11/08/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Harold and Barack: Emotional Wisdom From 1983

In early April 1983, I left work at lunchtime and caught a cab to Wrigley Field. With snowflakes falling, it was perfect Opening Day weather.

That was 25 years ago, but I still recall the burly driver eying me in the rear-view mirror as we idled at a red light on Michigan Avenue. When he finally spoke, it was in a thick accent, which I took to be Eastern European.

"So," he said, "you're going to vote for WASHINGTON?"

Uh-oh, here we go again, I thought. But I had no right to object - I was wearing one of those telltale blue buttons, the ones that told everyone in range that I supported Harold Washington for mayor. Six weeks earlier, Washington had won the Democratic Primary, a stunning upset that had cast a pall over one segment of the city and made another so damn giddy that we cheerily accepted snow in April.

If Washington won the general election the next week, he would become Chicago's first elected black mayor.

It should've been a shoo-in. In Chicago, the winner of the Democratic Primary always wins the general election. The only other Chicago-related bet that could be made with equal confidence was that the Cubs would NOT win the World Series.

But 1983 was a different year. Not for the Cubs--they went 71-91-- but in Chicago politics.

I braced myself for the cab driver's challenge. Would he tell me Washington was gay? Would he question his integrity? Would he bring up some obscure Congressional vote Washington had cast? Or the matter of those unfiled tax returns from years earlier, when Washington was actually owed money? By now, I'd heard every beef. Whatever objection he raised, I knew one thing for certain: It would not be that Washington was black. This was an election in which the normally incurious electorate had taken a sudden interest in "the issues."

He surprised me. "I am going to vote for Washington too," he said.

"Really?" I heard myself say.

"Yah, I don't like that other guy."

"That other guy" was Bernard Epton, a mild-mannered academic who had turned suddenly wild-mannered when he sensed a chance to become the city's first Republican mayor since the year Babe Ruth hit 60 home runs. He had pledged not to let race become an issue and then settled on the campaign slogan "EPTON: BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE."

"No, neither do I," I said.

"Are you German?" he asked.

"Uh ... yeah."

"I thought so," he said, grinning. "I'm German too."

Oh yes, that's right, I almost forgot. Bernie Epton was Jewish.

* * *

The option of Washington or Epton must have presented a terrible dilemma for the traditional Chicago voter, accustomed to having his election-day choice--Machine Democrat--served on a plate like corned beef and cabbage. This year's menu: black Democrat or Republican Jew. Poke in the eye, or poke in the ear?

But for Democratic Party leaders, the choice was clear.

On the Saturday before the election, a pair of off-duty reporters, Diane Abt and Michael Zielenziger, dropped into 47th Ward Committeeman Ed Kelly's office to check the pulse of the North Side Regulars. Legendary Dem powerhouse Ed Vrdolyak had come all the way from the 10th Ward on the Far South Side to inspire Kelly's troops. Fast Eddie's message: "Save your ward! Save your city!"

The Chicago Tribune account of the vote, written by David Axelrod, now the chief media adviser to Barack Obama, said Washington "won just enough backing from white and Hispanic voters Tuesday to turn back Republican Bernard Epton and become the first black mayor of Chicago." But the real difference makers may have been my cab driver and his friends. Washington eked out less than 52 percent of the vote, compared with Byrne's 82 percent four years earlier. Without the support of neo-Nazis, who knows what would have happened?

* * *

In 1983, if you were white, your Washington button was a badge of honor. It was your instant thumbs-up connection with any brother or sister you passed on the street. It could get you faster--or slower--service at any retail outlet. It could attract angry stares, the occasional shout of "nigger-lover" from a broken-down drunk. In the wrong neighborhood, it could get you beat up. In my neighborhood, Lincoln Park, it almost became de rigueur.

I recall a letter to the Reader complaining about the spread of a peculiar kind of white-on-white racial tension along the liberal lakefront. If you weren't wearing a Washington button, the writer whined, it seemed like other people just assumed you were a racist.

Well ... if it bothers you so much that you feel compelled to write a letter to the editor of the alternative weekly about it, you just might be ...

Wearing that button could--and undoubtedly did--start some new friendships and strain some old ones. A friend and co-worker of mine, an apolitical sort, brought a watermelon to the office for us Washington supporters the day after the election. It was a gesture carried out by many a talk-radio listener that day. He had no clue what an insult that might be to the blacks in the office, and they were too gracious to clue him in.

The doorman to my office building was a cheerful older fellow from the Northwest Side with whom I often talked--about the Blackhawks, the weather, his family. Once he saw my button, our chatter chilled, until one day he gave me a good scolding.

"They say we're racists because we're not going to vote for your guy," he said.

"What about THEM? They're voting for the black guy."

"By them, you mean blacks?"

"They're the racists! Think about it. Someday you'll understand."

I was 29 at the time. I didn't have kids. I didn't feel a need to worry about things like property values. Now I'm 55. I have a couple of kids. I am worried about property values. And I do understand.

Like John McCain in his first debate with Obama, after Washington won the primary, that gentleman never looked me in the eye again.

* * *

The 1983 Chicago mayoral election has one obvious similarity to this year's presidential race. With only a few weeks left, there is a real possibility that something which until recently seemed unthinkable will happen: An African-American could be elected president.

For many of us, it's hard to believe that Obama has gotten this far. His victory in Iowa made us guardedly hopeful, but not confident. Just as Richie Daley and Jane Byrne split the white vote in that 1983 primary, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton left just enough space for the skinny kid with the funny name to slide through the first door, a red one, in Iowa.

Twenty-five years later, the racism is less obvious, but the denial of it is just as laughable. How long can "Morning" Joe Scarborough continue to ask why Obama can't "close the deal" with "working class" voters before one of his more enlightened colleagues finally suggests bigger eyeholes in his sheet? Pundits refer to the "Bradley effect" and of late have finally started to acknowledge that some voters may be reluctant to vote for Obama simply because he is black. But will one of them finally call a spade a spade and identify ethnic voters for what they are?

Racist is such a reckless word. Next thing you know, someone will be calling a replacement worker a scab.

The emotional texture of Chicago during the 1983 election is recorded in near perfect pitch in Paul Carr's brilliant new play Busted City at the Prop Theatre. Similar dramatic tension may develop in the final weeks of the current campaign, as McCain adopts the kitchen sink strategy--or is it a tactic--that kept Hillary in the primary campaign to the very bitter end. The strategy that levels the worst possible charge that anyone could make against Obama: He's from ... CHICAGO!

Rezko, Reverend Wright, Daley, Bill Ayers. Sounds like chickens from the 1968 convention coming home to roost.

Here's a twist: This time Chicago is solidly on the side of the black guy. Harold must be grinning in his grave.

The thing that makes things so tense is the collision of seemingly unthinkable propositions. It seemed unthinkable that Harold Washington could win the Democratic primary. But once he did, it seemed unthinkable that he could lose to a Republican, and a Jewish one to boot. Likewise, once Obama won the Democratic primary, it would seem that his election would be assured.

After all, after eight years of George Bush-Dick Cheney rule--Iraq, Katrina, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Afghanistan, bin Laden still at large, a gutted bill of rights, a health-care crisis, a lobbying scandal, four-dollar gas, a mortgage meltdown, economic cataclysm--is it really possible that nearly half the voters would prefer an angry, repressed Republican cancer-scarred cold warrior who doesn't know Shiite from Sunni, dollars from donuts or even how many homes he owns--and doesn't like to use one of those newfangled computer things?

Say it ain't so, America. Joe Six Pack, what could possibly be holding you back?

Not the 40-something backwoods babe collecting frequent flyer miles with her infant as a political prop. You're looking at a four-year commitment here, dude, not a spin on a snowmobile.

Maybe it's the chance to make history. It's not every election that you get to vote for the oldest candidate ever to run for president.

* * *

This is what I learned about 2008 in 1983:

If it can happen in a city where they dye the river green on St. Patrick's Day, it can happen anywhere.

If Obama wins, like the Iraq war, there will be no giddy thrill of victory. Just a huge sigh of relief.

I'd like Obama's chances better if McCain had chosen Lieberman.

The Cubs will not win the World Series.