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.