In mayoral politics, Chicago has a fascinating ongoing narrative.
When I was born, we had a Mayor Daley. When I graduated grade school, we had a Mayor Daley.
When our country’s bicentennial occurred, we had a Mayor Daley. The day I got married–19 years ago–we had a Mayor Daley. I am now 52 years old and guess what?
We still have a Mayor Daley.
Not for much longer though. Unlike his father, Richard M. Daley has chosen not to die in office. If you’d have asked me a year ago, I’d have told you that the son, like the father, would have gone out on his shield.
I have complicated feelings for the father and the son; among them, a feeling of great debt, because of both of these men, this city still stands tall among the world’s great cities. In the 60’s, when Detroit, Cleveland and all of the other rust belt cities were abandoned by their middle class and falling into disrepair and despair, Chicago did not. We had our period of furious “white flight,” but Daley senior did not lose the industrial and manufacturing base those cities did. Daley did not lose his city. He attracted jobs and built and built and built. Chicago expanded ever outward and upward. While others shrunk and ran for cover, Daley built skyscrapers, bridges, highways and schools. There were always jobs to be had in Chicago.
Did he allow corruption? Almost certainly. The old man was not interested in money much himself; his Achilles heel was power–and he had an immense amount of it for a city mayor–in fact, enough to hand John F. Kennedy the 1960 election. It seems some Cook County votes were lost during the long election night (perhaps as much as a truck full). Oh, well. Did the Irish cronies he counted among his supporters do well financially? You bet; so did the Polish, Lithuanian, Italian, Jewish, Black and Hispanic supporters. The old man rewarded loyalty and punished disloyalty. If one got caught, he disowned them. There is an old saying in Chicago politics: “Pigs get fat. Hogs get slaughtered.”
If guys got greedy and subsequently caught, the Old Man fed them to the wolves. Whatever they did, he let them know that God, and more importantly, Daley, had forgotten them.
He was vain, boisterous, patriotic, modest, vindictive, religious, and loyal as a soldier. And he loved this city.
Other Chicagoans– African Americans chiefly among them–will tell you he was the embodiment of white institutional racism and they would not be wrong. He lagged far behind other city mayors as far as equal opportunity initiatives went and a great many of my black friends will tell you they believe the Dan Ryan Expressway was built to keep blacks from coming downtown. Still others will point to his membership in the Hambourgs as a young man, an “athletic club” of Irish young men that was known to have participated in the bloody 1919 race riots on Chicago’s Southside, touched off by the murder of a young black man who’d inadvertently crossed the color line at Rainbow Beach. One could easily make the case for Daley the Father’s racial insensitivity. One would also have to acknowledge the fact that Daley senior was elected six times carrying all of the African American wards every time. The evidence suggests that the old man was a racist. I’ve never been so sure of this. Did he share the unfocused bigotries of men of his generation? Almost certainly. And let us remember that the old days were awful and bigoted speech was not only winked at, it was expected and it was institutional. I make no excuses for the old man, but the key word here is old; the zeitgeist moved faster than he could. . .or would.
Was Daley a better man than his times? Sadly , no. Chicago was, and in some ways still is, a bastion of racism. We are still one of the most segregated cities in the world. One can also not blame Richard J Daley for this. This was a city of tribes long before he got here. We almost always soft-pedal this shit. We say coded and rote things like, “We’re a city of neighborhoods,” which is Chicagoese for, “Stay the fuck out of mine.”
We are not unlike other places; we want to be with our own.
Under Daley the son, the power was distributed differently. Every group got its own power franchise of sorts. The son was and is a brilliant tactician and like the father, woefully easy to underestimate, which is a mistake. He also must be praised for holding this complex, contrary and vindictive place together for better than two decades. He is slightly more eloquent than his father, who gave us gems like, “I resent the insinuendoes” and “I’m here to preserve the disorder.” Nobody ever backed ass-first into a sentence like the old man.
Richard M. Daley also saw this city through its storms. He also had an ugly temper, losing his shit at press conferences, his whole head turning purple. I love his freakouts. There were not a lot of them like his Dad, but some of them were choice. A constituent threatening to sue the city over the snowfall and Daley junior going mental on the guy, “That’s an Act of God. Whattya gonna do? You gonna sue God? Huh? Huh, smart guy? Call your lawyer up and sue God. Sue God. Tell me how that goes for you.”
You can’t make shit like this up.
Suffice to say the son didn’t have to preside over as much tumultuous history as the father did, but he fought his battles–believe that–and he won them all.
I think what you can say of the Daleys, father and son, is that for absolute good and despairingly ill, they are and were men of their corrupt, magnificent and transcendent city.