The Sports Section | Sports | Chicago Reader

The Sports Section 

Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe

Mayor Harold Washington, dead of a heart attack at 65, was Chicago's greatest athlete, its most intelligent and aspiring coach, its most astute tactician and strategist. For Chicago is a sports-loving town, where the phrase "political arena" is not merely a term but a metaphor for the place politics holds in the community--if politics is not Chicago's most popular sport, it is certainly the most indigenous--and in that arena Harold Washington was performer, artist, and competitor. Politics, of course, is no mere sport--only a cynic or naif would suggest so--but it does share sport's competition, its emphasis on victory, and its pop-culture relevance. To admit that politics actually means something that, unlike a Bears victory, it might actually alter the social fabric--is simply to admit that the stakes are much higher in politics than in football or baseball, which ought only to give us a heightened appreciation for the city's most skillful politician, who died still champion.

Thanksgiving Day, we drove out to join friends at their house on the Michigan shore, and on the way we--like many people--discussed Washington's legacy. One person said, of course, that the legacy was elusive, that it wasn't until his second term that he had been able to push forward any programs, and that that second term had gotten off to a slow start. Another person said, of course, that he had opened up government to the previously disenfranchised--blacks and Hispanics--and had liberalized the forms of government in general. I said, simply, that Washington's greatest legacy was that he had kicked ass and taken names, and if this is a bit coarse, especially so soon in his wake, it is nevertheless an interpretation that I think Washington himself would take a certain amount of pride in, and it's one that his career and the discussion of his legacy sorely need.

Because he was, first and foremost, a politician. He reveled in the competition of politics, he was sharp at it, and this is what makes him such a difficult figure for those who see the world as composed of either reformers or Machinists. Another friend, later, said that Washington was simply a lucky man, in the right place at the right time--but if he was, he was lucky the way a Churchill is lucky. Any black politician could have formed the coalition of blacks, Hispanics, and lakefront liberals that Washington formed in 1983 in winning the general election, and any politician might then have sold the entire movement down the river when faced with a contrary City Council. Certainly, any woman politician could--and one did--do such a thing. Yet Washington was not merely campaigner enough to win the election, he was politician enough to continue the battle into Council Wars, and he was, at last, tactician enough to win that battle.

Council Wars is the messiest and most controversial single element of the Washington legacy. On the ride to Michigan, we argued about whether it was, in fact, necessary. Early last year, in seeking the endorsement of the 43rd Ward Democrats, Washington made a speech in which he argued, forcibly, that Council Wars had been unavoidable. He had served in the state and national congresses, he said, he had mediated civil-rights disputes, had dealt with elected racists from all over the country, but never had he dealt with people who refused to negotiate and compromise, who sought to retain their power against all reason, who were willing to indulge in the destruction of a city with only their own interests in mind, until he came back to the city as mayor of Chicago. Certainly, Council Wars was not a result of a failure to negotiate so much as it was simply a matter of Washington's sense of compromise having nothing in common with the Vrdolyak 29's sense of compromise. It was a simple case of irreconcilable differences. Yet, as Washington explained it, the Vrdolyak bloc and the machine ways were not something the city could Eve with, and certainly not something he could live with, and so he went to war. One makes no peace with cancer. That he won is his greatest legacy.

Washington was a politician, but he realized that political power comes not from contracts and perks--although these were often necessary tools--but from the people. In this, he was much like Mayor Daley; what similarities there are between the two are mainly related by this basic belief in theory. And so it's no surprise that his death caused such a reaction as it did, and that when faced with the corruption of Washington's legacy--victory over the Machine--the people rolled downtown to City Hall.

If we approach the event's of a week ago last Tuesday as we do those of a sporting event--and I'm not sure this isn't the correct way to approach them--we see a struggle between two forces amid, that topic of the season, crowd noise or crowd intimidation. The crowd was, we should remember, raucous but peaceful, dangerous in the way a funnel cloud is dangerous: from a distance, one thinks of the very slight chances of it touching down, so that the cloud becomes amazing and perhaps almost beautiful, while nearby one thinks not of odds but of the damages when the tornado touches down. I saw it from a distance, on television (as with a football game, the events were so varied and complicated that television was the medium of choice; we would have missed too much had we been on the spot), and to me the "mob rule" the politicians spoke of looked more like people power, or, perhaps, a scene from a Capra movie, except that even Capra would never have indulged in something this corny, the people--with little prodding---coming downtown to stop the election. And they almost did. In fact, one television station had Alderman Luis Gutierrez telling them to go home and come back Friday, that they had won.

No doubt, there is little actual difference between Gene Sawyer and Tim Evans. Both are of the old school; neither has the mayor's command of the people. Sawyer is no reformer, and Evans--although he carried the reform banner--is not much of one either, although he must be considered the more astute politician as Washingtons floor leader (read arm-twister). Yet, there is equally little doubt that what the two represented made for a clear choice, that one is known--in politics as elsewhere--by the company one keeps, and that Sawyer's companions were the remnants of the old Machine and the silt and sludge eroded from the softer regions of the mayor's coalition. We were rooting, in other words, for a delay, and a delay meant Evans.

Sawyer, a timid man, had buckled, and his indecision became something of a joke to the commentators. The coalition's goal-line stand held. Yet Sawyer's forces--realizing that a delay would mean a sure loss, now that the word was out on Sawyer's cowardice--rallied him, propped him up in his seat, and rammed his election through.

At this point, late in the evening, with the crowd diminished, the Sawyer forces taking the initiative, and the remains of the mayor's coalition on the run, the event changed tone, as if Capra had been replaced in the director's chair by Andy Warhol. The long battle of parliamentary delays began. A filibuster seemed possible and was, I believe, the only hope--to keep the council in session until morning, when people would rise, realize the situation, and return to City Hall (but here, perhaps, I am casting not Andy Warhol but John Ford in the director's chair, and going beyond all reasonable sense).

Acting Mayor David Orr--although he had promised to follow the wishes of the majority--realized the nearness and the extent of the atrocity and refused to recognize anyone but those in the coalition who were trying to bring the proceedings to a halt. We went into morning voting, again and again, not to adjourn. Orr made the mistake, however, of calling upon Edwin Eisendrath, who, in a conciliatory gesture in a situation that demanded no conciliation, called the question of Burton Natarus, who had called for a vote, and the slow march to the end resumed.

Why no one offered to filibuster, I don't know. When rain threatens an unofficial baseball game, the losing team stalls. It soon became apparent, however, that the coalition had no hopes for holding on, now, and no faith in the return of the people even if they could hold off the vote until morning--perhaps rightfully so. The speeches were for the most part formal and short, although Dorothy Tillman talked to great effect, making a remarkable speech. In the rising and falling tones of a pastor, she compared black aldermen returning to the Machine with freed slaves, frightened of freedom, who returned to the plantation--and plantation politics. She finished with the refrain, "Don't do it. Don't be used." Even this, however, failed to stop the vote, and changed nothing in its outcome. At 4 AM, Sawyer was named acting mayor, backed by a majority of the council with an ominous 29 votes. The commentators who had puzzled over Mayor Washington's various political moves--and Council Wars--for so long granted him begrudging respect in the wake of his death. The council's new turbulence, they sometimes said, was testimony to Washington's political sense and the way he had managed to make order out of so many diverse people and movements. In the days following his death, his image was so pervasive on television, his voice so persistent on radio, that it seemed he was still enforcing a form of political order, even in death.

That Saturday night, standing in line at Daley Plaza, I was in one of those strange moods where all details stand out in relief, and everything has a meaning that is somehow elusive. Others felt the same way, and responded by singing "Amen" or "Going to See the King," deliberate attempts to make meaning that were almost--but not quite--comforting. Lights were turned on in various offices above, but if they were forming some pattern that pattern was indistinguishable. As we filed into City Hall, along the row of flowers, the casket--and the mayor--loomed ahead too abruptly. After two hours of waiting, there was no time for preparation--for what, I don't know--no time to decide on a meaning to any of this, no time to do anything but file past. I remember thinking, then, that he was stiller than anything I had ever seen, and that we would never hear his voice. What I think now is that this was the quiet before the storm.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Ted Cox

Agenda Teaser

Performing Arts
Guards at the Taj Steppenwolf Theatre
June 13
Performing Arts
Not One Batu Berger Park Cultural Center
July 04

Tabbed Event Search

Popular Stories