by Michael Dymmoch
Shakespeare’s tragedies featured great historical figures with tragic flaws. Macbeth, Othello, and Lear were all great men—at least by definition—with major flaws that brought them down. I’m not an historian, but LBJ seems to have been a similar figure in more recent times. Revisionists are already writing flattering tomes about the Great Society and the path that brought Johnson to the White House, tomes that bemoan Johnson’s involvement in Vietnam as the evil that men do. Richard J. Daley, Chicago mayor for 21 years and—according to some—“the last of the big city bosses,” was probably another. The first mayor Daley never murdered anyone, so he’ll probably never be the subject of a dramatic tragedy, but he was the subject of a number of great books including Mike Royko’s Boss and Len O’Connor’s Clout.
The current Mayor Daley will certainly be the subject of some interesting books. Mike Flannery recently did a ride-along with the Mayor during which Flannery snatched the Mayor’s infamous notebook, the one in which he writes notes to himself about problems he observes while riding around the city. Staff members are said to be in terror of that notebook because apparently the Mayor follows up. Daley is a favorite of other journalists—he can always be counted on for memorable footage for the local news. I think he also qualifies in the category of a great man with a tragic flaw.
I don’t recall anyone ever impugning Richard M. Daley’s integrity. He seems to be a man who loves his family and his job. There’s no question that he’s done great things for Chicago. And he's managed the city while dealing with numerous unions and powerful interest groups, developers and the Catholic church.
The Mayor may have appointed Matt Rodriguez Superintendent of Police to please Hispanic voters, he initiated the Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) to involve citizens in policing their own neighborhoods. Subsequent Superintendents appointed by the Mayor, Terry G. Hillard and Philip J. Cline, have been able men, good leaders, well liked by the rank and file, and respected by the public. Under Cline’s administration, the city’s murder rate declined despite reduced numbers in the CPD. (I personally observed Superintendent Cline in uniform, on the police lines at anti-war and immigration demonstrations.) The current Superintendent, Jody Weis, has been more controversial because of the clash between the existing Chicago police culture and Weis’s FBI training/experience, but there’s no question the Mayor had the best interests of the city in mind when he made the appointment.
He also appointed able men to run the Chicago Public Schools. Paul Vallas and Arne Duncan have gone on to national positions. The current CPS CEO, Ron Huberman started as a CPD patrol officer and worked his way up to Assistant Deputy Superintendent before moving on to the run the Office of Emergency Management and Communications. He’s subsequently worked as Mayor Daley’s Chief of Staff and Chairman of the CTA.
Mayor Daley is a brilliant administrator but he has a tragic flaw. Apparently he cannot be wrong. He seems constitutionally unable to say the words “I was wrong. I’m sorry.” His take-over of Meigs Field, his single-minded pursuit of the Olympics, and his recent leasing of the city’s parking concession (for 75 years!) are examples of mistakes he's made, but the best he can offer by way of apology is “mistakes were made.”
Our Mayor has promoted literacy, the Chicago Public Library and the library’s One Book, One Chicago Program. He’s greened up the city with an ambitious street-tree planting program, even closed—some would say destroyed—an airport to create open space on the lakefront. Almost every time he appears on TV, he promotes Chicago as a world class city. And he seems completely sincere.
Mayor Daley is not flawless, but he’s pretty damn good.