8:33 AM EDT, May 5, 2011
For two decades you've known Richard M. Daley as mayor and boss of Chicago. As a columnist, I've been his chief critic. But there are a few things you probably don't know about the mayor and me.
I used to like him very much. And he knows it. Once he interviewed me for a job, and for about, oh, 20 seconds, I thought about hiring on.
And for years before I was a columnist, when I was the Tribune's City Hall writer, I was one of Daley's defenders. I believed in him and the myth and what I thought he was trying to do for Chicago.
We weren't exactly buddies, but we had a lot in common.
We spoke the same language, Soutwest Side — without the H. We both understood the importance of Dibs when it snowed. We both loved the White Sox.
He grew up in Bridgeport, to the north of the old Union Stockyards. And I was born at 52nd and Peoria, just to the south of all that livestock waiting for slaughter. And as kids, we both knew this truth:
Fresh air in Chicago smelled like 40,000 hogs.
Daley's rise to power, from prince of the city to its king, has been the driving story in Chicago for decades. On May 16 he turns Chicago over to a hand-picked successor. A city of tribes can't just watch the boss step down without feeling something, without reckoning.
And today is my day to reckon with it.
The Daleys knew my family, and lived just a few blocks from my uncles' restaurant, the De Le Mar in Bridgeport. It was a snack shop, nothing fancy, a Greek diner in the 1950s and 1960s, when his father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, was in power. My aunts Fannie and Betty revered Richard J. and his wife, Eleanor "Sis" Daley.
When Mrs. Daley entered the De La Mar with her friends for lunch, usually around a quarter to noon, her order seldom varied: Iced tea, tuna fish on toast, chips.
And once she called my house on the very day my aunts were visiting.
"John? This is Mrs. Daley."
I must have said it out loud, because Aunt Fannie and Aunt Betty were shocked, their hands fluttering over the place settings at the dinner table, as they repeated to each other, "Mrs. Daley, Mrs. Daley, Mrs. Daley."
Chicago's queen mother had called to ask me to stop writing columns suggesting that the Chicago Cultural Center be named after her. Years earlier, she'd persuaded her husband to save it from the wrecking ball. I thought naming it after her would be a fitting tribute to a gracious lady. But she said please, no thanks.
I understood. On the Southwest Side, one of the great sins was what we called "acting big." Mrs. Daley never wanted anyone to think she was acting big. That's what made people admire her even more.
"Oh, and I like your article," she said, "but not when you're picking on my son."
By then, I was picking on her son. That was 12 years ago. But there was an earlier time when I believed in the promise of the young mayor, the neighborhood guy who said he'd never be a boss, the one who'd never make deals with Chicago Outfit messenger boys. He was the bungalow mayor who didn't put on airs, the mayor who refused to "act big," the decent father and husband who told me that no matter what happens in politics, you always leave the kids and the families out of it.
That's the guy I believed in, once.
Even before I became the Tribune's City Hall writer, I'd see Daley at some evening function — we covered the mayor of Chicago 24/7 — and he'd walk over, making fun of himself, tugging at his tuxedo collar, making faces, saying all he wanted was a beer.
A few of us reporters would see him this way, with his guard down, muttering how he hated all that fancy black-tie nonsense.
"Get me outta here," the mayor would whisper, and we'd say, sure, Rich, let's grab a car and go to Sox Park.
"I hate this (bleeping bleep)," he'd say and he'd laugh and we'd laugh with him as he stood with his back to the predatory bluebloods and nouveau riche of Chicago. The neighborhood guy in him would point out a few of the more desperate suck-ups, and list what they wanted, a development here, a park there, an appointment for some idiot nephew, and we'd laugh some more.
"I gotta go," he'd say, and we'd commiserate. Then he'd walk back into that predatory sea of tuxedos and ball gowns, the guests quite able to kiss his shoes without touching their knees to the floor.
He'd turn back to look at us reporters, and he'd shrug, an inside joke among us, and we'd laugh. It wasn't an act. He hated the suck-ups then.
A few weeks after he was inaugurated, I was invited up to his office for an interview. His public relations guy, David Axelrod, who now serves President Barack Obama, thought it would be a good idea if the mayor and I got to know each other better.
I couldn't very well tell Axelrod that when Daley was Cook County state's attorney, he was already a good source. So I met the mayor in the afternoon on the fifth floor of City Hall, but not in that formal office where he'd see foreign dignitaries and give them the brush-off, a ponderous office of dark wood, heavy chairs and his father's monstrous fortress of a desk.
We walked past all that weight and into his inner, working office, a light space, airy, decorated in blue. There was that phone next to the couch, the one he'd use to control every level of government in Chicago. He offered me a cigar, not to smoke but to chew, and I declined, teasing that he was mayor and if he wanted to light up, no one would complain.
We talked around things for a bit, about the White Sox and the old neighborhoods, I pulled out a notepad to begin asking questions, and he shook his head. I don't remember the exact words, but it was something like: John, this isn't your interview, it's my interview.
Then I finally realized what was going on. He was considering me for a job. But we laughed and agreed that if we did work together, one of us would probably get himself strangled by accident. And if he got strangled, I'd really get in trouble.
Back then, I was too inexperienced to realize I'd been played. But I was ripe for it. My family revered the Daleys. My folks contributed to Daley campaigns. And as kids, we cheered for the Original Boss' cops when they beat up the yippies and protesters in Lincoln Park. Later, my youngest brother volunteered for Richard M. Daley's campaign for state's attorney in 1980, which was the most important campaign of the younger Daley's life.
So I'd already been initiated into tribal politics, and was primed to defend him. As a reporter, I'd sit in the front row at the news conferences, and when he deserved defending, I'd be there.
When those white cops dropped off two black teenagers in the Canaryville neighborhood and white toughs gave the black kids a beating, I defended Daley.
When that killer heat wave led to the deaths of hundreds of city residents, the Sun-Times blamed him. I defended him, arguing that it was the obligation of the families of the elderly, not the mayor, to check on their well-being.
And when his son Patrick became involved in that almost deadly brawl at the family's summer vacation home in Grand Beach, Mich., I defended him. It was the teenage Daley crew versus the teenage locals. Someone in the Daley crew brandished a shotgun, and one local boy got his head cracked with a baseball bat. The mayor was weeping, a father devastated.
And what did I write? I said it was "the sort of misbehavior that 16-year-old boys get caught up in all the time."
When I read that drivel now, I want to retch.
But the Daleys did punish Patrick. He was given a coveted appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
Falling-out over flood
My falling-out with Daley didn't happen all at once. It started over the Great Chicago Flood and fall guy Jim McTigue.
Opening Day for the White Sox is a day of South Side obligation, and the mayor and yours truly were obligated to attend services at Sox Park. But our plans changed when an underground tunnel ruptured along the Chicago River. Most Chicagoans didn't even know the tunnels were there, but they sure learned about them when the Loop was flooded and the entire central city was shut down.
A furious mayor wanted political heads on a pike.
One reluctant head belonged to Jim McTigue, a low-ranking North Side city worker, a Cubs fan and tunnel inspector. Daley held a news conference to rip on McTigue, saying McTigue didn't warn his superiors of the breach in the tunnel that led to the flood. It turned out that Daley was wrong, that McTigue had indeed warned his bosses, and they had ignored him.
"I don't want to become the Mrs. O'Leary's cow of the flood," McTigue told me.
It also turned out that Daley's friends were making a fortune off the flood. I understood the mayor wanted a fall guy and that it wasn't going to be one of his people. But what I didn't understand is why Daley wouldn't make a call and find McTigue a job in the private sector afterward.
That's what bothered me. McTigue wasn't at fault. He had a wife and kids. All Daley had to do was pick up the phone and do the right thing.
The mayor told me he didn't owe McTigue a thing. I told him, respectfully, that he should make the call anyway, to show compassion, and so that city workers who knew the real story wouldn't think the mayor was a jerk.
That's what your father would have done, I said.
His eyes narrowed. He blushed. That jaw jutted forward in anger. He walked off and that was it. We were done. We were cordial but distant from then on, and later I wrote a long piece for the Tribune magazine in which he talked honestly about his political life and his motives for revenge. But things were different between us from then on. I'd seen the other side of his face.
I didn't know McTigue. Eventually he won his lawsuit with the city, but for years he couldn't find work, because the mayor had put the mark on him, and no one would hire him. That's the sin in a city being bossed. The fear of angering City Hall can be debilitating. And McTigue's wife and kids suffered. It was a terrible thing.
There were many Jim McTigues in the city. Not just fall guys, but business owners, taxpayers, regular folks who were terrified that they'd run afoul of City Hall and get stepped on.
Jim died a few years ago. He was buried in his Cubs shirt, a pack of Camel filters in his pocket.
Daley never made amends.
Becoming the hammer
Despite the fact that we were falling out, I didn't want to be the critic, the hammer. I wanted to interpret and explain. But by the mid-1990s, Daley's hatchet men had rigged employment tests to build vast patronage armies, allowing him to control all of Cook County and become the dominant political silverback male in Illinois.
He was the strongman of the wrought-iron fist, with all those suck-ups around him, laughing at his jokes like hyenas in a children's cartoon. There was a media love fest. And I couldn't take it anymore.
Then came the Duffs. Tribune investigative reporters explained it all: the Duff family's ties to Daley and to Chicago organized crime dating back to Outfit boss Anthony Accardo.
Daley would drink with the Duffs at their legendary Como Inn parties. There must not have been enough light at those parties, because the Duffs received $100 million in city-related affirmative action contracts even though they were white men with pink necks.
The Chicago media largely ignored the stories. The Chicago Sun-Times was Daley's News back then, and TV reporters fawned over the mayor. One TV type explained that he couldn't do the Duff story because there was no good video. Besides, it was too complicated.
Complicated? White guys, $100 million, drinking with Daley, Outfit connections?
So I hammered away. Daley hated my columns, as did the Duffs. Once at a Chicago steakhouse, the Duffs walked up to my table, smiled, and asked why they never saw my two little boys playing in our front yard.
It was a message, the Chicago Way. And when I wrote about it, in a column addressed as an open letter to the Outfit bosses, Daley clammed up. He wouldn't criticize the Duffs for asking about my children. I felt alone.
Down days for Daley
Chicago had made a pact with Daley. Chicago ignored the corruption, the cronyism, the deals, all that wild spending that would eventually bring the city to the verge of financial ruin at the end of his reign. Chicago shut its eyes to all that.
But then he destroyed Meigs Field, the little airport on the lake. He sent his bulldozers out in the middle of the night and slashed the runways with giant X's. He ruined Meigs because he wanted to, because he could.
"There are three Daleys," said a prominent political figure who supports the mayor, at least publicly. "There's the Daley who got elected, the one you liked. Then there's the Daley who cut all those deals. And there's the Daley who destroyed Meigs Field. And once he did that, he lost his way."
After Meigs, things were different between Chicago and Daley. Chicago had seen the other side of his face. Things went downhill from there. His friends got rich but Chicago floated in red ink. He failed to win the Olympics. Taxes kept rising. He sold off the skyway, the parking meters.
Now there's nothing left to sell but Chicago's soul.
If he'd campaigned for another term he would have lost. I know what the lickspittles say. They're wrong.
Daley would have lost the election. So an arrangement was made with President Barack Obama, the mayor's guy in the White House. Obama's chief of staff became the next mayor, and the mayor's brother became the president's chief of staff. How nice and neat.
Fear had served him, helped him run the city, helped him to boss it, but fear was finally too expensive and didn't work any longer. But that's how he learned, that's how he was shaped.
All those mornings in the limousine, driving downtown, and his father would say, why couldn't young Richard be more like those young men who served Richard J., young men like Mike Madigan or Eddie Burke or Neil Hartigan or Tom Donovan.
And Richard M. would seethe.
A few years after his father died, the warlords of his father's political machine, the old-timers who had known Rich Daley as a child, decided to kill him off politically. So they used his old rival, Burke, to try to knock Rich Daley out of politics for good. It was the 1980 campaign for Cook County state's attorney.
"They were my father's business friends — his people. I knew them all my life," Daley told me years later for the Tribune magazine profile. "But when I made my move for state's attorney, they wanted to kill me. They wanted to stamp me out. And after I beat Burke in the primary, they went over to the Republican (incumbent Bernard Carey) to beat me…
"You don't forget who was with you and who was against you. Me? I don't forget. Would you?" he asked.
No, I said, of course not.
This is Chicago. You don't forget.
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