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Keith Koeneman

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Royko Is Still the Boss

Posted: 02/22/2012 3:21 pm

Paperwork is piled high on my desk, and so I am just now getting around to reviewing Boss by Mike Royko. Published in 1971, Boss tells the stories of Dick Daley, his democratic political machine and the City of Chicago during the 1950s and tumultuous 1960s.

In many ways, the slim book has the qualities of a perfect photograph, capturing the unique essence of a person at a particular -- and fleeting -- moment in time. Chicago in the 1950s was a world of strong communities built upon largely unquestioned authority. People tended to stay in the same neighborhoods, same jobs and same homes for most of their adult life. Parents, priests, bosses, elected officials and principals made decisions, the vast majority of which were never challenged. Religion and political party were a constant. Children became whatever their parents were before them. For most, this meant Catholic and Democrat. The permanence of this world was like a two-sided coin. On one side, simplicity, lasting relationships and strong communities. On the other side, inflexible hierarchy and a world of limited choices.

Dick Daley thrived in this world. By the start of the 1950s, Daley was the boss of Bridgeport, controlling as many as 2,000 political patronage jobs. Five years later, he became mayor of Chicago. Once Dick Daley held power in his hands, he did not hesitate to use it. Through personal savvy, hard-won expertise and force of will, he exerted his dominance over a city of more than three million people. He fine-tuned the local democratic party, and under his leadership it became the powerful Chicago machine. Daley's machine.

Rokyo then shifts his writer's lens, and much of Boss portrays Daley during the late 1960s, a time when America's culture wars would be fought on the streets of Chicago. In 1968, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, even as the Vietnam War continued. More than 200 major demonstrations occurred on college campuses across the U.S. Race riots occurred in large cities. More than 10,000 protestors came to Chicago to protest the 1968 Democratic National Convention. For many, Mayor Daley -- a 66-year-old, big-city political boss -- embodied the establishment views that they had come to confront.

The times had moved beyond Dick Daley. Society had changed, and he had failed to keep up. For the rest of his career, therefore, Daley would not only shed the New Deal liberalism of his youth, but also his midlife political moderation. He would become much more of a reactionary, especially on the issue of race. His last two terms in office lacked the accomplishments of his first two.

On the day of Mayor Daley's death in 1976, Rokyo wrote this of the man: "If a man ever reflected a city, it was Richard J. Daley of Chicago. In some ways he was this town at its best -- strong, hard-driving, working feverishly, pushing, building, driven by ambitions so big they seemed Texas-boastful... Daley was a product of the neighborhoods and he reflected it in many good ways -- loyalty to the family, neighbors, old buddies, the corner grocer... But there are other sides to Chicago neighborhoods -- suspicion of outsiders, intolerance toward the unconventional, bigotry and bullying. That was Daley, too. As he proved over and over again, he didn't trust outsiders, whether they were long-hairs against the war, black preachers against segregation, reformers against his Machine, or community groups against his policies. This was his neighborhood-ward-city-county, and nobody would come in and make noise."

So what are the strengths and weaknesses of Boss as book? On the positive side, Royko knows how to write a beautiful sentence. He also knows Chicago, and captures Daley and the city at a key juncture in American urban history. Moreover, Rokyo is an honest writer, which gives his words an emotional power, a resonance that lingers somewhere deep in the reader. On the flip side, Rokyo may have been too close to his subject -- too deeply and emotionally engaged -- to place Daley in a broader historical perspective. He sometimes fails to pull back his lens and give the reader a wide-angle shot of the man's talents and the challenges he faced as mayor of a large city during a very difficult time in history.

But the bottom line is that Boss is a classic, one of the great books of American literature. If you have never read it, I recommend it to you. If years have passed since you immersed yourself in Rokyo's Chicago, it would be well worth your time to once again read the slim volume. Chicago is a much changed city since Boss was written, but Rokyo's words still carry insights into our city and politics. After four decades, Mike Royko is still the boss.

 

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