Illinois Republicans decide to make a bad situation worse

ILLINOIS REPUBLICANS, at one time a canny and crafty lot, have made a stupid error in hiring Alan Keyes to slap together what’s left of the party’s U.S. Senate nomination and go howling off into battle against Democrat Barack Obama. The Democrat’s wunder-candidate will give this race national attention and the local GOPer’s thick-headed Grand Strategy — “hmmm, they’ve got a black candidate who can give one hell of a speech . . . we need a black candidate who can give a fiery speech” — is likely to set the already tattered Illinois Republican party back at least another five years.

Keyes will be the perfect foil for Obama to campaign against, and the selection of Keyes will seem exactly the shoddy and cynical move that it is. The Republicans should know better.

Obviously, I’m not a big Alan Keyes fan. My last significant encounter with the former ambassador occurred at the door of a local television station in Atlanta Georgia in the spring of 1996. The station was holding a TV debate for the presidential primary and had banned Keyes, who was then running for president. My candidate, former governor Lamar Alexander, and I had the bad timing to enter the station at exactly the moment Keyes was attempting a media stunt that included chaining himself to the front door. A minor scuffle occurred and I remember the priceless look on the normally unflappable Gov. Alexander’s face when he realized that he was a split second away from becoming hopelessly chained to a frothing Alan Keyes in front a phalanx of glaring TV lights and news cameras. Zigzagging in a flash like an NFL running back, Alexander shot through the door like a rocket, evading Keyes and pulling me through in his draft alone. It was the highlight of the Alexander for President campaign in Georgia.

I’m certain Ambassador Keyes is now busily at work printing up some “Crazy Times Demand a Crazy Senator” yard signs and oiling his trusty chains for a repeat performance in Chicago this fall. Whatever element of the Illinois GOP that came up with this plan will regret the day they thought it up.

To be the fair the Illinois Republicans has been more than a little snake-bit this year. Jack Ryan, their original candidate, looked perfect on paper and proved himself as a campaigner by winning a competitive primary for the nomination. A wealthy Wall Streeter, Ryan retired young to teach in an inner city boy’s school. Alas, he was also tangled up in a messy divorce with formidable Star Trek actress Jeri Ryan, better known as “Seven of Nine” — and every bit as fondly known to young boys of this generation as Julie Newmar’s Catwoman was to boys of my own. The Chicago Tribune was far more interested in the details of Jack Ryan’s divorce than they apparently are in John Kerry’s since they successfully pried Ryan’s sealed records open in court. Phrases like “sex club” hit the front pages and the Ryan Senate candidacy was beamed back into outer space.

Since then the increasing desperate Illinois Republican have careened off one non-starter, down-market candidate idea to another with Chicago Bears coaching legend Mike Ditka being the last Big Idea. That fizzled and now they’ve got Keyes. I’d pity them, except you must remember: They invited Keyes to run. One can only lament that there was no humble state representative or local official public spirited enough to take the great honor of the Illinois Republican party’s U.S. Senate nomination and proudly run with it. Instead the Illinois GOP has reached into the remainder bin and allowed a serious nomination to become a cheap and cynical exercise that will only hurt and embarrass the party. Republicans in the land of Lincoln should know better.