This afternoon, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Tribune Company may be preparing to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy:
In recent days, as Chicago-based Tribune continued talks with lenders to restructure its debt, the newspaper-and-television concern hired investment bank Lazard Ltd. as its financial adviser and law firm Sidley Austin to advise the company on a possible trip through Chapter 11 bankruptcy, people familiar with the matter say.
Interestingly, the Tribune Company's law firm, Sidley Austin, used to employ both President-elect Barack Obama and future First Lady Michelle Obama. It was at Sidley Austin in the summer of 1988 that Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama first met. At the time, Ms. Robinson was a young lawyer and recent graduate of Harvard Law. She was tasked with mentoring a summer associate (and Harvard Law student) named Barack Obama.
Sidley Austin also used to employ Bernadine Dohrn. Ms. Dohrn is the former leader of the Weather Underground, a former domestic terrorist, a former fugitive, and the current wife of controversial University of Illinois-Chicago Distinguished Professor of Education (and fellow ex-Weatherman, bomber and fugitive) William Ayers. More on the Weathermen (later known as the Weather Underground) and Bernadine Dohrn here (Ms. Dohrn reads a declaration of war on the United States 40 seconds into the video), and here. View the FBI's 1976 file on the Weather Underground here. Finally, The Claremont Institute discusses Ms. Dohrn's past here.
President-elect Obama's friendship with Ms. Dohrn and Mr. Ayers (as well as his work with Mr. Ayers on the Chicago Annenberg Challenge and on the board of the Woods fund) was a source of controversy in both the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary and the 2008 general Presidential election.
Bernadine Dohrn began working as an associate at the prestigious Chicago law firm of Sidley & Austin in 1984, four years after ending an eleven year run as a fugitive. Ms. Dohrn worked at Sidley Austin from 1984 to 1988. As the Northwestern Chronicle notes (Ms. Dohrn is currently a faculty member at the Northwestern University School of Law), " at the time, the law firm was headed by Howard Trienens, who (represented) Dohrn's father-in-law Thomas Ayers when he was running Commonwealth Edison."
The Chronicle noted the concern of some Northwestern Law alumni that Ms. Dohrn's employment at Sidley Austin may have "represented a serious conflict of interest and reeked of influence peddling." It also noted that Ms. Dohrn was unable to pass the Character and Fitness portion of the New York bar due to her criminal past, and cited one Northwestern Law alumnus' befuddlement as to the kind of work she could have done for the firm, given her criminal record:
"Show me another law firm that hires a known criminal who can't get into the bar," O'Shea said.In October, Drive and Dish noted the Tribune Company's close ties to (and apparent sympathies with) the campaign of then Democratic Presidential nominee Barack Obama.
So what is Drive and Dish trying to say? We're just noting that Sidley Austin is a firm that has clout. And in Chicago, there's nothing more important than clout. But while the word clout may have originated in Chicago, the old saying that it's not what you know, but rather who you know is not exclusively applicable to the Windy City. No one enters the spheres of power and influence without having connections.
At his old blog, the Belmont Club, Richard Fernandez discussed three pieces which dealt with Barack Obama's rise in Chicago politics and Mr. Obama's place in what Mr. Fernandez termed the "Byzantine labyrinth of Chicago connections." Mr. Fernandez cited the work of University of Santa Clara law professor Steve Diamond who asked "who sent Barack Obama:"
(Mr. Diamond) explains the context of the word "sent".
In Chicago politics a key question has always been, who "sent" you? The classic phrase is ... from an anecdote of Abner Mikva's, the former White House Counsel (Pres. Clinton) ... As a young student ... he walked into the local committeman's office ... and was immediately asked: "Who sent you?" Mikva replied, "nobody sent me." And the retort came back from the cigar chomping pol: "Well, we don't want nobody that nobody sent."
So it is reasonable to ask, who "sent" Barack Obama? In other words, how can his meteoric rise to political prominence be explained?
Mr. Fernandez continued:
Diamond's answer is speculative, but informative because it provides a look back into the youthful life and times of the man who might be the next President of the United States.
(So), who did “send” Obama? The key I think is his ties not to well connected uber lawyer Newton Minow, as Kaufman suggests, but more likely to the family of (in)famous former Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers – not just Bill Ayers, but also Bill’s father Tom Ayers and his brother John as well. Obama was a community organizer from about 1985 to 1988, when he left Chicago for Harvard Law School.
In a May, 2008, article about Mr. Obama's connections with Mr. Ayers, the Chicago Tribune's Ron Grossman wrote of how Ms. Dohrn's and Mr. Ayers' connections had helped to propel the former fugitives to prominence in Chicago:
(I)t's hard for an outsider not to see the map of family connections behind their paths.
Ayers' father moved in philanthropic circles with Howard Trienens, an attorney with the powerhouse firm of Sidley Austin. The two served together on Northwestern University's Board of Trustees. Ayers was chairman of that group, then handed the post off to Trienens in 1986.
Trienens headed Sidley Austin when the firm hired Dohrn in 1984. She had never practiced law and had been out of law school for 17 years.
Ultimately, the Tribune Company's retention of Sidley Austin to handle it's rumored bankruptcy proceedings is more instructive than it is surprising. As Mr. Grossman wrote in the Chicago Tribune, Sidley Austin is a "powerhouse" law firm; it has deep ties to many of Chicago's movers and shakers. And Chicago, like New York and Washington, D.C., is a city where powerful individuals run in small, insular circles.
There's nothing wrong with the Tribune Company's retention of a powerful law firm to represent it's interests. To the contrary: hiring Sidley Austin was an obvious move for Tribune Co. But it's worth noting that in Chicago -- the city that gave rise to the concept of "clout" -- the Tribune Company's law firm has more clout (i.e., connections to the powerful) than almost any other.