Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Review: The Mayor Who Cleaned Up Chicago: A Political Biography of William E. Dever

The Mayor Who Cleaned Up Chicago: A Political Biography of William E. Dever The Mayor Who Cleaned Up Chicago: A Political Biography of William E. Dever by John R. Schmidt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you think about it, there are only six or seven Chicago mayors who left real footprints over the last 125 years. There are the Carter Harrisons (two counting as one) who, as blue bloods governing the wild young city, got it all started. There’s the buffoonish Big Bill Thompson, Chicago’s Trump. There’s Cermak who started the machine and overshadowed the next couple decades of bosses even after his assassination. There are the two Daleys, and there’s Harold Washington. The rest, as they say, are commentary.

William Dever is commentary. John R. Schmidt admits as much throughout, even titling his last chapter, “The Least Known Chicago Mayor.” With his one term sandwiched between Thompson’s second and third, Dever had the misfortune to be in power right as the gangster world exploded. He was, according to Schmidt and everything else I’m familiar with, a principled, competent man in a job that called either for a corporate tool like Harrison or a buffoon like Thompson.

Schmidt’s central, sort-of question here is a good one: why did the most qualified mayor of his era leave so small a mark on this city? His answer, while fairly well researched, is somewhat less nuanced than I’d like.

Schmidt’s approach here is to spend time on personalities – on Dever’s and on such rivals and allies as Thompson, George Brennan, Edward Dunne, Charles Merriam and many others who walk into the story for a few pages before leaving again. I’d prefer to see more social analysis. Her talks about the temperaments and quirks of the men who came to lead the city, but he talks less about the different forces each represented. I know Cermak from a lot of other places; I know he was a notorious tough guy, a rough-hewn tavern owner who polished himself just enough to pull together the modern machine. But more interesting than his manner is that he rose because the city’s ethnics were maturing politically. No longer willing to throw their weight behind one or another elite fa├žade, they wanted one of their own. That’s a quick version of social history, something Schmidt largely ignores.

Schmidt does, however, provide an answer to his core question: Dever failed as mayor because, whatever else he wanted to do, he found himself caught on the horns of the dilemma of Prohibition. He needed to enforce the law to please his better-government backers (people as diverse as Julius Rosenwald, Harold Ickes, and Graham Taylor) but he needed to denounce it to have a chance at broad ethnic support. He couldn’t mock the law like Thompson did and would, nor did he see his way toward a principled resistance to it as Fiorello LaGuardia would do a few years later. Instead, he acted almost as an honorable hypocrite, squashing booze merchants while trying not to offend their most fervent customers.

That’s an interesting story, but it’s also a pretty thin one. Schmidt comes to admire his subject here, holding him up as a decent, likeable guy, but there seems good reason he’s so little remembered in the city’s history. He tried to bring a reasonable compromise in the face of the extreme corruption of Thompson, but the city wasn’t ready for it. He may have been honorable, but Prohibition Chicago had little use for honor.


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