I'm on vacation this week, working on the book and staining a wooden storm door, a more complicated process than it sounds (one coat of conditioner, two of stain, and three of marine spar varnish. Quite a lot, really). So no column in the paper today to reprint here. But Facebook dangled this column from 2011 at me, and I found that, after nearly a decade, it's a good reminder that Donald Trump isn't the first politician to milk his office for personal gain. He's just much more inept at it. See how a recent master did it, and how in the hazy past at least one politician managed to avoid graft.
After the media-led history lesson that accompanied Richard M. Daley's final days in office last May, perhaps a few Chicagoans learned that Daley and his father, Richard J. Daley, were not the city's first father-and-son mayoral team.
|Carter Harrison I|
But here the similarity ends, in many regards—for instance, the two Harrisons were deemed "lovable" by historians—one charge never leveled against either Daley, and while they ran a wide open town of bordellos and low dives, both were considered to be personally honest.
The son, who was "handsome as a matinee idol" to quote one historian, printed re-election campaign posters of himself with his hands jammed in his pockets and the headline "Chicago is fortunate in having a mayor who keeps his hands in his own pockets." Was our former mayor, despite his considerable moxie, ever bold enough to make that election claim?
"This was no empty boast," wrote historian Edward Wagenknecht. "[Harrison] was so scrupulous that when his wife came into his office one day and asked him for stamps for three letters, he told her that if she really wanted him to steal from the city, there was no point in stopping with six cents, for he could get a million dollars just as easily."
|Carter Harrison II|
Harrison knew he was responsible for his wife's actions—even if it involved 6 cents worth of postage. Our recent mayor prefers to assume sputtering outrage or lack of knowledge when the subject comes up, as it did last week due to an inspector general's report involving hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from companies that received city subsidies to a charity founded by Daley's wife, who ran the charity pro bono.
It was a subject that was considered bad form to even mention while Daley was in power and which the ex-mayor seems to still think is beyond all public discussion.
"A personal insult," Daley said Monday, when asked about the inspector general's report. "A disgraceful thing they did."
Then, in typical Daley straw man style, he rebutted a charge that wasn't being made.
"No one," he said, " No one talked to anyone" to force companies receiving city subsidies to donate money to that particular charity.
Well, of course not. That's not how it's done. Daley didn't call the police brass and demand his nephew be let off the hook for allegedly killing a man, or direct sewer business to his son and a nephew. Nobody needed to spell out the chain of reflexive favoritism that goes back to the days when city insurance business would be funneled to the Daley boys.
Do you think Richard J. Daley was on the phone barking commands? Of course not. He didn't have to. Everyone understood. Play along and receive the benefits, or don't and be frozen out. A word to the wise . . .
As much as we like to tell ourselves that we are improving, I like the bald candor of Richard J. Daley better than the denial of his son. When confronted with cronyism, he didn't feign surprise, didn't hide behind the personal dignity of his also admired wife, Sis. He told reporters to kiss his ass. "If a man can't put his arms around his sons, then what's the world coming to?" he said. A world where we're not even allowed to ask, apparently.
'That is what fiction means'
My colleague Mark Brown's thoughtful analysis Tuesday of why Kelsey Grammer's new Chicago-based TV show, "Boss," which debuts Oct. 21, does not resemble actual City Council meetings reminded me of when my wife and I would watch "L.A. Law" together. A litigator at Jenner & Block at the time, she was constantly complaining, "Oh, that would never happen" at some violation of judicial procedure, until I finally said, "Honey, if the show were an hour of you shepardizing legal documents in a windowless room in Minneapolis, nobody would watch it."
City Council meetings are painfully dull stretches of prolix aldermanic speechifying, usually about nothing. Reporters forced to attend these struggle to make them seem relevant by seizing the wildest utterances and giving them a weight they don't deserve, which is why you'd see a headline like, "Mayor: Floating airport in lake?" followed a day later by "No floating airport, says mayor." To make some things exciting, you must resort to fiction.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times, October 16, 2011