Well, there goes a stellar part of the 'Good Neighborhood'

  • Article by: JON TEVLIN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 10, 2010 - 8:44 PM

His office looks like the garbage dump for every political campaign in Minnesota. He keeps company with a moose head. And he's fond of wearing scarves on television.

But don't let the quirks distract you: Eric Eskola has helped knit the political fabric of the state, from its Nordic tasseled cap to its woolen socks.

For almost three decades, Eskola has been there for nearly every slogan-toting, fist-shaking, balloon-dropping moment. Eskola's unexceptional but unmistakable voice has been our radio guide at WCCO, the guy you look for on Election Eve when you are cruising along Hwy. 61 in the dark and need your political fix.

He has been, to put it simply, our good neighbor.

But that will end sometime this month, when Eskola takes a buyout from WCCO, which is apparently changing directions. I called Eskola last week to talk about his amazing run, but he politely declined.

"Nobody cares," he said, sounding a bit blue, a bit Minnesotan.

Well, sorry to be a pain, Eric, but a lot of people disagree. So I'm going to follow your lead and do a story anyway. Because I'm sure Eskola will continue to be a force on TPT's "Almanac" show and elsewhere, this is not an obituary, but rather a well-earned intermission ovation.

Colleagues and sources say Eskola is at turns serious and clownish, a guy who sounds and looks effortless on the air but who can be somewhat awkward in person. He lacks the cynicism so prevalent in journalism, and not one person I spoke with knows his politics.

He's an iconoclast, courtly, a gentleman, friends say. He's a bad driver, suffers pangs of anxiety before big events and is as frugal with his money as he is generous with his time, always the first person to buy flowers or a card for colleagues.

"He spends like Felix Unger and offices like Oscar Madison," WCCO-TV reporter Pat Kessler said, referring to the contrasting roommates of "The Odd Couple." Kessler said the only time he has seen Eskola mad is when someone reported him to the fire marshal for his messy office.

"But he's the real deal. He is truly an old-school journalist in the best sense of the phrase," Kessler said.

Dane Smith, president of the Growth and Justice nonprofit and a former political reporter for this newspaper, says Eskola "is a giant, one of the most significant newspeople in Minnesota history. He has really been a dominant presence for 30 years at the Capitol," said Smith. "He's been a tremendous asset to the whole civic health of the state."

Eskola has become Minnesota's version of Helen Thomas, a legendary reporter known for asking the first question at White House news conferences.

"But it wasn't because we deferred to him," Smith said. "It was because he took it, and we got used to it. He's got a very healthy ego that sometimes manifests itself in a sort of self-deprecation that is pretty transparent."

Because Eskola is aggressively competitive, "he can ruffle feathers and chew up the scenery as any alpha male does," Smith said. "But he also has a sense of camaraderie. He's a fine friend."

David Carr, now media critic for the New York Times, once competed with Eskola.

"I was not cutting the most impressive profile at the Capitol in my jeans and bowling shirt, but Eric was very collegial," Carr said. "The Legislature is full of arcane folkways, and he was always very patient with me, always giving the gentle eye-rolling before explaining the subtleties."

Carr was always impressed by Eskola's ability to find the essence and meaning of a story, and distill it down to two minutes. "Simple is hard," Carr said. "And he really brings a lot of elegance to it."

Tom Horner, Independence Party candidate for governor, has sat across from Eskola for many years on "Almanac." "Eric has always been committed to getting the story right and in the proper context, and in treating everybody with respect," said Horner. "He's always been able to tell not only the 'what,' but the 'so-what?'"

Roger Moe, the former DFL majority leader of the Minnesota Senate, said: "He's dangerous to those of us in the profession because he knows the fourth and fifth questions to ask. He makes the complex simple, but maybe that was from hanging around with Sid [Hartman]."

Steve Sviggum, former Republican Speaker of the House, said he listened to "Double E" every morning on the way to work, "to find out what in the heck we had been doing the previous day. I see Eric as being kind of the institution of the Legislature," said Sviggum.

Nobody I spoke with can understand WCCO Radio letting Eskola walk out the door, unless it is giving up on news.

"The neighbor may still be good," said Carr, "but he's a lot dumber."

jtevlin@startribune.com • 612-673-1702

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