Boss Daley's tale: Subvert and save

June 25, 2000|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Sun Staff

"American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley: His Battle for Chicago and the Nation," by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor. Little. Brown and Company. 614 pages. $26.95.

In 1960, various movers and shakers thought Richard J. Daley could easily be elected governor of Illinois. He wasn't interested. He had a more powerful position. He was mayor of Chicago, machine boss of Cook County and the man to see if you wanted to be governor -- or president of the United States.

Sen. John F. Kennedy was in the latter category then, and so he had the requisite conversations with Boss Daley.

Perhaps to flatter the man whose machine he needed, Kennedy said, "Why don't you run for governor?"

Said Daley: "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."

He was right, no doubt. If he'd been running for governor, he might not have had time to steal Illinois' electoral votes -- and arguably the election -- from Richard M. Nixon. The Daley machine gave Kennedy a 456,312-vote cushion in Chicago. In the mayor's home turf, known as the "Automatic 11th" Ward, Kennedy won by 168,611 votes.

How all of these numbers worked -- the synergism of chicanery and shoe leather -- is richly documented and well-told in "American Pharaoh," a splendid biography by Adam Cohen, a senior writer for Time Magazine, and Elizabeth Taylor, literary and Sunday magazine editor for the Chicago Tribune. They offer considerable proof that Daley stole the election. Daley, himself, seemed to acknowledge as much, suggesting that his work in Chicago simply offset Republican manipulations downstate.

This life of Dick Daley makes every sour assessment of the man seem understated.

Cohen and Taylor present him as an even more malevolent figure than the one whose peevish, swearing face was engraved on the psyche of Americans as deeply as Bull Connors or George C. Wallace. In addition to the endemic political corruption of his regime in Chicago, the authors suggest persuasively that Daley was determined to honor every brutally segregationist impulse of his clannish (a best case qualifier) city.

Called Pharaoh by some black Chicagoans, Daley was Ramses to Martin Luther King Jr.'s Moses. Decisions about where to build highways, housing projects, college campuses, downtown renewal projects -- everything -- were made with race as a first consideration.

If cities can be seen throughout history as grand devices of self-help, Daley's career shows how political power can be accumulated efficiently enough to subvert that purpose. He placated the worst instincts of white Chicagoans, the authors suggest, to keep them from leaving his city -- and thus weakening his whites-based machine.

He kept the support of the blacks even as he systematically segregated them in what one critic called "public aid penitentiaries."

The authors make clear, though, that Daley rose to the mayor's office by mastering the mechanics of municipal government. He was a nerd who moved up with total acceptance of the machine's rules: "Don't make no waves. Don't back no losers." He waited his turn, helped it along when he could and took no unnecessary risks.

By the time he became mayor he could manipulate do-good liberals and malevolent mobsters with equal dexterity. He may have won elections by stuffing ballot boxes, but he did it also by holding torchlight parades, throwing sit-down luncheons for the precinct captains and by knowing that an annual family circus was what made the 11th automatic.

When scholars suggested that television had deposed the machine, Daley said: "Can you ask your television for a favor?"

Small favors, the authors suggest, led voters to sanction the reign of a man who both saved and subverted his city.

C. Fraser Smith, a member of the editorial board of The Sun, has been with the paper for 22 years, covering City Hall, courts, the state legislature and executive and, in our Washington bureau, the state congressional delegation. He is the author of "William Donald Schaefer: A Political Biography."

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