The Magazine

The Boss of Chicago

Richard J. Daley's Achievement

Aug 21, 2000, Vol. 5, No. 46 • By MICHAEL BARONE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

American Pharaoh

Mayor Richard J. Daley -- His Battle for Chicago and the Nation

by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor

Little, Brown, 614 pp., $ 26.95

An opponent once accused the late Mayor Richard J. Daley of being a czar, to which Daley replied, "The czar was Russian. I'm Irish." And so he was. Daley's Irishness is one of the keys to understanding him -- and he remains someone who is, though widely known, just as widely misunderstood.

It is the merit of American Pharaoh: Mayor Richard J. Daley -- His Battle for Chicago and the Nation that Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor provide the facts on which one can develop a take on the man. It is the defect that the authors, particularly on the issues of race and housing, have their own take -- which seems quite wrong.

American Pharaoh is the first scholarly biography of Daley, researched while it was still possible to interview many who dealt with Daley personally. It is written in lively, clear prose and with a narrative drive. The authors, though not natives, have a good feel for Chicago -- that most parochial of large cities, where what happens even immediately beyond its fifty wards is dismissed as "out of town." In the early chapters, one misses Daley's distinctive voice, his gift for malapropisms ("the policeman isn't there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder"), and his gift for pious pronouncements that concealed what he knew was really going on. His words from those first days were not taken down and now are lost. Fortunately, the later chapters have the public record and the authors' interviews to rely on.

Boss was the title Mike Royko gave his far from admiring 1971 biography, and that remains Daley's image today: the greatest of the old Irish-American political bosses, an omnipotent politician ("pharaoh," in Cohen and Taylor's title) who ruled with more regard for his own political interest than the public good.

The truth is more complicated and interesting. Daley was a product of an Irish-American neighborhood, Bridgeport, just a few miles south of the Loop, where the Irish settled in the 1830s when Chicago was a village. He was born at 3502 South Lowe (Chicagoans don't normally add "street" after a street name) and, after he was married, lived his whole life at 3536 South Lowe -- not a long journey. He embodied many Irish-American virtues and defects, but was not exactly typical: Though he often invoked family, he talked so little of his early life that even close associates didn't know he was an only child (somewhat unusual for the Irish) or that his mother was a suffragette (very unusual for the Irish).

"Politics is a risky business. Hence it has ever been the affair of speculators with the nerve to gamble and an impulse to boldness. These are anything but peasant qualities. Certainly these are not qualities of Irish peasants who, collectively, yielded to none in the rigidity of their social structure and their disinclination to adventure," Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in a brilliant and heartbreaking essay in Beyond the Melting Pot. "The Irish village was a place of stable, predictable social relations in which almost everyone had a role to play, under the surveillance of a stern oligarchy of elders, and in which, on the whole, a person's position was likely to improve with time. Transferred to Manhattan, these were the essentials of Tammany Hall."

Transferred to Chicago, they were also the essentials of the Democratic party of Richard J. Daley. Daley worked hard, waited long, watched for opportunities (which often came from the deaths of those above him), and absorbed his share of setbacks. Until finally, in 1953, at age fifty-one, he became chairman of the Cook County Democratic party and, two years later, mayor of Chicago.

But he was more than an unspectacular plodder. The other great mayors of Chicago fell by the wayside: Big Bill Thompson was defeated in 1931 by Anton Cermak's machine, Cermak was shot by an assassin aiming at Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, and Ed Kelly was forced out of office for corruption and liberalism in 1947. Behind Daley's verbal slips, there was an accountant's knowledge of detail: He knew the election returns for every precinct in Chicago, and which precinct committeeman had delivered his quota of votes. Nicholas Lemann estimates that he knew personally half of Chicago's forty-thousand patronage employees. He had in his head the genealogy of a very large number of Chicago's three million citizens: who they were related to, what parish they grew up in, who were their friends and neighbors.