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updated: 1/7/2011 4:00 PM

Sympathy for that devil Ryan?

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  • Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan and his wife Lura Lynn seen in what now could be considered better days, the start of the 2005 trial that sent him to prison.

    Former Illinois Gov. George Ryan and his wife Lura Lynn seen in what now could be considered better days, the start of the 2005 trial that sent him to prison.
    Daily Herald file photo


Maybe his family and good buddy Jim "Growing Less Big In Our Eyes Every Day" Thompson know the real George Ryan. But those of us who paid his salary for decades never, ever feel as if we get the whole truth about our disgraced ex-governor. Turns out there is a very good reason we can't ever completely trust this guy or anything that comes out of his supporters' mouths.

Just when almost everyone with a heart is feeling compassion for the imprisoned Ryan and his quest to see his dying wife, Ryan manages to find a way to reverse all that good will.

We were worried that Lura Lynn Ryan, 76 and in the last stages of lung cancer, might die before her husband of 55 years, her childhood sweetheart, would get a chance to hold her hand one last time and tell her that he loves her. That heartbreaking circumstance managed the difficult task of pulling most people to Ryan's side.

Then we find out that Ryan, while Thompson was still out in public playing the final-visit sympathy card in seeking his release, actually had been allowed to visit his wife Wednesday night. Prison wardens often grant this special request for well-behaved inmates without announcing those visits to the press ahead of time and potentially creating a security concern. Ryans' lawyers have known for a while that the former governor, in the company of prison guards, spent more than two hours at his wife's bedside before returning to prison.

When Associated Press asked Thompson on Wednesday evening if Ryan had been released, Thompson said he had no information about that, and joked that he'd be miffed if Ryan had been awarded a visit and "hadn't immediately pulled over and called me." During Friday's media interviews, Thompson seems miffed only that people are questioning when he knew about the visit and why he continued a disingenuous plea about how Ryan should be allowed to visit his wife.

Thompson uses prison secrecy as his justification for withholding the truth from the public in one hand while he plays the mercy violin for us with the other, He even calls prosecutors "pretty shabby" for mentioning Ryan's visit in court. After using a deathbed visit as a plea during his public calls for bail, Thompson now blasts those federal prosecutors for mentioning the deathbed visit in their legal arguments that Ryan not be released on bail.

The result of all this misdirection, subterfuge and dancing around the truth is that we feel used. Once again, we are left with the familiar corruption hangover that comes whenever a power-drunk politician thinks he is special, above the law and worthy of favors that might not be given to the rest of us mopes. Our emotion-ometer for Ryan went from sympathy to anger in a heartbeat. What kind of a man has the ability to ruin such good will?

Well, Ryan has made a career out of making all of us voters and taxpayers feel like chumps. That he, or at least his operatives, have managed to do that from the sanctity of his wife's deathbed is an awful, yet fitting, final chapter to the Ryan legacy.

For a downstate guy who always has seemed pretty uncomplicated, Ryan has led all of us on a wild ride. He may be an onion, with more and more revealed as we peel away each layer, but it all stinks. Back when Ryan was leading the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment, he was a conservative darling. But his moratorium on the death penalty won him liberal praise and left old allies feeling betrayed. His criminal corruption convictions and legal gamesmanship to delay his inevitable prison sentence angered almost everybody, a few of whom wanted him to rot behind bars. If Ryan had apologized and accepted his sentence without all the appeals, he would have served his time and been a free man by now. But when we hear pleas for the man to get out of prison to see his dying wife, we sympathize with, and even root for, Ryan.

Contributors to radio talk shows, opinion pieces, blogs and even the ancient communication form known as talking seem to have come to the conclusion by Friday that poor old Ryan should receive a temporary release from federal prison to visit his gravely ill wife. We feel compassion for the man.

In an ironic news release e-mailed Friday morning (two days after Ryan saw his wife and his lawyers kept it secret from the public), more than two-thirds of Illinois registered voters were calling for Ryan to be granted a compassion leave to see his wife. The poll, commissioned by the firm of longtime political consultant Thomas M. Serafin, was conducted Thursday night, 24 hours after the federal prison had granted Ryan his humanitarian leave to be with his wife, rendering the poll moot and a waste of money.

An overwhelming 69 percent of respondents wanted Ryan to get that chance, with the numbers jumping to 78 percent in Democratic Chicago and between 69 percent and 74 percent in the suburbs. Take that poll now, after voters learn the whole truth, and Ryan might not generate as much sympathy. People who sincerely wanted to do the right thing, the compassionate thing, the loving thing, end up feeling as if they now want to be less right, less compassionate and less loving. Then they feel bad about having such a change of heart.

For a guy who won a mess of elections, Ryan really has a knack for bringing out the worst in people, and covering up the truth. That will be his legacy.