Illinois State Library

Illinois Center for the Book

Individual Author Record

General Information

Name:  James L Merriner  

Pen Name: None

Genre: Non-Fiction

Audience: Adult;

Born: 1947 in Marietta, OH

-- Website --
-- James L Merriner on WorldCat --

Illinois Connection

Merriner is a former Chicago Sun-Times political editor.

Biographical and Professional Information

James Merriner graduated magna cum laude from Harvard and worked as the political editor, political columnist, and city editor for the Chicago Sun-Times and the Atlanta Constitution.

Published Works Expand for more information

Titles At Your Library

Against Long Odds: Citizens Who Challenge Congressional Incumbents
ISBN: 0275966429

Praeger. 1999

While many books detail how senators and representatives operate in Washington, this one describes how they stay in power. The congressional elections of 1998 were the most expensive in history. Incumbency reelection rates were 98.3 percent in the House and 89.7 percent in the Senate, and this was a typical outcome after Watergate-era campaign reforms supposedly reduced the influence of money in politics. From the unique vantage of credible citizen-candidates who ran against congressional incumbents from Massachusetts to Hawaii during the 1990s, Against Long Odds tackles the question of why incumbents nearly always win.

These citizen-challengers learned that the system is rigged against them. Incumbents prevail through a virtual monopoly on campaign cash, lavish congressional perks, local media and business backing, intimidation of their challengers' supporters, and sometimes outright dirty tricks. This is true for Republicans and Democrats for conservatives, moderates, and liberals alike. This account details, as no other book has, how representatives and senators are zealous participants in a system that threatens to overturn the American traditions of free elections and the free exchange of ideas. Frustrated voters often complain that, no matter which party controls Congress, nothing ever really seems to change. Merriner and Senter explain why.

Mr. Chairman: Power in Dan Rostenkowski's America
ISBN: 0809324733

Southern Illinois University Press. 2002

The story of Dan Rostenkowski’ s rise and fall provides one of the keys to how power is sought, won, exercised, and distributed in contemporary America, argues political journalist James L. Merriner.

A literal son of the Chicago political machine, Rostenkowski was installed in politics by his father, Alderman Joseph P. Rostenkowski, and by his mentor, Mayor Richard I. Daley. In his thirty-six year congressional career, he served nine presidents, forming close friendships with many of them. His legislative masterpiece was the 1986 tax reform law. Eight years later, he was indicted on federal charges for misusing tax dollars and campaign funds.

In his dealings with the man who tumbled dramatically from his high position as chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee all the way down to a cell in a federal prison in Wisconsin, Merriner finds Rostenkowski candid, straightforward, and authentic— "except when it came to his own finances."

Rostenkowski is not a complex man in need of psychoanalysis on the part of his biographer, and Merriner does not indulge in much of that. Purely, simply, and openly, Rostenkowski wanted power. He wanted wealth. He got both, and Merriner shows us how.

Merriner sees mythic qualities in Rostenkowski, characterizing him as the "tall bold slugger" of Carl Sandburg’ s 1916 poem about Chicago. Noting that this master politician climbed to fantastic peaks only to fall hard and fast, Merriner points out that "Rostenkowski’ s life ascended from power in the political science sense to tragedy in the classical sense." The Justice Department and the electorate sacrificed Rostenkowski as an embodiment of the excesses of big government. Like the Greek chorus of tragedy, major media reported the scandal to the masses.

Yet Merriner does not strain to make his subject fit a classical mold. He tells instead the "story of a great man who was also a little man, a statesman and a crook, an emotional man, an American original." This was also a man unbeaten by his troubles, a man who emerged from prison unabashed.

This illustrated biography is not authorized by Rostenkowski, who declined Merriner’ s interview requests after June 1995. His sources are the public record, previous interviews with Rostenkowski and with many other sources before and after 1995, and his own political acumen gained from decades on the political scene.

Grafters and Goo Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago
ISBN: 0809328747

Southern Illinois University Press. 2008

Chicago’s reputation for corruption is the basis of local and national folklore and humor. Grafters and Goo Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago, 1833–2003 unfolds the city’s notorious history of corruption and the countervailing reform struggles that largely failed to clean it up. More than a regional history of crime in politics, this wide-ranging account of governmental malfeasances traces ongoing public corruption and reform to its nineteenth-century democratic roots. Former Chicago journalist James L. Merriner reveals the battles between corrupt politicos and ardent reformers to be expressions of conflicting class, ethnic, and religious values.

From Chicago’s earliest years in the 1830s, the city welcomed dollar-chasing businessmen and politicians, swiftly followed by reformers who strived to clean up the attendant corruption. Reformers in Chicago were called “goo goos,” a derisive epithet short for “good-government types.” Grafters and Goo Goos contends a certain synergy defined the relationship between corruption and reform. Politicians and reformers often behaved similarly, their separate ambitions merging into a conjoined politics of interdependency wherein the line between heroes and villains grew increasingly faint. The real story, asserts Merriner, has less to do with right against wrong than it does with the ways the cultural backgrounds of politicians and reformers steered their own agendas, animating and defining each other by their opposition.

Drawing on original and archival research, Merriner identifies constants in the struggle between corruption and reform amid a welter of changing social circumstances and customs―decades of alternating war and peace, hardships and prosperity. Three areas of reform and resistance are identified: structural reform of the political system to promote honesty and efficiency, social reform to provide justice to the lower classes, and moral reform to combat vice. “In the matter of corruption and reform, the constants might be stronger than the variables,” writes Merriner in the Preface. “The players, rules, and scorekeepers change, but not the essential game.”

Complemented by eighteen illustrations, Grafters and Goo Goos is rife with shocking and amusing anecdotes and peppered with the personalities of famous muckrakers, bootleggers, mayors, and mobsters. While other studies have profiled infamous Chicago corruption cases and figures such as Al Capone and Richard J. Daley, this is the first to provide an overview appropriate for historians and general readers alike. In examining Chicago’s notorious saga of corruption and reform against a backdrop of social history, Merriner calls attention to our constant problems of both civic and national corruption and contributes to larger discussions about the American experiment of democratic self-government.

The Man Who Emptied Death Row: Governor George Ryan and the Politics of Crime (Elmer H Johnson & Carol Holmes Johnson Series in Criminology)
ISBN: 0809328658

Southern Illinois University Press. 2008

George H. Ryan, Illinois governor from 1999 to 2003, became nationally known for two significant and very different reasons. The first governor in the United States to clear out his state’ s death row and put a moratorium on the death penalty, he was also convicted and sent to prison on corruption charges. The Man Who Emptied Death Row: Governor George Ryan and the Politics of Crime details the career of a man who both enhanced and tarnished the image of the highest office in Illinois and examines the political history and culture that shaped him.

Author James L. Merriner explores the two very different stories of George Ryan: the brave crusader against the death penalty and the petty crook. An extensive analysis of the official record, exclusive interviews, and previously undisclosed incidents in Ryan’ s career expose why the governor pardoned or commuted the sentences of all 171 prisoners on Illinois’ s death row before leaving office and how he later was convicted of eighteen counts of official corruption.

This biography traces Ryan’ s family history and the Illinois political climate that influenced his development as a politician. Although Ryan championed “ good-government” initiatives— organ donations, tougher drunken-driving and lobbyist disclosure laws— he never overcame a reputation as a wheeler-dealer, notes Merriner.

Merriner goes beyond Ryan’ s life and career to explore the politics of crime, highlighting the successes and failures of the criminal justice system and suggesting how both white-collar fraud and violent crime shape politics. A fascinating story that reveals much about the way Illinois politics works, The Man Who Emptied Death Row will help determine how history will judge Illinois governor George Ryan.

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