01/08/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Obama and "The Chicago Way"

The political capital of the world is now Chicago, an agreeably invigorating prospect. The most consistent thing about Chicago, infusing its politics, architecture, literature, even its journalism, is self-confidence. The place is big enough to feel provincial about itself. It is so attractive, so diverse, and so influential that it has no time for passing anxieties. On the coasts, most cities inhabit a shadow world of inferiority complexes. L.A. really does care about what N.Y. thinks; D.C. feels ditto about both. Not the behemoth along Lake Michigan.

Toughness is part of it. Rahm Emanuel does not resemble Sean Connery, but something about him evokes the Mephistophelean power of Connery's Oscar-winning performance as Jimmy Malone, advising Kevin Costner's Eliot Ness in The Untouchables: "You want to know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That's the Chicago way! And that's how you get Capone. Now do you want to do that?" Compare the literary tradition of Chicago to the self-absorbed Holden Caulfield caucus that beguiles the coasts. Adolescent angst is rarely focus of Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Willa Cather, Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, James T. Farrell or Saul Bellow.

Carl Sandburg in 1916 called Chicago the "stormy, husky, brawling city of the big shoulders." In architecture, H.H. Richardson, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies van der Rohe established a tradition that continues: elegant, muscular and confident.

Chicago still has two newspapers, which compete, economics be damned. Don't ever try to steal a story from Lynn Sweet of the Sun-Times. In the Tribune, John Kass continues the tradition of Chicago skepticism that stretches from Finley Peter Dunne to Mike Royko. Less than starry-eyed about Barack Obama, Kass has identified the obsession of parochial pols; who will be Secretary of Asphalt?

The Daley dynasty, now in its fourth decade, is more durable than that of the Adamses, Roosevelts, Kennedys and Clintons. The Daley way is the Chicago way, which means try everything until it works and pay little heed to second-guessers. As Mayor Richard J. Daley said often in Chicagoese of his critics in the '50s ,'60s and '70s, "What's dere program?" Fellow mayors admire and imitate the current Mayor Daley, who is "greening" the city and even getting rid of patronage. He is now intent on privatizing parking meters.

In Daley country, the South Side neighborhood of Bridgeport, "Mr. Dooley," Dunne's creation, was a one-man Comedy Central 100 years ago, roasting politicians of both parties. Dooley spoke in a thick Irish brogue from the bogs of Roscommon County. His satire was acceptable, even welcomed, by titans like Theodore Roosevelt.

Finley Peter Dunne would have had no trouble poking fun at Barack Obama, who uses the word "reform" more often than Chicagoans usually do. As Dooley said, "A man that would expect to train lobsters to fly in a year is called a lunatic; but a man that thinks men can be turned into angels by an election is a reformer and remains at large."

The skeptical Chicago tradition was strong in the City News Bureau, which, before its recent demise, helped train Sy Hersh and Kurt Vonnegut, among others. Its boss, A. A. Dornfeld, is in the pantheon of plainspoken Chicago reporters: Ed Lahey, Peter Lisagor, and of course, Studs Terkel.

The D.C.-based press corps would profit from a pilgrimage to 54 West Hubbard Street, former site of the Cook County Criminal Courts. The press room therein was the setting for The Front Page the 1928 play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Made into a movie in 1931, it has been remade often, most successfully as His Girl Friday in 1940. Directed by Howard Hawks, starring Rosalind Russell, Cary Grant and splendid character actors portraying reporters from eight Chicago newspapers, it is a classic. David Thomson, the film critic and historian in his new work, Have You Seen...? sums up the movie thusly: "Bliss."

The city has seen much political history in its 25 nominating conventions. Chicago was an important stop for Abraham Lincoln, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Dwight Eisenhower. In 1920, Warren G. Harding was chosen in the original "smoke-filled room" in the Blackstone Hotel. In 1968, I stayed at the Blackstone, inhaling fumes of tear gas smothering Grant Park and Michigan Avenue during the Democratic National Convention.

How does Barack Obama fit into political Chicago? I found out at another convention, Boston's in 2004. Before his keynote speech, Obama spoke at a Harvard Faculty Club reception honoring Steve Neal of the Sun-Times, who finished his last book, then was dead the next day at 54. I was glad to see familiar figures from the tough, unsentimental world of Chicago politics. As Obama spoke, I watched them melt in admiration and kinship. The young senatorial candidate spoke not as a world statesman but as a Chicago politician, which, he suggested with wit and clarity, was not a bad thing to be. Steve Neal's last book was emphatically Chicagoan: Happy Days Are Here Again: The 1932 Democratic Convention, the Emergence of FDR -- and How America Was Changed Forever.