Dog Days Classics: Political Boss and Midwestern Pharaoh: Richard J. Daley’s Chicago Legacy

Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago (1971) and American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley – His Battle for Chicago and the Nation (2001)

Few cities outside of New York have drawn the kind of critical attention like the capital of the American Midwest, Chicago. The Windy City, the City of Big Shoulders, the Second City, and numerous other titles have sought to capture the essence of Chicago. Though far younger than New York, Chicago’s historiography covers numerous ethnic and racial groups, changing as the city’s face has changed over the course of the 20th century. Harold Gosnell’s Machine Politics: The Chicago Model provided one of the clearest takes by a political scientist regarding the metropolis’s complicated early 20th century ethnic and racial politics. From its establishment, numerous ethnic and racial groups have filtered through and settled in within city limits. Polish, German, Irish, Italian, and Czech peasants hoping for better lives in the early and mid 20th century, Southern Blacks escaping Jim Crow during the Great Migration, and most recently Mexicans heading North in the 1980s and 1990s, serve as only three examples. Throughout each has had to contend with a urban political machine that took time to truly penetrate. Racial, ethnic, and class based discrimination confronted each group, though admittedly not equally.

While most political machine systems faltered, Chicago’s coalesced much later behind Czech politician Anton Cermak, who died at the hands of an assassin’s bullet in the 1930s. Still, for most Chicagoans one figure alone represents the city’s machine politics, Mayor Richard J. Daley. Moreover, few figures have captured the imagination of scholars like one Dick Daley. If the Chicago machine formed later, no other leader held as much power as Daley who held both the mayoral office and official head of the Chicago Democratic Party; a feat that would never again be repeated.

Often referred to as a “city of neighborhoods,” Chicago remains one of the most segregated metropolises in America. While Daley cannot be blamed for this state of affairs alone, he probably did more than any other individual in Chicago history in laying the city’s racial boundaries; this from a mayor who only won election in his initial three campaigns due to the Black vote. Ironically, in his early years, numerous observers believed Daley to be a reformer. Perish the thought.

When legendary Chicago journalist Mike Royko published the controversial Boss: Richard J. Daley (1971), it sent angry ripples throughout the city. Daley’s wife attempted to prevent local bookstores from stocking Royko’s work. Ultimately, the book’s popularity overwhelmed even the strong arm of Daley. Royko pulled no punches. He slapped Daley with indignance but also pointed out a key aspect about the man and the city itself: No one epitomized Chicago like Richard J. Royko noted that Daley’s belligerence matched that of Chicagoans, after all in Chitown its “belly to belly, scowl to scowl, and may the toughest or loudest man win.” Was Daley articulate? Uh no, take this famous quote, “The Police are not here to create disorder, they are hear to preserve disorder.” Again as Royko pointed out, “Chicago is not an articulate town, Saul Bellow notwithstanding.” After all with so many citizens only just removed from their immigrant roots Daley’s butchering of the English language seemed fitting. For all Daley’s good qualities, strength, loyalty, and determination, there existed equally problematic ones such as the aforementioned belligerence, racism, and provincialism. Caustic and brave, Royko made few friends with Boss. His characterization of the police force, suggesting that the best thing to do when confronted by a Chicago cop was too pull out a twenty dollar bill, as corrupt and racist probably cost him more than a few tickets. He rightly pointed out the hypocrisy of Daley’s ethnic politics, exploiting Blacks and excluding Puerto Ricans while elevating ethnic whites, though Poles often resented the paltry positions Daley doled out to their community.

Critics correctly noted Royko had an ax to grind. The disgust Royko felt for Daley oozed from the pages of Boss. Several reviewers threw the word contempt around as well, which to be truthful, remains fairly accurate. Still, before Royko’s work, few writers dared challenge Hizzoner. When journalists, national ones like Walter Cronkite and others, called Daley out for his treatment of 1968 protesters and the news media at the Democratic National Convention, the public responded. The “silent majority” as Nixon came to call them, reacted angrily. Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America illustrates this well as one incensed citizen laid into Senator Abe Ribicoff at a political rally, “Those hippies … were wearing beards, and anybody who wears a beard, he deserves to be beat up.” (Perlstein, 366) Even Walter Cronkite had been chastened. During a national interview with the mayor, Cronkite was forced to kneel at the altar of Richard J. When Cronkite carefully pointed out that many of the victims of police brutality in 1968 were actually reporters, Daley retorted, “Many of them are hippies themselves. They’re part of this movement. Some of them are revolutionaries and they want these things to happen.” As Perlstein notes, “Cronkite sat and took it.” (337)

[Editors Note: As the authors of American Pharaoh illustrate as does Perlstein to a lesser extent, Daley hated Vietnam but understood LBJ’s position. Moreover, he probably hated the New Left even more, so perhaps it was battle of lesser evils for Dick Daley.]

In this way, Royko remains the first into battle. He captured the machinations of the Daley machine like no other. However, Royko’s sharp tongue and disregard for political correctness sometimes makes it a study of 1970s mindsets. More than a few times Royko’s treatment of Blacks and Latinos, though sympathetic and open minded for its time, seem less so in the light of the twenty first century.

Though I grew up in Chicago’s South Suburbs and lived in the city for several years for college and graduate school, I had never read Boss until I attended Columbia University. Luckily, I read it in conjunction with a longer and more detailed book on Daley, American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley – His Battle for the Nation and Chicago by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor.

The laziest description one can give of American Pharaoh would be to label it a Chicago version of Robert Caro’s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. While this might be tangentially accurate, it misses the depth of American Pharaoh. Cohen and Taylor successfully trace the career of Richard J. from his controversial Bridgeport roots (the authors more than suggest that Daley participated in the famous 1919 race riots, a fact Royko also noted) to the pinnacle of his national influence as Democratic kingmaker. Though Royko’s castigation of Daley remains an undeniably enjoyable exercise, he surely misses the mark somewhat in his hostility. Not unlike Caro’s Manichean take on Robert Moses, Royko sometimes fell into Evil dictator tropes, which while not wholly untrue lacked nuance. Cohen and Taylor do a better job in this regard. Though if one clear difference emerges between the character of Robert Moses and that of Dick Daley, Moses may or may not have been the tyrant Caro portrays him to be. However, in the case of Daley, no one doubts the complete control Richard J. exerted over the city. Sure he had to balance ethnic and racial politics, but this balancing act was always up to Daley himself.

If one thing becomes clear in American Pharaoh, it’s that Daley screwed over everyone — granted, not equally and usually to maintain his own power, but more than one community got the short end of the stick. The Italian community near what is now the University of Illinois – Chicago found itself treated rather shabbily by Daley as he basically told it to take a hike in favor of creating the public university for which he had long pined. Puerto Ricans resented Daley’s ignorance of their community and the CPD’s racist law enforcement. As for African Americans, well where does one start? From the purposeful use of federal monies to hem in public housing projects with highway construction, a maneuver that other cities, following in Daley’s wake, tragically employed, to his refusal to provide the resources and patronage that the Black community deserved to his masterful but morally repugnant treatment of Martin Luther King and his open housing campaign, Richard J. demonstrated a fundamental disregard for Blacks. Cohen and Taylor more or less argue that even if Daley remained racist by today’s standards, these various decisions related more to pragmatics. Integration struck fear into Mayor Daley’s heart not because he feared Blacks but because he believed white ethnics and the middle classes did. Integration would only result in white flight. His disingenuous “hands off” approach to the Chicago public schools, which resulted in severely overcrowded minority schools, serves as another example of such “pragmatics.”

Though not as expansive as The Power Broker, American Pharaoh covers much more ground in greater detail than Boss. Taken together, one probably couldn’t come up with a more comprehensive understanding of Chicago politics in the post war period. Certainly, American Pharaoh promises a bit more than it delivers. It fails to really explain well enough why Daley’s plight represents a “Battle for the Nation.” Salon writer Andrew O’Hehir framed this dynamic well in his May 2000 review of American Pharaoh, pointing out that Alabama Governor George Wallace and Richard J. Daley symbolized two distinctly different yet connected dying political breeds: the rank segregationist and the patronage driven political machine boss. Though both Democrats, as O’Hehir notes, the constituents of each, “disaffected white Southerners” in Wallace’s case and “rapidly suburbanizing Northern white ethnics” for Daley, “became the bedrock constituency of the Reagan revolution and the Republican congressional majority.” Cohen and Taylor needed to illustrate this dynamic more clearly. In recent years, writers like M.D. Lassiter and the aforementioned Rick Perlstein have explored this development more effectively.

I was born in 1976, the same year that both Chairman Mao and Richard J. Daley passed on. Considering the countless times observers like Cohen, Royko, and Taylor refer to the “Soviet” like rule of Daley, the juxtaposition between China’s imperious communist ruler and Chicago’s trenchant political titan seems more than appropriate. Growing up in Chicago from age 5 to 22, I fled the city at first chance. My instinct was to run fast and far. Admittedly, I committed the sin of sins for any Chicagoan, I moved to and fell in love with New York. Yet, it was in New York I remembered my love for Chicago. Between Arnold Hirsch’s Making the Second Ghetto, Royko’s Boss, and Cohen and Taylor’s American Pharaoh, Chicago’s tragic yet proud history held new importance. For better and worse, Richard J. Daley, along with his son Richard M, shaped the Chicago that Rahm Emanuel today runs. No city is perfect, no ruler faultless, but better to understand these flaws than to run blindly into the night. After all Chicago stands as a world city today, brimming with a blue collar cosmopolitanism, a burgeoning black middle and upper class, and a Mexican community that has just begun to exert its political muscle. Does its future depend on its past? Not necessarily, but it makes Chicago a lot more interesting.

Past posts in this series include: