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Book explores the great, flawed builder of Chicago


By Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor
Little Brown & Company, 614 pages, $26.95


In laying the groundwork for his 1960 presidential campaign, Sen. John F. Kennedy asked Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago, “Why don’t you run for governor?” A reasonable question, from one Irish-American pol to another. Illinois was a pivotal swing state. Dick Daley ran the Cook County Democratic Party, by far the most powerful political machine in America, with hundreds of thousands of votes at his command. A statewide campaign by the mayor would mean big coattails for the party’s presidential nominee. Or so thought JFK.

Daley’s terse reply, reported in American Pharaoh, the stunning new book by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor, speaks volumes about the psychology of politics. Said the mayor: “If we have two Catholics -- one running for president and one for governor -- only one is going to win, and it’s not going to be you.”

This was not idle boasting. Daley knew that his mammoth vote-grinder, oiled by patronage jobs, sweetheart deals for insurance companies, contractors and others allied with the party, probably could hoist him into the governor’s chair. He also knew that Kennedy would be tarred by harsher-than-usual press coverage. Illinois’ Republican leadership and the state’s major paper, The Chicago Tribune, would raise the congenital issue of corruption, and in many minds that issue did have certain religious overtones. Daley’s Cook County drew its muscle from ethnic Catholics -- the predominant Irish, Poles and Italians (with a key ward controlled by the mob). The subdominant members were transplanted blacks in the “plantation wards” of the South Side.

Pulling out all the stops

At Daley’s behest, Kennedy made his campaign appearance in Chicago very late in the campaign, after swings through the downstate Republican strongholds and suburbs outside the city. The mayor didn’t want JFK overexposed in the city, where news stories were feeding off rumors about possible vote-buying. On election day, Daley pulled out all the stops. Illinois was the state that pushed Kennedy over Richard Nixon and into the White House. He carried the state by less than 10,000 votes, and most of those were probably stolen, according to research by Cohen, a senior writer for Time, and Taylor, a former Time correspondent, now editor of The Chicago Tribune’s book section and Sunday magazine.

Nixon magnanimously chose not to contest the election, fearing that a protracted struggle over an accurate tally would be so bitter as to politically cripple a new president.

The authors write of a post-election joke that started circulating in Washington. JFK, his secretary of state Dean Rusk and Mayor Daley are stranded in a lifeboat, with only enough food for one. Two will have to jump overboard. Kennedy says he’s too important; Rusk says the same about himself. Daley insists the only democratic thing is to vote. They do, and Daley wins, 8-2.

Vote fraud and other forms of corruption made the big city machines of yesteryear a perennial target for journalists and prosecutors. The machines that shaped modern American politics were largely Democratic and tied to the growth of cities: Boss Tweed in New York City; Mayor Erastus Corning of Albany; James Michael Curley, the “rascal king” of Boston and model for the mayor in Edwin O’Connor’s novel, The Last Hurrah; Frank Hague in Jersey City; Boss Crump of Memphis; the list goes on.

Of the scholars cited in American Pharaoh, political scientist Arnold Hirsch makes the point that the big-city machine functioned as a balance of competing ethnic interests.

The successful machine politician also made sure that the city, or his piece of it, functioned well enough so that voters saw tangible results. As Cohen and Taylor write: “A [precinct] captain was expected to be able to predict his vote almost exactly; missing by more than 10 or so votes could result in a reprimand.”

Boundaries of personality

The Chicago mayors before Daley, like other Northern big-city bosses, were power-consumed, and yet they also understood limits, inherent boundaries of personality. “He don’t like my name,” the challenger Anton Cermak said of the Chicago mayor he dislodged in 1931. “It’s true I didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but I came over as soon as I could.”

A ruler too wild or greedy or venal would clash with the sensibility of the voting blocs who carried a sense of obedience as they knelt in pews of the large neighborhood churches that helped lighten the load of poverty.

Daley was a loyal husband and dutiful father of seven. He began each day receiving Communion at Mass. When Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip visited the city, he threw out the red carpet and held a lavish dinner in their honor. When they left, he said: “Come again and bring the children.”

Such simplicity had its charm, but there was a darker side. Millions of Americans who knew little about Daley drew the image of a vulgar bully from network TV coverage of the 1968 Democratic convention. After Chicago cops wielding billy clubs mauled antiwar protesters and even reporters in the streets, Connecticut Sen. Abraham Ribicoff chastised Daley in a prime-time speech at the podium, denouncing “Gestapo tactics.” Daley shook his fist at Ribicoff and bellowed back. Whether he said the f-word is a matter of dispute.

Raised in the slum neighborhood of Bridgeport, Ill., Daley earned a law degree, won a seat in the legislature, rose through ranks of the sprawling Cook County Democratic Party operation. In 1955 when he was elected mayor, Daley said: “I shall conduct myself in the spirit of St. Francis of Assisi. Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.” He held the office until 1976, dying on the job.

Daley’s code of politics had its morality, though of a personal sort. When he learned that an underling, adrift in his private life, was out drinking after work, Daley telephoned the bar and told the guy to go home to his wife.

“The pre-Vatican II Catholicism in which Daley was raised impressed on him a keen sense of man’s fallen state, and of the inevitability of sin,” write Cohen and Taylor. “And it was an environment that left Daley with a lifelong skepticism of idealists of all kinds -- whether they were reformers working to clean up machine politics or civil rights activists hoping to change hearts and minds on the question of race. These utopians all proceeded from an unduly optimistic vision of man’s perfectibility. ‘Look at the Lord’s disciples,’ Daley would later say in response to a charge of corruption in City Hall. ‘One denied him, one doubted him, one betrayed him. If our Lord couldn’t have perfection, how are you going to have it in city government?’ ”

Daley was the great builder of Chicago. O’Hare Airport, expressways, convention centers and port projects were the better angels of his legacy. But his vision was deeply flawed. Though not a bigot, his dealings with black ward heelers were perfunctory; at root he was a segregationist. He oversaw the construction of multistory towers to house the black poor, creating vertical ghettoes that by the 1980s were plagued with crack, crime and killings.

The housing strategy was to keep blacks out of ethnic enclaves like Daley’s own Bridgeport, which became stable, working-class and white. Chicago remains one of the most segregated cities in America, largely because of Daley’s policies.

The catalyst in the erosion of the machine’s dominance was the civil rights movement. Federal antipoverty programs that circumvented City Hall threatened to siphon black support. A long campaign for better housing by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. exposed the fault lines in Daley’s housing policies. The biography tracks the exquisite care the mayor took to avoid the impression that he or his administration was racist. Controlled and adroit, Daley participated in planning sessions with King and his allies in a show of support for better housing. Some changes were implemented, but the core approach -- maintaining segregated neighborhoods and ghettoes -- endures.

Death knell for machines

The 1970s sounded the death knell for the big-city political machines. Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968 with law-and-order rhetoric that in many ways symbolized the cultural chasm between cities and suburbs. Race riots and court battles over desegregation fed the white flight phenomenon. The Democrats tried to repair the damage of 1968 by drafting new rules to broaden the base of party loyalists. The upshot was an internal battle that saw Mayor Daley ousted from the 1972 convention, while antiwar protesters found seats as George McGovern delegates.

When Daley died three years later, his influence in the national party was still strong, although the Chicago machine was reeling from prosecutions by Republican federal attorneys. A generation later, the mayor’s son, Richard M. Daley, is mayor of Chicago. The neighborhood loyalties are still there; however, the central issue is no longer whether the party -- the machine -- remains dominant, but how to maintain the infrastructure.

Another son of the late mayor, William Daley, stepped down as Commerce Secretary in Washington to manage Al Gore’s campaign.

In an irony that Chicago’s old warhorse would appreciate, after two decades of bitter partisan divisions over social issues such as abortion and gay rights, the polls now show that infrastructure has become a major issue in the suburbs. The outer-city rings share needs of the old urban core: sustainable growth, how to service the grid of streets, sewers, playgrounds and schools that the old city machines, corruption and all, tended rather well.

American Pharaoh guides the reader through the neighborhoods and brawling politics of Daley’s life with a wealth of anecdotes and great flair -- an intelligent biography about the movement as well as the man.

Jason Berry’s books include Lead Us Not Into Temptation and Louisiana Faces: Images from a Renaissance, with photographs by Philip Gould.

National Catholic Reporter, January 19, 2001