Becky Sarwate | Contributor

Becky Sarwate

I am about as liberal as they come, and please don't expect to change me, though I do sometimes sneak up on you with a surprise (pro-death penalty, for instance). I am a freelance writer for several Chicago publications. I write about all things urban, Hollywood, my own turbulent life, and of course, my number one passion: local and national politics.

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A little over a week ago, I stepped out the front door to meet a girlfriend for brunch. It was an unusually warm early Spring afternoon in Chicago, 60 degrees and sunny – the perfect day for baseball.

I had chosen to take the #22 Clark bus south to meet my friend at our chosen destination, a Scottish pub in the City’s Lincoln Park neighborhood. The Clark bus is one of those lines that seems to extend forever and goes through so many of Chicago’s key neighborhoods. Start riding at the northernmost extreme, and by the time you reach downtown, you’ll have passed through the trendy LGBT neighborhood of Andersonville, taken a gander at historic Wrigley Field, whizzed past the Chicago History Museum and landed in the thick of it all in Chicago’s Loop.

I boarded the bus at 11:45 AM, just in time to catch the beginnings of a crowd headed over to the Friendly Confines for Game 3 of the Cubs’ home opening series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Cubbies are an institution in the Windy City, one of the National League’s original teams founded in 1876.

Continue Reading The #22 Clark »

This past weekend, while performing my daily sweep of The New York Times‘ columnists, I came across this interesting piece by Bob Herbert. I confess that I often find Herbert’s work to be redundant (“We are screwing the middle class!” – Yeah, but what else?) and downright dull, but this column hit me with the thunderbolt of self-recognition.

Herbert makes a provocative argument in slightly less than 800 words. We find a lot of ink these days devoted to America’s sinking ranking as a first world producer of competitive, college-educated young adults. But what about the ones who do emerge in four or five years, degree in hand? How are they faring when pitted against the challenges of real life? Herbert’s assessment is damning: “Students are hitting the books less and partying more. Easier courses and easier majors have become more and more popular. Perhaps more now than ever, the point of the college experience is to have a good time and walk away with a valuable credential after putting in the least effort possible.”

Continue Reading A Degree in Mediocrity »

Now that the wide variety of political shenanigans that have come to exemplify the 2011 Chicago mayoral race have been exhausted, it seems there’s nothing left to do but wait for Tuesday’s electoral returns. At that point we may stop referring to former U.S. Congressman and White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel as the “presumed favorite,” move beyond his Goliath campaign and start seeing the new CEO of Chi-town in action.

After all, there’s no way anyone could take him at this point, right? Rahmbo has five times more campaign funds at his disposal than nearest fiscal competitor, Gery Chico. His slick print ads and television spots depict the handsome, well-dressed former ballet dancer as a family man who cares about the middle class, ready to make the “tough choices” that will put Chicago back on the fast track to claiming its status as an affordable, world class city. A few of his TV plugs contain public endorsements from not one but two U.S. Presidents, current POTUS Barack Obama, as well as immediate predecessor William Jefferson Clinton.

Continue Reading Rahm the Inevitable »

The Challenger Disaster and Children of the 1980s

I have written some about the rough upbringing my sister and I endured, which included a lot of ugliness not important to itemize for the purposes of this essay. However, before we moved into our first single family home when I turned seven, the situation was fairly benign, I would go so far as to say happy.

My father had recently finished a four-year stint as an Army M.P. and we moved back to Chicago from the Virginia station we called home in 1982. My baby sister was only two years old, and since we arrived in the Windy City during the summer months, it felt extra wonderful to return to my birthplace. I was able to see grandparents almost anytime I wanted, grandparents usually bearing gifts or trips to favorite restaurants. I was preparing to enter kindergarten, and unlike many other nervous small fries, I was stoked. I already knew how to read and write but I precociously understood that there was a lot more information out there that I wanted to consume. Jen was definitely more concerned with my morning absenteeism from her world.

We went on normally, playing in the backyard of our North Center neighborhood apartment complex, watching The Family Feud and The Bozo Show, recreating Pat Benatar and Michael Jackson dance sequences in our parents’ bedroom in front of a small black and white TV. I will forever be grateful for the seven years of blissful childhood ignorance I was able to enjoy before the bottom fell out.

Although I do not hold the explosion of the Challenger Spaceship on January 28, 1986 personally responsible for my inevitable turn toward weary cynicism, it definitely provided a shove. There I was with the rest of my class, sitting in front of a TV our teacher, Mr. Knuth had rolled into the room. Every other space inside the tiny Lutheran grade school I attended was enjoying the same privilege. It was so exciting to be granted a reprieve from routine to be able to watch the shuttle launch, which included the first teacher/astronaut, Christa McAuliffe. And she was a woman too! What an awesome role model, even as we kids snickered about how much we’d love to launch our own teacher into the stratosphere.

We sat quietly at our desks, enthralled by the pre-launch activities, as well as the opportunity to be treated like real people with an interest in national news events. It felt so empowering. When the shuttle went off, we cheered over the roar of the engines and the fiery plumes left in the moving craft’s wake. Hey, maybe one day we all could be astronauts too!

And then…well we know what happened. 73 seconds after the loud excitement of the nation’s children began, many of us received our first taste of complete shock and grief. I felt something for the first time, a set of emotions that I would come to know intimately: I knew what I saw and what it must mean, but how could it be true? If it was true, how could it be undone? What do you mean we can’t fix it? We have to! Of course upon realizing that the adults around us did not have the answers, were in fact just as bewildered and sad as the rest of us, I felt afraid. This was the first moment, the one I will always remember, when I realized that the world is often so far out of our control. Even the well-meaning, the hard-working, the rule abiders can suddenly and quickly find themselves on the short side of cosmic fortune.

The TVs were rolled out of the room by jittery, bereft teachers just as quickly as they had been rolled in. Our instructors did what they could to return some normalcy to the day but it was far too late. How could we forget that we had witnessed the fiery, sudden death of American citizens? How would that ever be ok?

A seven year-old does not have the wherewithal, the emotional resources for perspective. Whether a situation is pleasing or tragic, it seems as though it will go on that way forever. We’re like a bunch of mini manic depressives at that stage. There was a lot of crying that evening, on my part as well as my mother’s. I asked a lot of questions but wasn’t really satisfied with any of the answers. This was the first time I had any idea that most of life works this way. All I know is I didn’t care for it. I thought about how Christa Macauliffe’s children must have felt that night, how the families, spouses, siblings and friends of her fellow space hopefuls must be racked with grief.

I concluded right then that I never wanted to be an astronaut. Even being a teacher sounded like a raw deal, as to my young mind, you were either the victim of tragedy or one who had to walk students through their own. I also figured that maybe I ought not to be so eager with my information consumption, as the truth often leads to horror.

It angers me as an adult that per Wikipedia, “The Rogers Commission found that NASA’s organizational culture and decision-making processes had been a key contributing factor to the accident. NASA managers had known that contractor Morton Thiokol’s design of the SRBs contained a potentially catastrophic flaw in the O-rings since 1977, but they failed to address it properly. They also disregarded warnings from engineers about the dangers of launching posed by the low temperatures of that morning and had failed to adequately report these technical concerns to their superiors.”

I think what little was left of my seven year-old sanity would have been completely demolished it if had been explained to me that agency greed and ambition was the actual killer of the space team. Now of course I am inured to the damage to human and environmental life that corporate decisions can bring (BP, drug makers, etc.).

The Challenger Explosion was more than a major “Where were you when?” moment in the lives of 80s children. It was the first glimpse of the notion, in a period where President Reagan cheerfully peddled American invincibility and Nancy Reagan told us all to stay away from drugs, that our leaders just might be full of shit.

Ever since the November 2010 mid-term election “shellacking” of the Democratic Party, an outcome that many viewed as a direct rebuke of the Obama administration, it has been clear that Team Barry is direly in need of a leadership shakeup. When we learned just before Thanksgiving that White House senior advisor David Axelrod would be stepping down from his post, many on the Left breathed a collective sigh of relief. Axelrod may be a presidential campaign wunderkind, but to say he’s struggled with messaging for the sitting POTUS is something of an understatement.

On January 5th, we were informed that press secretary Robert Gibbs would also be making his way toward the exit. CNN may wish to wax nostalgically that “Gibbs had an easy, joking relationship with the press,” however the party’s base can still recall with cringing clarity the head spokesman’s bungling of the health care messaging war, the PR debacle that was the Gulf Oil Spill, and countless other instances in which the Obama staffer struggled to find his verbal footing.

But the first of Obama’s major players to announce his departure, way back in September of last year, was chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel.

Continue Reading Another Step in the Wrong Direction »

As we approach the imminent conclusion of 2010, an increasing number of liberals that comprise the leftmost wing of the Democratic party are being drowned by waves of nostalgia for November 2008. This was the time, immediately following the historic election of President Barack Obama, the nation’s first African-American Commander-in-Chief, courier for the messages of “hope” and “change” that were to be the hallmarks of the country’s future, when lawmakers from both parties alternately believed in or feared a permanent Democratic majority. In that moment Obama, flush with bold new initiatives in the aftermath of eight years of Bush administration mismanagement, seemed infallible.

On the other hand, the Republican party, which struggled mightily to formulate a message or strategy under the McCain/Palin ticket, appeared to be destined for banishment. Leaders of the GOP publicly and privately indicated that the party faced the Herculean task of finding a platform and voice that could appeal to the mainstream middle. Obviously endless war, permanent tax cuts and corporate favoritism had fallen out of favor.

What a difference 24 months can make.

Continue Reading Obama Has Lost Me »

Having barely survived this past weekend’s Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, and as we the American consumer make our way through Cyber Monday, I am worn out from the retail experience a month away from my family’s interfaith celebration. A collective of Christians, Hindus and Muslims, we are able to reach across the aisle to embrace the secular side of the holiday season: the food, the gifts, the music, and most especially the family togetherness. We pride ourselves on finding the most cost effectively fabulous gifts, and love every moment of the window shopping work it takes to get there. Or at least that’s the way things worked in healthier years.

This annum, I am unemployed – for the second time. My sister and her husband are underwater with their mortgage, after refinancing their home a couple of years before the markets exploded in one giant, universe wrecking supernova. My husband and brother-in-law are gainfully employed but shell shocked by layoff experiences of the past that have set them permanently on edge. My nieces, perfect human beings of ages 11 and 3, have had special education and minor surgical needs, respectively. None of that, as is obvious to every parent in the nation, is anywhere close to free.

Continue Reading Tired of Spending »

It is fair to say that when Barack Obama accepted the mantle to become America’s first African-American President on an unseasonably warm evening in November of 2008, the proverbial world was his oyster. Unlike the shaky “mandate” that George W. Bush declared on behalf of himself and the GOP in 2004, a claim that ran up against unprecedented electoral polarization, it was hard to imagine two years ago that the inspirational “Yes, We Can!” message, which resulted in the new President’s receipt of 365 Electoral College votes to McCain’s 173, could be harpooned.

An energized and gleeful Democratic party, which had succeeded in a full sweep of the White House as well as both Chambers of Congress, got to work right away with a transition team and the development of a first term policy agenda (because really, how could there fail to be a second?). In the meantime, the presumed dead GOP retreated to the political wilderness to lick its wounds and try to develop a comeback plan.

Although hindsight is always 20/20, I doubt that either side of the aisle could have envisioned that the key to Republican resurgence would present itself in the summer of 2009 ,with the young President’s plan to tackle an issue that had stymied every Commander-in-Chief and one tough First Lady throughout the 20th Century – an overhaul of our nation’s wasteful, overpriced and under-performing health care system.

Continue Reading A Time for Fire? »

Bill O’Reilly is having a hell of a month. The professional muckraker and Fox News pugilist managed to manipulate his proffered vision of a tyrannically liberal media into a self-fulfilling prophecy on October 14th. That was the Thursday when, embroiled in a heated discussion with the ladies of “The View” over whether or not the “Ground Zero” mosque should ever see the light of day, O’Reilly caused co-hosts Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar to walk offstage mid-broadcast with five little incendiary words: “Muslims killed us on 9/11.” When head diva Barbara Walters responded by saying “I love my colleagues, but that should not have happened,” I am sure old Bill had trouble containing his glee.

Over the course of O’Reilly’s long career, I have witnessed this pattern over and again, the consistency of a practiced bully: keep yelling and poking until you hit the right nerve, then stand back and act befuddled, telling your adoring audience, “See, you can’t even have a conversation with these guys!” But why fix what isn’t broken? If nothing else, I admire the man’s PR savvy. After “The View” confrontation, that evening’s broadcast of “The O’Reilly Factor” welcomed over four million viewers, easily trouncing the competition at CNN, MSNBC and Headline News.

Continue Reading NPR: National Public Ruckus »

For the second time in a 10-year professional career, I find myself in the position of having to collect government cheese. By that I mean I have joined the ranks of the approximately 11 million people who currently collect some type of unemployment benefit. Every other week, like so many of my fellow Americans, I call-in or go online to “certify” that I am not a complacent, louse of a person content to rake in $275 a week before taxes, instead of looking for a gainful occupation. It is truly a dehumanizing ordeal, as has pretty much always been the case.

However 2010 is no ordinary year. We are now a full 24 months into an economic collapse of epic proportions. Through the use of some magic formula that millions of suffering and out of work Americans (including me) don’t comprehend, the unemployment rate has remained steady at 9.6% for several months. I think I speak for a lot of us when I declare that more than 9.6% of my inner circle are either looking for work, or have taken a job with ludicrously bad pay, hours and/or benefits simply because they have to survive. Be that as it may, we’ll go with 9.6% for now. Even those with jobs have lost their homes by the truck load, or are in the process of doing so, less fortunate than those so far “underwater,” owing to the rapid decline in home prices, that they can reasonably expect to be stuck in place for a decade or longer.

Continue Reading Is This What We Were Sold? »