In early 2008, when Barack Obama
Obamawas running for president, some of his critics took pleasure in
pointing out that the young senator from Illinois hailed from Chicago, a city
known for its "machine" brand of politics. Obama, they suggested,
owed his rapid rise through the Democratic ranks to connections with the city's
mayor, Richard M. Daley,
M. Daley,son of a previous Chicago mayor, the legendary Richard J. Daley,
also known as hizzoner or, as another Chicago legend,
the journalist Mike Royko
Royko, put it, Boss.
Over the holidays, I read Royko's
1971 take-down of the elder Daley, Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago.
Published when Daley was entering the sixteenth of what would finally be 21
years in office, Royko's book is a relentlessly
focused attack on Daley's reputation as a mayor who made Chicago, as signs on
its borders proudly proclaimed, "the city that works."
Royko doesn't deny Daley's
accomplishments. As he points out, they are plainly visible for all to see:
Chicago's downtown, the Loop, was revitalized and its skyline reinvented; a
vast network of expressways connected all parts of the city and suburbs; a new
airport, O'Hare, connected Chicago
with the rest of the country and the world.
But this juggernaut of progress had a cost. As Royko observes: "Behind the high-rises are the
crumbling, crowded buildings where the lower-income people live. No answer has
been found to their housing problems because the real estate people say there's
not enough profit in building homes for them. And beyond them are the
middle-income people, who can't make it to the high-rises and can't stay where
they are because the schools are inadequate, the poor are pushing toward them,
and nothing is being done about their problems, so they move to the suburbs.
When their children grow up and they retire, maybe then they can move to a lake
As Royko makes clear, Daley
was able to get big things done in Chicago by keeping a vise-like grip on
power, what Chicagoans came to call "clout."
Daley ruled the city as a despot, which meant that things got done without the
niceties of democratic process. In Chicago, connections and pay-offs were a
part of doing business. Contractors were enriched, people were put to work and
Daley kept it running by maintaining a steely discipline, often enforced by his
police department, which operated in a kind of extra-legal zone.
today, one is outraged by Daley's egregious treatment of racial minorities, the
disadvantaged and anybody else who didn't advance his bare-knuckle agenda. But Royko's book also raises bigger, enduring questions about
democratic governance. What would Chicago have been like if instead of command
decisions, every building project would have been subject to rounds of
community meetings and a conscientious process aimed at consensus?
Would there be an O'Hare Field? It was built in spite
of people's concerns about noise and traffic congestion. A
John Hancock skyscraper? Planners and architecture buffs argued such a
big building would ruin the neighborhood's historic character. Or, for that
matter, a Picasso
on the city's Civic Center Plaza? The public thought a statue of baseball
player Ernie Banks made more sense.
Fast forward to 2012. We are faced with a clutch of
big picture issues, from implementing strategies to save the planet, to
providing universal health care and viable forms of public transportation. We
know these things are important. But a power outage at the top keeps them in a
state of perpetual stalemate, subject to the me-first whims of special
interests and squeaky wheels. Without clout, democracy has a way of chasing its
That's how things have gone since President Obama took
office. He said he was going to change the way things were done in Washington.
He called for a new era of civility, for bipartisanship, when what he really
needed was more old-fashioned clout.
It's turned out that whether he's dealing with health
care reform, the economy, or global warming, Obama lacks the political will,
the real power, or both, to govern effectively. Not even making Boss Daley's
son, William, his chief of staff, in place of current Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, has helped.
Which makes Obama's New Year's Eve signing of the National Defense Authorization Act
Defense Authorization Act, a law that makes United States citizens subject
to arrest and indefinite detention by the military, more than a little ironic.
The Obama Administration has said it would never take full advantage of this
law but, as the American Civil Liberties Union
Civil Liberties Unionhas pointed out, the law has "no temporal or
geographic limitations." Meaning a President Romney, let's say, could find
the law's open-ended language a handy way of disappearing someone who was
particularly annoying (mind your manners, Newt Gingrich!)
When this law was originally presented to Obama, he
said he wouldn't sign it. Then a bipartisan group of senators, including
Republican John McCain and Independent Joseph Liebermann
pressed the issue and Obama backed down. Again.
Obama's now accused of grabbing power when it appears
as likely he merely caved to pressure. This supposedly made man from Chicago
must have old man Daley rolling in his grave.