Rich and me: How we fell out

That's the guy I believed in, once.

Black-tie banter

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.

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