The Book Club

American Pharaoh

Dear Ester,

Let me begin by laying a few of my biases on the table. In the Chicago environment in which I was raised, there was no greater villain than Richard J. Daley. To the lakefront liberals who were my parents and their friends in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, Mayor Daley (“Mayor” being his real first name, even to his enemies) was a bigoted antediluvian. It went without saying that the political machine he ran was corrupt and incompetent. Much of my childhood was spent toddling around beneath a haze of cigarette smoke while men with big sideburns and women in flared pantsuits plotted his demise, to no great result.

My father was one of the first candidates to run successfully against the Daley machine, as a delegate to the Illinois constitutional convention in 1969. My own first involvement in politics was as a volunteer in the “independent”–i.e. anti-Daley–aldermanic campaigns on the North Side. One election day, my leafleting on behalf of an anti-Daley candidate annoyed a machine precinct captain enough that he had the police haul me off for truancy. Other early memories: Daley’s henchmen in the City Council cutting off the microphones of dissident aldermen; Daley’s malapropisms (I’ve lost my copy of the Little Green Book that collected them); and a musical-theater adaptation of Mike Royko’s Boss–still far and away the best book about the machine, in my (biased) opinion. I remember that when Daley dropped dead of a heart attack in 1976, my natural reaction, at age 12, was to be elated. He was our Haman.

As you know, Chicago has changed just a bit since then. Thanks more than anything else to the Shakman court decisions that banned political patronage, what Daley preferred to call “the organization” ceased to exist a few years after he did. Though vestiges of the machine persist, I’d venture to say that no American mayor will ever possess so much power again. The old lakefront liberals, to the extent they survive, mostly support Daley’s eldest son, Richard M. Daley, now in his third term as mayor. My mother is a member of his cabinet. I would also say that in retrospect the old man looks like a far more benign dictator than he did when I was coming up. Chicago weathered the urban crises of the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s much better than most of the big cities you might compare it to. If you try to explain why this is so, it seems to me that you keep coming back to Daley. 

I’ll offer some of my thoughts about the ways in which Daley was good for Chicago tomorrow. What disappointed me about American Pharaoh is that it doesn’t really engage with the question of Daley’s legacy. Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor give us a straightforward, readable account of Daley’s life and career. They chart his political origins in the Irish gang politics of the 1920s, his rise through the old Kelly-Nash machine, and his consolidation of power as mayor in the 1950s, which is sort of a less violent version of The Godfather: Part II. The authors do a good job narrating the oft-told story of the battle over residential segregation in Chicago, which culminated in the open housing summit of 1966, a meeting at which Daley outfoxed Martin Luther King Jr. by yielding in principle, expressing his good intentions, and then doing nothing once the spotlight was off. I share the view that of all Daley’s misdeeds, his effort to segregate and isolate the black poor of his city was by far the greatest. The subject matter of this book fascinates me. But there’s not much in the way of original scholarship here, and even less in the way of fresh analysis.

What do the authors even think of Daley? They never really tell us. Through a haze of objectivity, I discern an opinion not very different from the one I had growing up. It’s the view put forward nearly 30 years ago in Boss: Daley did not enrich himself, but he knowingly presided over a thoroughly corrupt government. He believed in ethnic separatism and cared about black people only insofar as they contributed to his base of support. He was narrow-minded man who understood only power. Faced with dissent and social change, he could only sputter and clamp down.

Nearly 25 years after Daley’s death, the subject is ripe for revisionism. Certainly the Daley machine was corrupt, buffoonish, and, in its efforts to maintain racial segregation, wicked. But viewed as a historical system, there are ways in which it worked, both on behalf of people who supported it and to preserve the city as a whole. I’m not saying you have to be apologist for Daley to write an interesting book about him. But you do have to come to grips with the tradeoffs his rule involved–the benefits his machine brought to some Chicagoans vs. the costs it imposed on others. American Pharaoh includes many interesting details, a few insights, but no reckoning.