In Charge

Himself! The Life and Times of Richard J. Daley.
by Eugene Kennedy.
Viking. 288 pp. $10.95.

“Himself” is an old Gaelic term of affection and respect for the leader, and a fine title for Eugene Kennedy’s biography of Richard J. Daley. The author teaches psychology at Loyola University in Chicago, and despite the fact that political life must have been a new venture for him—his twenty-six published works include such titles as If You Really Knew Me, Would You Still Like Me? and Living With Everyday Problems—Himself is a well-written, enjoyable, and instructive book. It succeeds where other biographical accounts of Daley tried weakly and failed or did not try at all: namely, in bringing the jowled mayor to life. Not even Mike Royko’s well-known book, Boss, did this. Royko poked fun at Daley’s famous malapropisms and pictured him as an iron-mouthed beast foraging among everyone else’s political rights. This caused some laughs and much satisfaction among Daley’s enemies, but shed little understanding on an unusual man and an extraordinary politician. Kennedy, by contrast, examines Daley’s success, an unexciting success but one that tells a great deal about the organization which made it possible and about the tradition and family which produced a man like Daley.



Daley came from a working-class Irish neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago. His father was a second-generation Irishman employed in the Sheet Metal Workers’ Union; his mother, a bright woman with practical instincts and a sense of humor who had marched for women’s rights. Daley grew up, says Kennedy, “in a house that was not boisterous, in an atmosphere of order and quiet contentment, in just the place to learn your lessons, do your chores, and receive the approval that a boy deserved.” The Church, too, offered approval to its obedient followers, and Daley, who was an altar boy, remained a practicing Catholic until he died. Kennedy calls Daley’s habituation to the virtues of his upbringing “obsessive,” and this judgment rings true against the self-controlled perseverance and attention to detail which Daley exhibited all his life. He was, at least, scrupulous in obeying what he learned as a boy—to work hard and honor the Church and family.

Daley was also ambitious—a gift more natural than acquired, although Kennedy finds a mother’s guiding hand in the shadows. “I didn’t raise my son to be a policeman,” she is supposed to have said on learning that he would run for Cook County sheriff. Daley, however, knew what he wanted and that was to be mayor. He moved toward that goal undistracted by dreams of national office or the venal temptations of local politics. Kennedy insists that to understand him, we

must appreciate the steady apprenticeship of his political career and how his fascination with and achievement of power were linked at every step with his capacity for bureaucratic activity. His great political power was built on his own personal power to live the minor city and state politician’s life and to wait . . . for the moment to strike.

In simpler terms, he was one tough grind.

He began in politics at the bottom—as a worker for the local Democratic club. A few years later he became a precinct captain. For a careful observer this is still the best way to learn about everyday politics. Precinct work is the basis of a city political party, and in a well-functioning organization, precinct captains are the front-line officers of a command chain that leads up to the mayor. This forward line exposure ended for Daley in 1923, when Joe McDonough, the alderman in Daley’s ward, got him a job as city council clerk. The post was a step up and into a place to watch the machinery of city government—the political organization of Mayor Anton Cermak which was an early model for Daley’s own. Then in 1930, when McDonough became county treasurer, Daley moved with him as secretary.



All these experiences of apprenticeship proved useful in the gathering and maintenance of power—except one, the experience of personal graft. Responsible commentators agree that Daley did not touch it himself, and Kennedy adds that Daley was personally revolted by the corruption he knew perfectly well others engaged in. He clung to what he had been taught to honor, embracing family life on the South Side as a refuge against the Loop’s “smoking pits of lust and greed.”

Six more years of this service, and fortune smiled. The old state representative for Daley’s distfict died two weeks before election day. Daley drummed up a write-in campaign and got himself elected. Before leaving for Springfield, he was also made chief deputy controller of Cook County, a post he executed alongside his legislative one in the state capital. This was an excellent chance to continue learning about city patronage, a chance to see exactly who was on the payroll and why. As Kennedy says, it was “like being let loose in the War Room of General Headquarters.” Another local politician died soon after, and Daley quickly took his place as state senator. He remained in Springfield ten years, all told, and earned a reputation as a capable, if not exceptional, legislator.

Gradually, the long climb up the Democratic organization’s rungs began to quicken. Governor Adlai Stevenson chose Daley as revenue director in his new administration. Two years later, the Cook County clerk died and Daley was appointed to serve out his term. He went on to win the office, emerging powerfully against the tide of defeat which swept over local Democrats when a Senate committee on organized crime held its hearings in Chicago. Another stroke of luck—his rival for chairman of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee perished in a car accident—and Daley became head of the party in Chicago.

At this point there was no more dutiful waiting for vacancies. Mayor Martin Kennelly appeared briefly in front of Daley’s slate-making committee and was left hanging in the wind for several days while union leaders lanced his record. The plans for dealing with Kennelly showed Daley’s characteristic meticulousness, and they succeeded—Daley received the party’s endorsement. Though Kennelly fought back, Daley beat him by 100,000 votes, 99,000 of which were cast in wards directly controlled by the organization. The rest of the story is already well-documented. Daley won election six times. He presided over a period of unequaled growth in the city’s history as well as some pretty grim times.



In the end, however, what one thinks of Daley rests on what one thinks of the way he ran the city. He kept it running, as Chicagoans do not tire of observing, and this is nothing small, as New Yorkers now attest. Kennedy says that when in New York, Daley would state, “I get the feelin’ that nobody’s in charge here.” Daley was very much in charge in Chicago. But the power he wielded was orderly and rooted in an institution—the Democratic party. It existed before Daley and has continued after him. It was not the personal fabrication of a despot, as many have tried to suggest.

Kennedy’s book demonstrates this, and it also demonstrates the virtues of that organization as they were reflected in the virtues of the man who did so well by it. Everything it demanded, he supplied: loyalty, patience, attention to the tedious details. What separated Daley from the rest was his ability to use the power which the institution generated and ultimately delivered up as a reward to its most diligent wooer. The system he inherited gave him the patronage and favors needed to get votes. He, in turn, was a master at distributing these gifts so that the city’s many ethnic groups were, if not happy, then quiet.



The manipulator of a patronage system has the advantage of being able to fire those he has hired. Thus, people jump when they are called and what needs doing can be done swiftly. Daley understood, as Kennedy says, “that voters were more concerned about street lights, street repair, and garbage collection than they were about politicians who discussed issues that were not of such immediate interest to them.” Indirectly, that is what Daley’s apprenticeship taught him. Ideological issues divide; they were shunned by Daley the way a smart child avoids a hot stove. His training aimed at one object—an understanding of the patronage system in Cook County—and when he came to power, he concentrated on the things which could be done with that instrument, from repairing streets to keeping Chicago relatively calm and its business healthy. That was his virtue and the virtue of the system he flourished in. It is not a grand vision, but American cities do not need a grand vision. What they need is to work.

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