secure the foundations of our nation.  Too often the public forgets that the press in our nation is as much a part of why we are free today as the soldiers in uniform. 

Bill Plante was most aware that when the flare-ups between the people who wield power, and those who report on them seem most tense, we are actually witnessing the strength of our nation. Think of the many nations where a free working press cannot exist within their boundaries, let alone in the same building or close proximity to where the leader works and lives.  To pepper any president with tough questions, or demand accountability from the government, is the very task that these reporters should do on a daily basis. And Plante did that job with a single focus under Presidents Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. At times these actions can royally irritate some in the seats of power and others while watching in their living rooms, but history shows we are better served by being truly informed citizens.  That can only happen with many intrepid reporters on the beat.  Especially at the White House.

Bill Plante showed America how it was done. 

Queen Elizabeth II Dies At 96: Met U.S. Presidents Since Harry Truman

It still came as shock, even though it was often talked about over the past years. Queen Elizabeth II died at the age of 96 and there is now a new monarch in Britain. Only earlier this week the Queen had continued her constitutional duty and invited Liz Truss to form a new government. Even with health problems and aging concerns, there was always Queen Elizabeth who kept the long line of history very much intact on the British throne, acting with quiet resolve for decades.

I have thought about how to best reflect her life as seen through the eyes of this American home, and have settled on a series of photos of her interactions with our top leaders. (The Queen never met President Lyndon Johnson.) President Harry Truman was her first president to meet even though Elizabeth was not yet queen when, at the age of 25, she filled in for her very ailing father.  

President Harry S. Truman and Britain’s Princess Elizabeth are shown as their motorcade got underway following the reception ceremony at Washington National Airport on October 31, 1951.
 Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
20th October 1957: Queen Elizabeth II, US president Dwight D Eisenhower (1890 – 1969) with his wife Mamie (1896 – 1979) and Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh at a White House State banquet.
 Keystone/Getty Images
Buckingham Palace during a banquet held in his honor, American President John F. Kennedy and his wife, First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, pose with Queen Elizabeth II London, United Kingdom, June 15, 1961.
 PhotoQuest/Getty Images
From BBC
President Gerald Ford dances with Britain’s Queen Elizabeth during a White House State Dinner honoring the Queen US Bicentennial visit, Washington DC, July 7, 1976. (Photo by Dirck Halstead/Getty Images)
6/8/1982 President Reagan riding horses with Queen Elizabeth II during visit to Windsor Castle, Daily Mail
Express UK
People magazine
Prince Phillip, Queen Elizabeth II, President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama. Photo: Jack Hill – WPA Pool/Getty Images
(Wow….just wow.)

Thank You, David McCullough

American author and historian David McCullough in his writing shed where he still used a 1941 Royal typewriter, at his home in West Tisbury, Massachusetts, USA, 4th February 2002. (Photo by Stephen Rose/Getty Images)

Several years ago, on a summer evening, as the Amtrak train pulled out of Washington D.C.’s Union Station, James and I sat in our sleeper car ready for a trip that would take us overnight to Chicago. It was 2017, and the weight of the outcome of the previous fall’s election was pressing against the contours of our national sense of norms and traditions. In our compartment, as the train trekked towards Pittsburg, over the swaths of America that were like painted vistas as the sun set, we settled back with some books we had purchased on our vacation.  Among them was The American Spirit by David McCullough.  It was subtitled Who We Are and What We Stand For.

The collection of speeches from the famed historian had been released just weeks prior and James was immersed within the pages.  (I had Thomas Fleming’s book on the Founding Fathers as my selection while drinking a cup of coffee from Amtrak’s kitchen car.) We had followed the advice from only a couple of weeks prior upon hearing McCullough, in a wide-ranging interview, and in his usual eloquent way about why people needed to see this country’s national parks and historic sites. He spoke about the need to show young people the wonders of the past. James and I were already months into the planning for such a trip that took us to Washington, D.C., and some sites in the general area. Connecting with the touchstones of the past was exactly the very thing that McCullough urged.

Tonight, America is learning of the death of David McCullough, a man so many truly respected and admired. He was 89 years old.

In 1992, as President George Herbert Walker Bush was campaigning for reelection his Truman-like train came into Plover, Wisconsin with a long blowing of the whistle. It was a cold and blustery day across Wisconsin.  Light snow flurries swirled through the air as many thousands stood for hours at the old train depot. The presidential campaign that year was winding down, and Bush was campaigning with David McCullough’s latest book Truman in his hand while reminding voters that he too could win the election as Harry did in 1948.  In spite of the polls, there were still campaign stops to be made as Bush was working overtime at trying to make his Truman moment come true.

(As a side note my mom and dad attended that rally with me. We arrived very early which allowed us to stand up front near the podium.  It needs to be noted that in 1944 this is where my mother’s family had debarked upon their arrival from Ozone, Arkansas.  It was that tidbit from history and the circle coming around again that would have made McCullough smile.)

Again, that fall in Waukesha I would attend a Bush rally where the candidate alerted the huge turnout that he had read McCullough’s book and he was going to be like the Missourian come Election Night.  That was the trip I was able to shake both George’s and Barbara’s hands.  Again, the historian would have smiled as he knew American values, as expressed by joint efforts to accomplish things, mattered in our system of government; that joint effort starts with listening and respecting each other.

In Washington, it is one thing to see the Lincoln Memorial in daylight, but to stand in the lighted wonder at night and ponder Abe is quite another.  I had found myself talking to many people day after day and asking them their impressions of sites all over the city. As such, I asked a black woman who was, I learned, age 88 what her feelings were about the memorial. It was her first time to see it and being from Jamaica she spoke as one who knew of the power Lincoln’s words gave to those outside this nation. “It is very powerful for everyone,” she said with soft words and dark knowing eyes.

On the backside of the memorial looking out across the Potomac, I spoke to a father and then told his young teenage children about the battle of First Bull Run and how many townspeople took carriages and boxed lunches to watch the battle as many felt the war would be a short term operation.  Hours later the beaten and badly wounded soldiers would be limping or being carried back over the river into Washington.  Some without shoes, others without guns, others without an eye or limb.   It was interesting to see the young look out and hear of the events and perhaps in their mind see history play out.  

I just know Dave McCullough would smile at such a conversation.  It was exactly what he hoped our nation’s citizens would do, and how we might engage with one another. Caring about history, along with our nation’s highest ideals, and the continued desire to reach them is the best way we can remember and honor this man.

Godspeed, David.