Mike Ditka is indeed God-like in Chicago. And sometimes he comes across The Man of the People, from his rough-and-tumble steelworker roots, and sometimes he comes along like he believes the legend. Or better yet, the sketches. He does still have the man-in-the-street in him. But he's also always been a bit of a know-it-all, "my way or the highway" blowhard.
There was a news story yesterday about Chicago Bears legend Mike Ditka saying that the biggest mistake of his life was not running for the U.S. Senate in Illinois when he was drafted to in 2004 against Barack Obama.
“Not that I would have won," he was quoted, "but I probably would have and he wouldn’t be in the White House,"
I'm from Chicago and love Iron Mike. I grew up as a kidling watching him play for the Bears, and then later as the coach of the Super Bowl-winning team in 1985, through the opening of his still-popular restaurant, and his success as a TV commentator.
And I'd have hated him as a politician, and he'd have gotten crushed.
First of all, rather than revert to revisionist history, it's important to remember exactly what the situation was in 2004. The reason that Republicans were trying to draft Mike Ditka to run for the U.S. Senate was because -- they literally had no one. Not "no one good," but...no one. Republicans were desperate to find someone, anyone to run.
Mr. Obama's opponent was supposed to be Jack Ryan, former husband of actress Jeri Ryan (most famously from Star Trek: Voyager as 'Seven of Nine'). However, when his divorce records were released to the public, they were so problematic in their revelations that he dropped out. The Republicans tried everything to find someone to run, eventually ending up with Alan Keyes, whose claim to fame was being the crazy candidate in the 2000 GOP presidential debates.
Mike Ditka was one on those asked about running, but at the time he himself even said he'd be a terrible candidate, noting how outspoken he was about everything with no filter, and having "ultra-conversative" (his word) political opinions that were far out of touch with most rational people. I'm not exaggerating. For one thing, he said he was for public hangings. Seriously.
"I'm not so sure that public hangings don't have a place in society," he said in 1996 at a fund-raiser for Jack O'Malley, running for Cook County State's Attorney.
But beyond that, it's important to have a clear eye on what exactly the situation was. At the time, Barack Obama was a rising political star, having recently given a galvanizing speech at the Democratic National Convention. But he was still very unknown, even in Illinois, a black man running for election to a chamber that had only elected four African-Americans in all U.S. history, and with a funny name. Mike Ditka, on the other hand, had name recognition above and beyond most anyone in the state, a deeply beloved figure who had been a Hall of Fame star for the Chicago Bears, later leading the team to its only Super Bowl win -- for a city that is football crazy.
And in a "what if" poll taken for a theoretical race between the little-known Barack Obama and the Lord High Ditka -- Barack Obama led by seven points. And that was before Mike Ditka opened his mouth and said things like "public hangings." And "ultra conservative." Illinois is not an ultra-conservative state.
Illinois is also not a state that fawns over celebrities for political office. It takes politics seriously serious. When Ernie Banks -- perhaps the most beloved sports star in the history of Chicago, a man known as Mr. Cub, someone still adored to this day, 40 years after he quit playing -- ran for Alderman in Chicago...he lost. This is a state that elected Paul Simon senator, a man who looked like a cross between PeeWee Herman and Alfred E. Newman.
Mike Ditka might like to think today that he'd have beaten Barack Obama -- but he would have been pounded. He might like to think that it was his worst mistake not running against Mr. Obama for the Senate -- but if Barack Obama had not just won the election, but beaten Chicago Bears legend Mike Ditka? It probably would have skyrocketed his already exploding career.
I like Da Coach. I listen to him every week on the Waddle and Silvy podcast from ESPN Chicago radio. But Mike Ditka's bluster and bombast have always been among his most endearing features. It's nice to see that they remain so.