Tuesday, November 3, 2009
On the day that Boston goes to the polls to determine whether Tom Menino should be given a fifth term, it is fitting to remember Mike Royko's classic portrait of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, "Boss."
Royko is a throwback to an earlier era of journalism: more urban (rather than urbane), a true child of the city, and one who is both attracted and repulsed by the exercise of power.
He also paints the portrait of a Chicago rife with racial tensions: "[c]ontaining the Negro was unspoken city policy. Even expressways were planned as natural man-made barriers, the unofficial borders. The Dan Ryan, for instance, was shifted several blocks during the planning stage to make one of the ghetto walls."(p. 137)
(This Chicago is different from, but the inheritor of, the one that met Barack Obama twenty years later, as portrayed in his book, Dreams from My Father. But Old Man Daley's Chicago is the one that First Lady Michelle Robinson Obama was born into, and grew up in.)
Other vestiges of the old Chicago live on. Son Richard Michael, the current mayor (since 1989; he will break his father's record for longevity if he serves out the current term), has a cameo in "Boss", but his influence on current politics is felt. Current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is a former CEO of the Chicago Public Schools; the younger Daley created the job of CEO after convincing the Illinois State Legislature to place the school system under his control. (Interestingly, the independence of the school board is played to political advantage in Royko's view, by the elder Daley.)
In "Dreams", Obama paints Chicago as his "native" land; the place where he learned who he was. But there is a history of that land, and Royko's portrayal of the elder Daley provides some insight as to the Chicago that met the young Obama.