American Pharaoh

March 15th, 2009 at 3:14 pm David Frum | No Comments |

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What is it about Illinois?

Three governors since 1968 have gone to jail, viagra and a fourth seems headed to join them.

The state’s biggest city, Chicago, is a byword for corruption and election-rigging. Until inauguration day 2009, the Chicagoan to have held most power in Washington was former House Ways and Means Committee chairman Danny Rostenkowski. He went to prison too.

Now the United States has its first Chicago president, supported by a Chicagoan chief of staff. The two of them are proceeding to launch the biggest wave of peacetime public works projects since the New Deal. Gore Vidal quipped about the rise of the Kennedy family: “It is like watching the Borgias descend upon some Italian town.” Should we be worried about the Chicago dynasty placing its hands upon the federal Treasury? At a minimum, we should all be trying to understand Chicago politics better…

So that’s one of my reading projects for the year ahead. I have a shelf of books to read about Chicago politics. Here are some notes on the first, the mammoth biography of Chicago’s mayor Richard Daley by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor: American Pharaoh.

Richard Daley became mayor of Chicago in 1955, just as urban America entered a period of extreme crisis. Industry and homeowners were following the new interstate highways out of the central city. The industrial city had to evolve into a post-industrial city, but as yet post-industrial jobs still existed mainly in the imagination.

Even as the future darkened for employment in urban factories, docks, railyards and stockyards, millions of southern blacks were arriving to seek such employment. Between 1940 and 1960, the black population of Chicago would almost double, to more than 800,000. Many of those people would begin the climb into the middle class. Many others would slide into a dependent and violent urban underclass.

Federal welfare programs stepped in to deliver the services that had once been distributed by local political machines, even as competition from suburban jurisdictions suddenly raised the relative burden of those machines’ incompetence and corruption.

These pressures would ultimately wreck many once great industrial centers. Taylor and Cohen generously allow that it was in great measure due to Richard Daley that they did not wreck Chicago.

Daley built America’s greatest airport, O’Hare – and ensured that it was sited within Chicago’s city limits. He ensured that the interstates entered the city but that they did not smash apart its business district, as they did in so many other jurisdictions. He encouraged the expansion of the business district northward up Michigan Avenue. He brought a major university into Chicago.

But he did something else too, something alluded to by this biography’s strange title: he used his construction boom to erect psychic barriers between the city’s established white working class neighborhoods and its new black population. Chicago’s major north-south expressway corridor was reinforced by a parallel line of public housing projects to create a mile-wide no-go zone between the black South Side and the rest of the city. Spatial segregation became a tool of urban preservation, enforced by an often brutal and corrupt and disproportionately white police.

During the civil rights era, Chicago blacks often referred to Mayor Daley as “Pharaoh.” Civil rights activists saw Daley as an oppressor and a taskmaster – as an unrelenting Ramses to Martin Luther King’s Moses. Daley was a pharaoh in this sense …” ( p. 12)

Cohen and Taylor have set out to produce a detailed work of urban history in the manner of Robert Caro’s study of Robert Moses. They share with Caro a prodigious work ethic and a shrewd eye for the mechanics of power. But they share with him something else, something unfortunate: thralldom to liberal sentimentality in its least self-aware form.

With fascinating accumulated detail, Cohen and Taylor minutely explicate Daley’s use of political power to divide the city racially – a division that remains a harsh fact of Chicago life to this day. Yet their curiosity fails them when the question arises: so what should have been done instead? They assert repeatedly that a planned scattered integration would have served the city better, breaking down barriers without unleashing a crime wave that would have driven out of the city everyone who could afford to leave. Yet they offer no reason to believe these assertions, and the reader is left to wonder whether they can really believe in them very much themselves.

The book does a magnificent job analyzing the mechanisms by which Daley gained and exercised his power. Briefly: Chicago was a one-party system. To gain a Democratic nomination was to win the election. Democratic nominations were decided by the Central Committee of the Cook County Democratic party, and Daley had become the chairman of that committee in 1953. As chairman, Daley could “list” or “delist” Democratic nominees for every office up to judge and alderman.

In his capacity as mayor, Daley controlled tens of thousands of patronage jobs – and these patronage hires were then expected to make themselves available for Democratic party work under Daley’s direction. Daley beat back demands for a more professional city work force by expanding employment of “temporary” workers outside the civil service system. Some of these “temporary” workers remained on the payroll for decades.

All this wasted tremendous amounts of money. Cohen and Taylor pay much less attention to that subject – or to the cost in taxes and lost productivity of this waste. The exploitation of business and taxpayers by politicians is not a subject that engages the authors very much.

Yet this system of exploitation is the central modality of Chicago politics, and a modality that Chicago politicians may now export to the national scene.

It might be objected that Barack Obama is the very opposite of a Daley-style politician. He is a reformer, not a machine pol; an educated grandee, not a ward-heeler dispensing patronage jobs. All true. But of course Chicago has generated such reformers before: Paul Douglas in the 1940s, Adlai Stevenson in the 1950s. These men are useful to the machine: They “perfume the ticket,” in the old Chicago phrase. And if they want to survive, they learn to cooperate with the machine and to avert their eyes from its excesses. Douglas and Stevenson both benefited from Daley’s support and took care never to clash with him.

And in his turn, Barack Obama learned to get along by going along. Unlike his Republican predecessor Peter Fitzgerald, Barack Obama mutely acceded to the bad practices of Illinois and Chicago government. What he didn’t know couldn’t offend him – and he took pains to ensure that he knew as little as possible.

The Chicago Way has evolved since the time of the elder Daley. But for all the change, it is Daley’s son who rules Chicago now as its second-longest-serving mayor. For all the change, Chicago remains by most accounts the most corrupt city in the northern United States. For all the change, nothing much has changed. The story told in American Pharaoh retains alas all its relevance – and more – as Chicago’s history guides the nation’s future.

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