Tuesday, July 18, 2006
Mayor Daley as Willie Stark?
“We don’t want nobody nobody sent.”
For those of you who don’t live in Chicago, that’s the take-away sound bite from the recent trial of Mayor Daley’s patronage chief. Among other things, Robert Sorich and three of his associates were found guilty of rigging tests and staging interviews so that city jobs went to political workers loyal to Daley…aka “the guys somebody sent.”
Hi. Libby here, and I am shocked, shocked to find this kind of thing going on in Chicago. Except this time, it doesn’t feel just like business as usual. This time, I sense a darker undercurrent to the story.
For one thing, the usually tight-lipped Feds have made it clear they’re not finished. They’ve said that they intend to pursue higher-ups in the Daley camp. Maybe their public resolve comes from the recent rash of guilty verdicts against white collar VIPS, including former Illinois governor George Ryan. Or maybe it’s because the crimes were such a brazen attempt to scuttle the Shackman decree, passed in 1983 specifically to ban patronage hiring. Or maybe it’s because the mayor keeps insisting there is no “machine” in Chicago.
Or maybe… just maybe… what they’re going after is the systemic corruption that seems to seep into so many governments over time.... the kind of corruption that makes officials think they’re above the law... that leads them to perpetuate their own power instead of serving the people.
All of which reminds me of one of my favorite characters from one of my favorite novels -- Willie Stark from All the King’s Men. A thinly disguised portrayal of Louisiana’s governor Huey Long, the novel follows Willie as an earnest, populist candidate when he first seeks office, full of ideals and ambitious plans for his constituents. After he is elected and gains power, though, he makes back-room deals, betrays his friends, creates enemies, and ends up a powerful but thoroughly corrupt demagogue.
Okay, I admit, a comparison of Daley to Willie Stark is, by no means, perfect. For one thing, Richard Daley doesn’t have the Machievellian personality that Willie Stark had, and I do believe Daley wants to do what’s best for the city. For another, Willie Stark came to a violent end, something I hope never happens to the Mayor. Willie Stark served a largely rural, dirt-poor Southern constituency, while Chicago is uber-urban with a relatively prosperous economy. And Willie Stark was a charismatic silver tongued orator, while the mayor – well...
At the same time, there are similarities. Both men lost an election before they won. Both ran as a “man of the people.” After winning, both men consolidated their power base into an organization that brooks little opposition. But the biggest overlap between them emerges from a theme that’s threaded through All the King’s Men. We’re asked whether Willie’s corruption can be mitigated – at least in part -- because of the good he’s done. Can good come from evil, or perhaps more accurately, can it co-exist with corruption?
If the answer is yes, then we should we give the Daley administration a pass. The Tribune touts his beautification projects, his school reforms, dismantling the CHA high rises, reducing the homicide rate, and improving Chicago’s infrastructure. These are all good things. To that list I’d add Millennium Park, plus his plans for the lakefront. Clearly, Chicago is prettier, safer, and more accessible than it was before he took office.
But if the answer is no, then perhaps the Feds have the right idea. Even though the crimes were committed by men who worked for Daley, not the mayor himself, the way those officials – methodically and cynically -- circumvented the law is troubling. It isn’t the attitude I want in my public officials. I’d tolerate a slightly “messier” city if I thought that jobs (and contracts, although that’s a different story) were being filled fairly, and that every point of view, including the opposition, was heard.
Is corruption inevitable in every power structure over time? I don’t know. But maybe the Daley administration should reread All the King’s Men. Hell, maybe we all should. (And then see the new film in the fall). We could learn a lot about politics, governing, and the public trust. After all, isn’t it up to us to ask “What good? For how many? At what cost?”
What do you think?