Thursday, November 17, 2016

Review: Richard J. Daley: Politics, Race, and the Governing of Chicago

Richard J. Daley: Politics, Race, and the Governing of Chicago Richard J. Daley: Politics, Race, and the Governing of Chicago by Roger Biles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I confess that I picked this up when I did because I am hoping I might be able to place a manuscript with Northern Illinois University Press, and one of their editors recommended this to me as one of their strongest offerings. That disclaimer aside, I finished it because I found it compelling. I thought I knew Mayor Daley, and I find I was only partly right.

I enjoyed the final third of this differently from the rest because I was reading a history I knew and had, in some substantial ways, lived. I dimly recall the aging Daley, the man who ran the city and who seemed an institution even to a kid who’d get there a couple times a year to visit his grandmother, aunt, and extended family. Then I recall, in parts as a recent college graduate living in the city, the tumult of what followed: Bilandic, Byrne, Washington and the Council Wars.

Biles covers all of that, though with a faster and faster pace as he wraps things up, linking his subject to the early years (when this was written) of Richard M. Daley’s tenure. The heart of this book is earlier in the Daley years, though, and that gives a glimpse of a character who’s hard to see from the vantage of someone who knew him only at the end and largely through the political clashes that followed his death.

Biles is straightforward in his admiration of the early Daley. He’s too subtle a writer for naked evaluation, but we’re left with the sense that the “young Daley” (really the middle-aged party figure who waited for his shot and slid into the throne) was about as effective and admirable as any figure from machine politics could have been.

Daley’s early distinction came through his lack of flamboyance. Others looked to get ahead through graft or self-promotion. He settled in to do the steady work of governing. Whether as a state senator or as someone’s aide, he learned how to put together budgets, how to wait out his opposition, and how to forge alliances. He believed in his city, and he believed in the power of governance.

As a historian, I know the other end of Biles’s history as well. I’ve read a great deal about William Thompson’s utterly corrupt Prohibition city, and I’ve been a small part of telling the way in which Anton Cermak pulled together the original machine to usher in a new wave of the city’s government. I was less clear about the ways in which Kelly (allied famously with Nash) ran things, and I was almost ignorant about the way Kenneally allowed the mayorship to weaken, setting the stage for Daley to arrive and reinvigorate it.

If Biles gave us only those frames, only the before and after of Daley, this would be a worthwhile contribution. But the heart of the book turns on how this early Daley – this figure of efficiency and selfless ambition (to coin an oxymoron that feels right) – became the figure I remember from the end of his life.

Biles is too careful a historian to editorialize, but it feels as if there is something satisfyingly tragic in Daley’s rise and diminishment. In the name of the people he felt he represented – the white ethnics – he forged a coalition that depended on loyalty from every turn. Look out for him, and he’d look out for you. Or, as I like to put it, “From each according to what he could be made to give, to each according to what he could demand.” That meant securing the African-American base as well, giving them enough to be satisfied but not too much that they would want to take what the Irish and Poles felt was theirs.

The civil rights movement and Martin Luther King changed that equation. King charged Daley with limiting opportunities for Blacks, with buying their support too cheaply. Daley argued that he was better at supporting his Black constituents than any other big city mayor. The irony, as Biles lets us look back on it, is that both may have been true. Daley clearly did not do enough for African-Americans, and he deserves to be remembered for those failures. But, rooted in racism as much of his platform was, it’s also true that his effectiveness as a mayor – Biles argues that he was probably the most successful big city mayor of his era, an era that saw the decline of many of our most important cities – made it possible for him to do more than any of his peers. Daley may have offered the African-American community only crumbs, but he managed to put on a better banquet than any of his contemporaries, and that meant his crumbs were better than some mayors’ entire meals.

The tragedy we glimpse throughout this is the sense that Daley always did his best to represent the city he saw. It’s just that, as the city changed around him, he saw the one that used to be more than the one that was.

I lived in Chicago for much of Richard M. Daley’s time in office, and my wife came up with a line I have always appreciated: Richard II was not “the mayor you love to hate,” but rather “The Mayor you Hate to Love.” I felt then that the son had outdone the father by yoking the “lakefront liberals” like us to the most tolerant of the city’s conservative base, giving us imperfect but solid leadership.

It turns out the old man did the same thing. He took the city out of a dark age of corruption and ugly machine politics, and he slowed Chicago’s decline against a national tide of anti-city movement. Harold Washington and the second Daley pulled it back out when the pendulum swung back toward city life, but their job was easier than it might have been because of the work his father did.

And, as a final thought, I’m grateful for the efficiency here. This is no 900-page saga. It’s got a clear purpose, a straightforward analysis, and a crisp narration. If this is how NIU Press does it all, I’d be honored to be a part of it.

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