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The Daley Mystique 

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By Michael Miner

Out in the streets of Chicago the enemies of Richard J. Daley, real and imagined, had been beaten silly by police. Inside the International Amphitheatre, the peace delegates and the McGovern and McCarthy staffers and everyone else heartsick at the way the 1968 Democratic Convention had gone were singing "Battle Hymn of the Republic" for all they were worth as speaker Carl Albert gaveled for silence and the Illinois delegates controlled by the mayor chanted "We love Daley." But all the lusty singing did was put off for a few minutes the dismal spectacle of Vice President Hubert Humphrey accepting the presidential nomination.

Not that George McGovern or Eugene McCarthy's people had ever expected to stop Humphrey. But they'd thrown themselves behind a "peace plank" to the party platform calling for an end to the Vietnam war, and it went down too. They'd lost the battle for their party's conscience. After Albert and Daley regained control of the floor, a knot of McGovern workers listened gloomily to Humphrey for a while and then decided to head back to campaign headquarters in the Blackstone Hotel. Ken Bode, who today is dean of the Medill School of Journalism, was in the group. So was a young lawyer named Bill Singer. Out on the pavement in the heat of the evening, they asked themselves where the struggle against the party's caudillos could possibly go.

"What do you think, Bill?" someone said. And today, one of the youngest, most naive and idealistic members of this McGovern band tells me he recalls getting goose bumps when Singer answered, "I'm going to get Daley. I'm going to get him and I'm going to beat him."

An ancient angry desire to "get Daley" is going to well up again in a lot of people as they read American Pharaoh, a big, meticulous new biography of the first Mayor Daley. These were the independents--mostly young, white, and educated--who until the day of his death in November 1976 despised him. It wasn't simply the corruption of the government he presided over, or his brutal police, backward schools, and inhumane public housing that they found unforgivable. Back then, when the mayor looked at his city he didn't see them, or he saw them only as the enemy.

Bill Singer was no innocent idealist. Seeking power and position, he's trafficked over the years with calculating political mechanics like Edward Vrdolyak and Joe Novak, and he would eventually throw in with Richard M. Daley, who as mayor once named him president of the school board. But 30 years ago alienation was a progressive's only option. Unless you'd grown up within it, the hierarchical, autocratic, and downright campy regular organization was beneath the dignity of a serious person. Richard J. Daley had packed his council and party with yea-saying boobs and rubes, venal to the last man. His politics weren't only oppressive, they were infantile.

Martin Luther King Jr. might have been speaking for a generation of dissident Chicagoans in 1966 when he came to this city to crusade for decent housing for black people. His nine-month chess match with the mayor is the centerpiece of American Pharaoh. King and Daley attended a so-called summit, and King pleaded, "We want to be visible. We are not trying to overthrow you--we are trying to get in." But Daley had locked the front door. He responded to King as he responded to any opponent too formidable to summarily destroy--with declarations of common purpose, vague promises, preemptive counterinitiatives, and outright lies. King finally pulled out of Chicago pretty much as the United States a few years later pulled out of Vietnam--outfoxed and outlasted, claiming spurious gains yet not having made a dent.

American Pharaoh is the biography of a political genius utterly incurious about life as it was lived by anyone unlike himself. Daley's idea of a healthy Chicago was a Loop bulging with giant new buildings. His idea of a neighborhood was a place defined by a parish, an ethnicity, and a ward organization that reported downtown. His idea of taking care of business was setting up deals where the hustlers got rich and the work got done. No one who looks around Chicago today can wish he'd never been elected. But if Daley grew an inch in his 21 years in office, the authors of American Pharaoh, who worked ten years on their book, didn't find that inch.

Neither of the authors, Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor, grew up in Chicago. They met as Time magazine interns in New York, and Taylor had moved on to Chicago when they decided to write the biography. Cohen's now a senior writer for Time living in New York; Taylor is one of the rising young editors of the Chicago Tribune, now responsible for both the Sunday magazine and Sunday book section. In the mid-80s she spent a couple of weeks in Cabrini-Green for Time, and therefore her point of entry into the Richard J. era was his most ignoble monument--the massive public-housing projects he built to keep Chicago's blacks off the streets of Chicago's whites. "I walk around and I notice that Chicago feels so kind of--dynamic," she tells me. "You think, Daley, OK. But was there a cost? And I fought with that. I spent a lot of time in public-housing projects, but I never got to why they were there in the first place and how essentially the die was cast."

Did she ever manage to like Daley? I ask her.

"'Like' wasn't part of the vocabulary," she replies. "It was necessary that he fascinate us. Daley's a topic that you sort of wake up thinking about. I guess we fell in love with the idea because we wanted to tell the story of America and this was the way. Daley's life is the perfect kind of biography--the turn of the century to 1976. Everything's happening then--the city's industrial revolution, the great migration, its sort of American enthusiasm."

After telling the story of the 1968 convention, American Pharaoh treats Daley's last six years as denouement. By the 70s most of Chicago couldn't have imagined anyone else as mayor and would have reelected him from the grave. And with the odd crucial exception, such as Congressman Ralph Metcalfe--who in 1971 would turn "from being one of the machine's most subservient followers to one of its harshest critics," to quote the book-- Daley's opposition was as firmly fixed as his base.

Did Bill Singer get his revenge? In 1969 Lincoln Park elected him to the City Council, where he fought Daley on just about everything. In 1972 he and Jesse Jackson challenged Illinois' Daley-led delegation to the Democratic national convention and actually persuaded it to send the Daley bunch back home. There was enormous visceral satisfaction to this triumph, but it was a dubious victory, humiliating a party kingpin and fanning a civil war within the Democratic Party that gave the American public one more reason to vote Republican. Richard Nixon carried 49 states in November, George McGovern Massachusetts.

In 1975 Singer ran for mayor against Daley, who was old, slowed by a stroke, and far from the top of his game. The Sun-Times actually endorsed Singer in the primary, and the Tribune endorsed nobody. But Daley was renominated easily, even though he barely campaigned. Chicago rewarded Singer for his presumption with 29 percent of the primary vote.

Some events indelible in my own memory have been ignored by American Pharaoh, but perhaps these were matters of interest only to a journalist. Press coverage of Daley is cited just often enough in the book that readers can sense how feckless it was, but the emancipation isn't recorded. As it happened, the '68 convention week, when young reporters in the streets were clubbed along with everyone else and then discovered their bosses didn't want to hear about it, led to the creation of the Chicago Journalism Review. Soon imitated in cities all over the country, CJR brought honorable radicalism to a calling starved for it, giving city reporters of the late 60s a way to practice their trade and still hold their heads up. Nor does American Pharaoh mention the insurrection of 1971, when the Field papers--the Sun-Times and Daily News--endorsed Daley for reelection, and the staffs of the papers took out full-page ads repudiating the endorsements.

Well, it's all ancient history now. Twelve tumultuous years of Michael Bilandic, Jane Byrne, Harold Washington, and Eugene Sawyer followed Richard J. Daley's death, and Chicago was a different city by the time the Richard M. era began. "The current mayor is the old guy in miniature," says Taylor. "Where the father built O'Hare and the expressways, the current mayor builds culs-de-sac and fences and beautifications. They both believed you have to show people where the dollars are going. They're both very cosmetic."

Taylor originally came to Chicago with a list of three people to see. They were Studs Terkel, Eppie Lederer, and Bill Singer. Singer became her friend--she's married to someone who worked for him in '75--and she interviewed him for the book. His defiant declaration outside the amphitheater doesn't show up in American Pharaoh, but then Singer doesn't recall saying such a thing, though he doesn't deny that he might have.

Rich Daley's most shining achievements as mayor, if he stays the course, will be reversing his father's most ignominious: eradicating the high-rise housing projects and restoring the public schools. "I really do believe Rich Daley has been a very, very good mayor," Singer tells me. "With his father, when you evaluate the patronage and the corruption and all of that, the authoritarianism, the stronghold he had on the city...I'd be critical of how it manifested itself in terms of education, housing, economic development. All those things said there was a closed mind. Schools [the issue central to Singer's 1975 campaign] were run for patronage purposes. That's not the same for Rich Daley."

Back in the 70s, independents, who knew Rich Daley best from the 1969-'70 Illinois Constitutional Convention, spoke of him as "dirty little Richie," the Boss's mean little kid. But the kid was elected to the state senate in 1972 and began reaching out. State senator Dawn Clark Netsch talked him up as an interesting guy with possibilities, and one year she invited him to her annual fund-raiser, the Dawn Patrol softball game. None of the independent jocks who showed up for the game expected Richie to, and they certainly hoped he wouldn't.

"All of a sudden," a Dawn Patroler remembers, "a green Pontiac, or whatever--a clunker--pulls up. It pulls up alone. There's no entourage. He's dressed in, like, suit pants, wing tips, a white shirt, and a tie. He'd come to play baseball. And he did. It was a scream. People were flabbergasted and deeply--it broke a lot of ice with a lot of people. 'This guy's got guts. And he also knows what he has to do if he has a future.'"

Rich Daley was mayor a long time before the papers began turning up the sort of graft--though smaller bore--that his father's remembered for. But the critical change in the coverage of the son hasn't been these scandals--which he could blow off much as his father had, with a statement of dismay or angry denial and maybe a head or two--but John Kass's incessant hammering away at cronyism, tribalism, sweetheart dealing, and mob influence. Kass drives the mayor to the same sort of choleric gibberish that the old man made famous. With little of Mike Royko's wit but much of his savvy, Kass, who mocks good-government "goo-goos," has judged the mayor and condemned him by classic good-government standards. There's something of the early 70s in Kass's aggression, but it's been a tonic.

"I hear from other people who know Rich Daley well," says Singer, "that this period of time, right now, has caused him to reflect a little."

I ask Singer, who's now in private practice, pushing 60, and wiser than he was, if the truth might simply be that honest, open government doesn't get the job done in the big city.

"That's exactly the question I ask myself," he replies. "I think that's not true. I never want to say that government has to get to the point where you have to accept a level of bad government to achieve a level of good government. I'm not willing to accept that overtly. I hope I'm not telling myself that subconsciously."

Elizabeth Taylor called Richard J. Daley fascinating, but then power usually is. I ask what sort of company she thinks he'd have been over a weekend in the country.

"What I find really interesting about him is that I don't know," she says. "What I really feel drawn to is the fact that he remains so enigmatic. Adam Cohen has this phrase that Daley is sort of the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain. You pull it away, and he's a guy from Bridgeport."

Cohen made this comparison during a long interview he and Taylor conducted with Chicago magazine. But it doesn't seem that helpful. Chicagoans knew all along their wizard was a guy from Bridgeport. That's a big reason they kept voting for him. He was true to his roots.

"Daley, to his credit, and it's a lot, he didn't leave Bridgeport," reflects Taylor. "He stayed."

And maybe it's to the son's credit that he left?

"Maybe," says Taylor. "But for what?"

Rich Daley left for Central Station, a born-yesterday subdivision that's a kind of nowhere. There's no history to Central Station, but there's no tribal legacy either. Perhaps moving to Central Station could be compared to leaving the old country for the New World.

News Bites

When is a retraction not a retraction? When you don't mention who's doing the retracting.

"Inc.," May 11: "We hear Steve Martin, Kevin Bacon, Helena Bonham Carter, Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi are expected to celebrate the end of local shooting of the film 'Novocaine' by attending Thursday's first big party at the new Ghost Bar, 440 W. Randolph St."

"Inc.," May 15: "Those involved with the movie 'Novocaine'...aren't happy with the local public relations firm that claimed cast members, including Steve Martin and Helena Bonham Carter, would attend a wrap party at a local bar last week.... The cast members never agreed to show up at the party and were very upset when it was reported that they would be there."

"Inc.," May 11: "The folks at the Oriental Theatre are baffled over Margaret Cho's sudden cancellation of her 'I'm the One That I Want' show....We hear Cho needs to take care of some personal problems."

"Inc.," May 15: "Comedian Margaret Cho wants to make something perfectly clear: She is not going through any personal problems as some around town surmised last week..."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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