Commentary Magazine


Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, by Mike Royko

The Politician

Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago.
by Mike Royko.
Dutton. 215 pp. $5.95.

Until not too long ago, the general view of Chicago’s longtime mayor, Richard J. Daley, was of a New Dealish liberal, a man of fairly decent instincts, and in matters having to do with city government a figure of towering competence. But all this is past history now. Since the Democratic Convention of 1968, Daley’s reputation has slipped further and further, till today his portrait hangs high in the rogue’s gallery of the Left, florid cheek by flaccid jowl alongside those of J. Edgar Hoover and Bull Connor.

Boss, Mike Royko’s slender political biography, is a chronicle of Daley’s rise from humble origins to national villainy. Mr. Royko is a columnist for the Chicago Daily News, and as such is one of the city’s few journalistic ornaments. With the aid of a fine feel for the city of Chicago and a nice comic touch, over the years he has made it hot for the boys down at City Hall while simultaneously wringing more laughs out of the subject of municipal corruption than one would have thought possible. Here, however, Royko isn’t playing for laughs but for moral outrage against the way Richard J. Daley runs Chicago. Moral outrage being in abundant supply at this time, Boss seems to be having no great difficulty stirring up its share. In a particularly feverish review of the book in the New Yorker, Richard Harris has declared Chicago “a totalitarian state within America.”

This, alas, has to be accounted the view of a tourist, and a very shallow one at that. Still, having no other evidence than that supplied by Mr. Royko to go on, it is almost understandable how one could come to so very silly a conclusion. Before sitting down to write his book, Mr. Royko evidently decided that the conventional wisdom that holds Richard J. Daley to be a flat-out s.o.b. was impeccable; and there remained only to supply the prose. The prose Royko has supplied is of a highly readable order, offering plenty of punchlines in a brisk narrative that refuses to be slowed down by the complexities of either character or event. Such is the uniform hostility of Boss to its subject that any attempt to understand Daley is precluded; the book is, quite simply, an unremitting hatchet job.

Yet after banging away at every scandal, hint of scandal, and honest mistake that has occurred during Daley’s sixteen years as Mayor of Chicago, Royko is nevertheless unable to account for the inconvenient fact that Richard J. Daley is generally conceded to be the most effective big-city Mayor now in office in America. Why should a man of such slight personal attractiveness, such ostensibly small gifts, such overall unimpressiveness, be so good at a job—that of running a city of roughly three-and-a-half million people—that most experts seem to feel is no longer possible? Although he does not say so straight out, the underlying message of Royko’s book seems to be that Daley is effective because he is an essentially evil man who controls an evil machine operating in an evil system—and evil, whatever else it is, is efficient, or so Royko appears to believe. Thus Daley, rather like Mussolini, in Royko’s version, makes the trains run on time.

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But if one wishes to consider other possibilities than that of Daley’s being the devil’s representative on earth, then one might look into three factors that appear to distinguish Richard J. Daley from all other big-city Mayors. The first is that he is not an overreacher: he does not want to be Governor, he does not want to be Senator, he does not even want to be President—he is perfectly content to be Mayor of Chicago and, when the Democrats have the White House, the second most powerful politician in America. The second factor is that Daley has a will—a very rage, it is not going too far to say—for order, for he runs Chicago not in the corporate style that is the rule today in most other large cities, but rather as if it were a highly successful family business. The third and final factor is that Daley is almost completely without political vision of any kind.

To say that Daley is without political vision is merely to say that he pretty much takes the world as it is—and not as he or anyone else thinks it ought to be. Nor is he overzealous in his desire to change it. Daley does not entertain the very highest view of human nature; he believes, in fact, that most people will only do those things that they feel it is in their interest to do. He, Daley, puts up skyscrapers, lays down freeways, creates jobs, keeps commerce and traffic flowing, but he neither educates nor attempts to build character in the electorate. He is not so much a leader of people as he is a manipulator of different—often seemingly implacably opposed—interests. But interests, in order to gain a hearing from Daley, must be organized. In the middle 1960’s, for example, when the late Martin Luther King, Jr. determined to bring his campaign of moral suasion up north to Chicago, people with a surer sense of Daley than King’s tried to warn him against doing so. As the more political-minded of the civil-rights leaders knew, Daley would finally have only one question to ask of the King campaign in Chicago: How many votes has the Southern Christian Leadership Conference?

Which is not to say that Daley is a racist but only that he is perhaps the most unrelievedly political personality around today. He is, moreover, political in a fashion that has always repelled the morally enthusiastic—he is, in other words, a thorough professional. When a federal program is initiated in Washington, he does not ask what is its quality but instead how Chicago can make use of it. When a scandal occurs, he does not ask whether the man caught in the middle of it is guilty or not—in Chicago, he generally is—but rather has the man in question now become a greater liability than asset, and must he therefore be sacrificed to the gods of public opinion? When presented with a candidate, be it for Cook County Assessor or for President of the United States, his first question is, invariably, not where does the man stand on the issues but can he win the election?

It is the way Richard Daley learned the game. Royko, himself a Chicagoan, describes at some length the roughneck political atmosphere of the neighborhood clubs and ward shenanigans in which Daley grew up, received political catechism, and eventually came to power. Although Daley is the least pretentious of politicians and has never made any attempt to cover up his political origins, Royko is not above using them against him:

While Daley was mediating negotiations between white trade unions and black groups who wanted the unions to accept blacks, a young militant angrily rejected one of his suggestions and concluded, “Up your ass.” Daley leaped to his feet and answered, “And up yours too.” Would John Lindsay have become so involved?

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So inevitable does the comparison of Daley with Lindsay seem that it is surprising that Royko doesn’t attempt to make more of it than he actually does. What a splendid foil each man is for the other! Physically, temperamentally, intellectually, above all in matters of style and social class, they seem such diametric opposites as very nearly to belong to different species. Lindsay has come to represent in the public mind the new and the with-it, while Daley is now more usually thought of as emblematic of all that is old-line, out-of-it, and retrograde. In what may be the reigning cliché of the 1970’s, Lindsay is said to be for people, Daley for mere things.

Yet, curiously enough, in recently comparing himself with John Lindsay, Richard Daley has said: “Mayor Lindsay and I have more in common than most people think.” What could he have had in mind? The problems of their respective jobs for one thing; their common craving for power, for another. Daley has long been accustomed to power, both in its subtle and brutal aspects, seems to know all its uses, and is not in the least wary of using it. But Lindsay’s objective circumstances require that his appetite for power remain modulated: because he does not have a strong machine behind him, as Daley does, and because he has it in mind to end up in higher places than Gracie Mansion, he appears to have given up for now the task of chalking up any great achievements in running New York and is simply trying to avoid disaster. As Lindsay must ever strain to appear the philosopher in New York, so Daley must be rather careful not to appear too much the king in Chicago.

In Daley’s city political power is called “clout.” All clout starts in the Office of the Mayor, whence it wends its way down through other levels of municipal government, still retaining some snap even for relatives of assistant Democratic precinct captains. In Chicago this elaborate clout-dispensing device is called the Machine. The Machine makes possible political favors of of all sorts, from million-dollar tax breaks to allowing someone to slip out of jury duty, and collects its due-bills around election time. “Machine” has come to be a bad word in American politics; indeed, even Richard Daley now disdains it, preferring in its place “organization.”

Yet apart from these niceties of political sensibility, a machine is successful by definition. When it is not, Jake Arvey, Daley’s predecessor as Chairman of the Cook County Democratic party, has said, “it’s just a group of men and women. Organization and discipline have always made the difference between victory and defeat over the years—and they still do.” As head of the Cook County machine, Arvey was the man perhaps most responsible for bringing Adlai Stevenson and Paul Douglas into national politics—which merely indicates that a machine need not have a built-in anti-liberal or any other kind of bias.

Chicago’s intensely ethnic makeup, its fairly strict division into Irish, Polish, Italian, Negro, and Jewish neighborhoods, makes it more susceptible to machine government than most other big cities, with each ethnic group, as the sociologist Andrew Greeley has argued, being a bargaining unit unto itself. Nor, in theory, need government-by-machine be any less democratic than any other form of municipal government. In reality, however, political machines tend to attract fairly unexalted types—men with little reach but sure grasp. A political kibbitzer in Chicago once remarked to me on the occasion of a large fund-raising dinner that Daley had thrown for John F. Kennedy, “Ah, you should have been there. Every size-46 suit in the city was in attendance.” Yet those same size-46 suits helped knock off Richard Nixon in 1960.

The typical machine politician in Chicago is as different from the typical Lindsay staffer as Lindsay himself is from Daley. The Lindsay group, so polished in appearance and so disappointing in performance, seem so much more effective on talk-shows than at City Hall. Daley, on the other hand, is a public-relations-man’s nightmare on television and something very close to a genius at maintaining control over the minutiae involved in keeping a city running. One is in the end bound to say, the one man is an amateur, the other a pro.

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To Mike Royko, however, Daley is little more than a variety of thug—a superior thug, even the king of thugs, but a thug nonetheless. In describing Daley’s actions during the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, for example, the case that Royko makes out against Daley is not that he overreacted, or made a foolish mistake, but rather that he shed his false skin to reveal, at long last, his essential self. Everyone who has followed Daley’s career over the years has his own pet theory about what happened in ’68. That he overreacted is beyond question; but I think one can go further to say that he became completely unstrung, that he even, quite possibly, flipped. For in failing to restrain his police force he committed, among other things, an unpardonably stupid political act. And whatever else one might wish to call Richard Daley, no one, so far as I know, has ever called him a politically stupid man.

Although no one is about to confuse Richard Daley with Lord Melbourne, still, skill of the kind Daley has demonstrated in running a large modern city ought not to be so easily gainsaid as it is in Royko’s pages. It is all very well for a radical of sentimental stripe like Studs Terkel to remark of Daley, “He’s marvelous when it comes to building things like highways, parking lots, and industrial complexes. But when it comes to healing the aches and hurts of human beings, Daley comes up short.” The question, however, arises: When it comes to healing the aches and hurts of human beings, who comes up long? John Lindsay? Sam Yorty of Los Angeles? Carl Stokes of Cleveland? But then since when have Mayors been charged with “healing” to begin with? Since, one can only imagine, the time within recent years that political language became so inflated as to leave the ground of reality altogether, and aldermen were required to have “charisma,” water commissioners were sounded out on Vietnam, and Chicago became a totalitarian state.

There is something touchingly naive about a man like Mike Royko, who normally prides himself on his toughmindedness, locating the responsibility for almost all that is wrong with the world in the office of the Mayor of the City of Chicago. Get rid of Daley, the argument implicit in his book runs, and the millennium is here. A sounder, more sophisticated, and (to my mind) healthier view was recently expressed by a neighbor of my father’s. A man in his seventies and a resident of Chicago for his entire life, he is an Irish Catholic, like Daley, against whom he voted this past spring for the first time in the five times that Daley has successfully run for Mayor. He credits Daley with great intelligence, and does not believe him personally corrupt; he does, however, feel that the Daley machine has been in power in the city longer than is good for anyone. He was aware that voting against Daley was a fairly empty gesture, but nevertheless he did it. “It’s time,” his reasoning went, “for a new set of thieves.”

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About the Author

Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.




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