American Pharaoh

The Mayor at the opening of the Lake Front Festival, 1973, showing his sartorial flair

Mayor Richard J. Daley: His Battle for Chicago and the Nation (by Adam Cohen & Elizabeth Taylor) (2000)

What other book to buy in the south side of Chicago? TVC was only a few blocks from Bridgeport, where Richard J Daley lived and died, with his wife of five or so decades and 7 children, bog Irish and loyal to their neighbourhood to an insane degree, so loyal that they looked down on Irish families that moved to the suburbs, the ones so pretentious that they “had fruit in the house when nobody was sick,”  Having selected this and one other book, TVC was ejected from the bookstore (a first) because the aged relic in charge had just heard her husband had had a fall. We duly left, but insisted on buying our two books – we’d walked several blocks!  (We hope that hubbie made it).

This long and fact-packed book covers the life of a political giant, and a paradox – “optimistic, determined, hardworking, God-fearing…backward-looking, power-hungry, and bigoted…”

Daley…served as mayor of Chicago from 1955 until his death in 1976…the most powerful local politician America has ever produced.”  He was singularly mundane and unimpressive as a person, yet his relentless drive and love for his city drove him to do big, sometimes great things, without being too particular about the means. From altar boy, member of the Hamburg Athletic Association, White Sox fan, stockyard slaughterman, growing up in the windy city’s squalor, described in books such as The Jungle and Walk on the Wild Side, Daley was consistently underestimated by foes and allies alike.  Till he became the Boss.

He became indispensable in the Democratic Party Machine modelled on Tammany Hall (which it outlived by almost a century), working and plotting as a ward captain on up, til death or corruption overtook his superiors and rivals. Daley was not an overly attractive proposition – short, stout, plain of speech, favouring roast beef and horrendous tunes by the Shannon Rovers – but he had a desire and instinct for power and was personally honest to a fault (though highly dishonest in feathering his political nest). He beat a much more eloquent opponent in 1955 and then won 5 more elections, creating countless patronage positions across the city and helping three Democratic Presidents (JFK, immediately below; LBJ, 2nd photo below and Carter, bottom of page) get elected along the way. In the notorious 1960 election where he threw the result for JFK, the lyrics of the popular song “Tea For Two” were changed to “Two for you, and three for me And here’s a few; they are all free And counting fast, I see they’re all cast for Jack…”

He was constantly building – freeways, convention halls, skyscrapers, and always cadging money, from the Federal Government and the long put-upon Illinois taxpayer (his property taxes were iniquitous) – and feather-bedding the public payroll with a literal army of rent-seekers, flunkies, goons and profiteers – henchmen who were largely left free to dip their bread in the public gravy as long as they got out the vote every couple of years. And a compliant metropolis lapped up Daley’s blarney for the better part of a quarter of a century.

He was the embodiment of Mr. Malaprop: “The policeman is not there to create disorder. The policeman is there to preserve disorder.” “Well…that question is highly problematically and loaded, as you know…” “…he referred to a bicycle-built-for-two as a “tantrum bike,” and expressed concern for the [bike] park’s “walking pedestrians.” The same year, at an atomic energy exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry, he would declare it “amazing what they will be able to do once they get the atom harassed. He would declare to reporters, “I resent the insinuendos,” offer information “for the enlightenment and edification and hallucination of the alderman,” and implore his audience to “reach higher and higher platitudes.” And in a moment of despair toward the end of his career, he would exclaim, “They have vilified me, they have crucified me, yes, they have even criticized me.” 

Daly’s record was woeful on civil rights, public housing, school integration and slum clearance. He shrewdly avoided confrontation with the civil rights movement, feting, appeasing and lying to Martin Luther King and his cohort when they moved into town in the mid-sixties, all the while overseeing a remorseless strategy of segregation.  For example, the authors note that after Daley’s watch ended, as a result of his policies, the part of Chicago called North Lawndale “had just one supermarket and one bank for its 66,000 residents, but it had forty-eight lottery agents and ninety-nine liquor stores and bars.” [My kind of town – Ed.]

His machine (motto: “Don’t make no waves, don’t back no losers“) was famously corrupt, rigging elections, stifling dissent, bribing voters, directing judges on contentious cases, arranging the dismissal of anyone who took on the machine, meddling with individual liberties, suppressing opposing views and demonising campaigners for reform.  He was not racist as such – rather, he wondered why the Negro didn’t seem to know his place, asking why they didn’t act “like the Jews, the Poles, the Irish and the Italians” (channeling Henry Higgins!) and his treatment of the civil rights movement was particularly disingenuous. King eventually realised that Alabama had been child’s play compared to Chicago, where Daley ruled the roost as a benevolent dictator.

Things started to fall apart for Daley in the shadow of the 1968 Presidential election. Chicago hosted the Democratic Convention, and Daley, who had helped and prospered under Kennedy and Johnson, found Humphrey pretty unimpressive. Worse, the mob had come to town, protesting the Vietnam War and pushing the race question a lot more aggressively than Dr King had done. King failed but his legacy was a new form of activism and dissent that Daley was unable to understand. So Daley’s police, a wicked, vicious, corrupt and cosseted gang of brigands, responded by going on a rampage, which, despite some provocation, was described by Senator Abe Ribicoff at the Convention as “Gestapo tactics” and determined by a later investigation to be “unrestrained and indiscriminate violence” virtually amounting to a “police riot.” It took a lot of paint off Daley, and while he later won re-election in 1971 and 1975, he never held the same amount of raw political leverage that he had before.

In an earlier work, the brilliant An American Melodrama, the authors have this to say about Daley: “In appearance, he resembles nothing so much as a gangland boss. He is short and thick-set, with drooping jowls and a brow that suggests a capacity for violent bad temper…He looks altogether like a man who would be dangerous to cross. And so he is.”  The joke was that the Mayor of Chicago was approachable, but only on tiptoe.

  American Pharaoh is an apt tribute to a ruthless empire builder.  We may not see his like again, thank goodness, but he was a prime example of the Big City Boss that got things done, by hook or by crook.  This detailed biography should be consulted by anyone who cares about Chicago, urban renewal, local government, and machine politics and patronage.

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