Friday, August 19, 2016

Mayor Daley's book

      My colleague Mike Sneed reports that former Mayor Richard M. Daley is interested in writing a book about "running an American city." 
      My immediate thought was, "didn't he leave off the 'into the ground' part?" Running an American city into the ground?
      The next thought was identical to the one I had five years ago when Daley previously mentioned writing a book: the man lacks the necessary candor, the self-criticism gear essential to writing a book. 
      A good book, I mean.
      Oh sure, he could no doubt, with help of the ghostwriter he's supposedly fishing around for, manage a clip job recapitulation of his 22 years at the helm of Chicago, something along the lines of First Son,  by Keith Koeneman.  At the risk of being unkind to a fellow University of Chicago Press author, let's just say that those of us who soldiered through the 2013 biography were left with the conviction that Robert Caro's triology on Lyndon Johnson was not in risk of being nudged off the summit of the biographer's art. 
     The fault is not the author's. Daley is so oblique—trying to understand him, one Chicago wag once quipped, is like trying to peel a ball bearing with your thumbnail—that there is the whisper of a chance he could surprise us. That the book will be titled, How I Ruined Chicago and detail, with charts, how the scion of America's biggest boss swept into office in a blaze of tradition and self-regard and created a financial time bomb, by lack of planning and greasing his army of allies, that is now hollowing out the city so it becomes a fragile pension program that also fights fires.
    That is possible.
    But I severely doubt it. More likely is the outcome of the vast majority of people who intend to write books: nothing. Because writing books is hard. Besides, as my agent would say, "And who is going to buy this book?" Tap any of Daley's former cringing underlings on the shoulder, after they've toweled his spittle off their faces, and ask them: "Do you really want to know what's going inside that man?" I'm not sure they do, or I do, or anybody does. Not that Daley could disgorge it, even the help of a ghostwriter, a team of amanuenses and Sigmund Freud.
    Jane Byrne wrote a surprisingly good book, My Chicago, about growing up in the city and the rise to the only elective office she ever held. But Byrne was a voluble party gal who couldn't shut up, who would phone newspapers randomly, in the bag, late at night just to talk more. She was candid, to the degree of admitting she was often out-to-sea once she got her hands on the levers of power.
    Daley is a stone who admits nothing, who had a hard enough time squeaking out three sentences that made sense at a press conference, with a bank of microphones in front of him.  The idea of a book is tempting, as a way to airily suggest you have something important to say, that you aren't merely gadding around the shoebox's worth of Chicago where you feel comfortable, hoping you don't get indicted. But the reality of a book is hard—take it from a guy who's written eight. That's why most people who would like to write one never do. And a good thing too. 



  1. Tobias Wolff, who IMO is America's greatest living memoirist, once said that the key to writing a good memoir is to take no thought of your own dignity. I can't see Daley, or indeed 99 out of 100 politicians, taking that advice.

    (That said, I intend to buy and read Obama's presidential memoir the moment it becomes available. That man must be bursting to strike back at all the people who insulted, obstructed, and generally made his presidency several times more difficult than it had to be. Can't wait.)

    Bitter Scribe

    1. Agree about Obama's book, can't wait!

  2. I am reading a superb autobiography right now that relates to politics in our town: David Axelrod's "Believer." One of the most appealing things about it is how honest he is about the mistakes he's made along his very successful way. It's made me admire this man I had already admired tremendously even more.

  3. I don't know that Obama is the person who would be harsh about his critics. I don't know that he would even be very self critical.

    1. Sanford: You might be surprised.

      What comes to (my) mind is the memoir of Gen. Omar Bradley. He remained, by all accounts, a nice guy while having to deal with Patton, Montgomery, MacArthur--IOW, some of the most insufferable egomaniacs ever to put on military uniforms. I wondered how he did it.

      Well, boy howdy, did he ever let loose in that memoir. Just unloaded on all those guys. I have the distinct feeling that, once Obama is out of office and the last inhibition is cast off, he's going to do the same.

      Bitter Scribe