Meet the Old Boss

American Pharaoh

Meet the Old Boss

American Pharaoh

Meet the Old Boss
New books dissected over email.
May 22 2000 5:05 PM

American Pharaoh

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Dear Jacob,

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I, too, feel compelled to put my review in a personal context. As a journalist, you may be free to admit some "biases," but as I'm sure you know, social scientists have no biases! So my initial observations reflect only my years of research on American cities and my particular obsession with New York City and Chicago.

I confess to having been a parochial New Yorker for most of my early years. A brief stint in the Rocky Mountains and Providence, R.I., only reassured me that there was no place other than New York City to live and there was certainly no place with more fascinating politics. This all changed when I moved to Chicago in 1974 to pursue my Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. I lived there for six years. I know, native Chicagoans will tell me that Hyde Park is to Chicago as the Upper West Side of Manhattan is to New York City. Hyde Park doesn't resemble the other Chicago neighborhoods. For one thing, it is racially integrated, and as Cohen and Taylor point out, Chicago is the most residentially segregated city in the country. As I'm sure you know, living in Hyde Park actually made me curious about the rest of the city. Not surprisingly, I became obsessed with Chicago politics, both academically and personally. I was struck by how much Chicagoans would compare their city to New York. It never occurred to any New Yorker I knew to compare their city to Chicago. Mostly my generation knew that Chicago was cold, windy, and the place where some out of touch mayor had his police department beat up students during the 1968 Democratic Convention. Chicagoans may have suffered from the "second city" syndrome, but at the same time there was an enormous pride in their city, even among your Lake Shore and Hyde Park liberals. "The city that works" wasn't just a catchy slogan; it was about a city government that actually had a mechanism for staying in touch with its citizens--the Democratic Party machine. While it was obvious that Daley was at the center of all Chicago's successes and failures, he had a vision for the city that most people accepted whether they liked him personally or not. What struck me as amazing about Chicago during the 1970s was a determination that it would not become another abandoned, economically depressed Rust Belt city. In fact, while New York was reeling from its fiscal crisis, Chicago, while suffering the same middle-class white flight and loss of its manufacturing base, had a city government that was humming along, with balanced budgets no less. It seemed to me that Daley must have been doing something right.

Yet, having grown up in John Lindsay's New York, I understood the importance of a mayor that supported the civil rights movement and reached out to the city's black communities. On the surface, New York seemed like a much better city for its minority residents. New York, the archetype liberal city, had a mayor that walked through its black ghettos to keep the peace, while Chicago, the capital city of Middle America's white ethnic working class, had a mayor who ordered his police officers to use their firearms while black communities burned to the ground. True, Chicago's streets were clean, while New York's Sanitation Department couldn't pick up the snow for a week in Queens, the outer borough where I grew up. In truth, neither city served the needs of its black community very well. Most early biographies of Mayor Daley and analytic work on Chicago public policy during the Daley years have focused primarily on his promotion of segregation and his autocratic control of the party machine to defeat his enemies and reward his friends. Ironically, while the neo-conservatives have managed to completely decimate John Lindsay's legacy in New York, they haven't really embraced Richard J. Daley as one of their own. This provides an interesting clue for those of us who are still thinking about Boss Daley's Chicago, who the man was, and more important, what his public policy legacy is. Here's where I share your disappointment with Cohen and Taylor's biography. While the narrative flows smoothly and the historical facts are carefully presented, there is no daring analysis of what Daley's life and work mean nearly a quarter of a century after his death.

I found the beginning of American Pharaoh a tease. Cohen and Taylor suggest that Daley was continuously underestimated by his political adversaries. I thought this would be the theme they carried through their book to explain Daley's successes and, more important, his vision for the city. Instead, it is Daley's motivation to accumulate and retain power that seems to be their insight. They imply that politics for Daley was all about power. That just leaves me cold. Sure politicians want to win, but to see Daley's reign as simply personal is to miss his enormous effort to institutionalize changes in Chicago's political system that continue to benefit the city. Cohen and Taylor offer no insight into why Chicago doesn't simply go the way of other Rust Belt cities after Daley dies. Chicago manages to survive the notorious mismanagement of Jane Byrne; Chicago's first black mayor, Harold Washington, ran on a reform platform but was really the product of Daley's machine; and why does the great economic renaissance of the 1990s happen in Chicago and not Detroit? Could it be that Daley understood a lot more than how to amass power? He understood federalism (state and national government), the economic and political threat of the suburbs, the need to make the central city economically competitive. He understood the complexity of the city's fiscal policy process and the fact that budgets are political documents. He understood the importance of neighborhoods and a government that was accessible to its people, and the need for a politics of loyalty and reciprocity. Most important, he understood how to institutionalize changes in the political system that would continue to benefit the city long after he died. There was much that Daley did not understand, from the civil rights movement to the value of high-quality public schools. I think we can talk about that tomorrow. I do want to commend the authors for the rich historical detail offered in this volume. By expertly conveying the broad sweep of Daley's life, Cohen and Taylor make a great case for placing contemporary politics in historical context.

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Best Regards,
Ester

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This week, a discussion of American Pharaoh: Richard J. Daley: His Battle for Chicago and the Nation, by Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor (click here to buy the book). Jacob Weisberg is Slate's chief political correspondent. Ester Fuchs is director of the Center for Urban Research and Policy at Columbia University and teaches at Barnard College. She is the author of Mayors and Money: Fiscal Policy in New York and Chicago (click here to buy it).