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?

43 comments:

Kevin Guilfoile said...

All through the Sorich trial I've been thinking about Boss, Mike Royko's great book about Richard J Daley which, in addition to being terrific biography and history, did a better job of explaining how the Chicago machine worked (and to some extent still works) than everything else I've read about it put together. As Royko presciently explained, one of the key instruments of the machine was to have a friendly body in the office of Cook County State's Attorney, as that individual would have the power and jurisdiction to investigate City Hall. In his dual role as mayor and Cook County Democratic Chairman, Daley would rather slate a strong Democratic candidate for State's Attorney and a patsy for the more prestigious office of Attorney General than risk having the office of county prosecutor fall to a Republican.

The introduction of a federal prosecutor has demonstrated just how critical that maneuvering was.

Olden days.

Sean Chercover said...

I agree, BOSS is essestial reading for anyone interested in Chicago politics.

And there's no way this current thing ends at Sorich & Co. A couple of weeks ago, I spoke with someone well-connected to the ongoing investigation. There's more to come, so stay tuned.

Thanks for the great post, Libby.

Anonymous said...

Great post!

D.A. Davenport said...

While Chicago politics, because of it's colorful history, has had more than it's share of headlines, I feel it's no more or less worse than most other administrations. Since I became aware of the political beast (Nixon and his wife's good Republican cloth coat), I can't remember many that have been untouched by corruption or accusations of corruption, with the exception of Jimmy Carter (unless you count in a drunken brother with a large mouth.) Absolute power corrupts absolutely may be a bit of a cliche but cliches become cliches from over use. It's been getting a work-out for eons.

Libby Hellmann said...

Hi, all. I've gotten a few emails from folks who said they tried to leave comments on this post and couldn't. Not sure what's going on, but we'll try to figure it out. Meanwhile, thanks for trying...

Anonymous said...

excellent... keep it going!

Carol said...

We continue to forget that government,which is the product of the people who must deal with it,is first and foremost run by human beings,and I haven't seen any in my eighty some years who always got it right.Somewhere along the way they begin to act like the rest of us which is a great disappointment to us citizens,and if they don,t stay around too long they can get away with it.It's the second,third and fourth terms that bring down the house.Term limits anyone?

Anonymous said...

Libby,

Nice balanced argument. I believe that a few employment indiscretions are a fine trade-off for what da Mayor has done for this city. But, anyone who believes Richard II was unaware of what was going on is a bit naive.

Look forward to reading future entries.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

This will be worth a post of its own at some point but the special prosecutor's report on Jon Burge is out. In the 70s and 80s, Burge was commander at Chicago's Area Two headquarters which was notorious for eliciting confessions from suspects through torture. The report says the torture happened all right but the statute of limitations has expired and none of the cops can be prosecuted.

Much more to say about this as the fallout continues, no doubt.

Sara Paretsky said...

The Reader has been following Burge et al for a number of years, but I'd like to pay tribute here to Dr. Robert Kirschner, who was Cook County's deputy chief medical examiner for many years. It was Dr. Kirschner who first determined that Burge was torturing prisoners (http://humanrights.uchicago.edu/chicagotorture/whatis2.shtml) back in the late 1980's, although his findings were not recognized by the city for over a decade. From his work in Cook County, Dr. Kirschner developed protocols on how to recognize victims of torture, and how to recognize what instruments of torture had been used. He became the most respected doctor in the world in this most difficult arena, performing autopsies in El Salvador, Bosnia, Nigeria, Israel and Palestine. His death in 2003 from cancer was a terrible loss to the world community. We especially miss him in this era of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.

Libby Hellmann said...

It strikes me that the special prosecutor's report is just a little too neat in its good new/bad news thesis... all in the interest of "putting it all behind us," of course. I hope the civil suits persist, if only to remind us of the cruelty we are capable of inflicting on ourselves. Deterrence is one thing... but deliberate malice crosses a different line.

Anonymous said...

No "pass" for the leadership of any administration that rewards political cronies with positions (and then the cronies reward more cronies with contracts), that hires only aides who will keep any opposing ideas deeply buried, that twists the truth, that keeps secrets from the public. Remind you of any administration you know?

N-Edwards said...

Mayor Daley is a complicated figure. He's done wonderful things for the city--transformed the public library, so it's a national leader, made the city a showcase, etc, while he's done business exactly the way George Bush has, appointing cronies to key jobs just because they are cronies. Maybe both men should be investigated by special prosecutors.
I guess I feel uncomfortable when a Republican dominated national government picks on one of the few Democratic-run places in the country. I don't notice them looking at corruption in Phoenix or Houston, for instance, much less Miami.
I'd think a group of mystery writers would want someone like Daley, multi-faceted. Makes a deeper character.

Libby Hellmann said...

Hi, n-edwards. You're absolutely right. Daley is complicated, and he has done wonderful things for the city. I think Sean's post (see Friday's blog) and Kevin's comment about it go to the heart of what we're all grappling with. We don't want to see Republicans "pick on" a Democratic administration that does some things right. And we like Daley,the man.. despite "what he knew and when he knew it" about (pick your favorite scandal).

And yes, the entire Chicago is ripe for crime novelists. In fact, one who has done an excellent job exploring the corruption that may or may not be rife in the police department is right here on this blog... Barb D'Amato's GOOD COP BAD COP should NOT be missed...

In fact I think I'll double post it on today's blog too...

Michael Dymmoch said...

There's an inscription over the front door of the Highland Park city hall: THE SALVATION OF THE COMMUNITY IS THE WATCHFULLNESS OF THE CITIZEN.

When so few citizens turn out to vote (much less call, write, or show up at public hearings), why should anyone be surprised if politicians serve thier own interests?

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