Time really shoots by. When I saw Ald. Ed Burke in the news Wednesday, talking trash about Jews into a federal wiretap, I first looked on the blog for this column, figuring I wrote it during the last seven years. Nope, 2011, setting the stage for Rahm Emanuel's first run as mayor.
I remember feeling a little guilty at the time, disinterring this 35-year-old quote and waving it under the nose of my old pal Ed. So it's a little bit of a relief to find his feelings toward my people continue unchanged. For those who missed Burke's recent remark, courtesy of the Justice Department:"You know as well as I do, Jews are Jews and they'll deal with Jews to the exclusion of everybody else, unless ... unless there's a reason for them to use a Christian."
I think I'll give it the full analysis in my column Friday. Until then, we chatted about his assessment of Jews and politics in 2011:
|"Who is to blame for the war!"|
Granted, Burke said that a long time ago—in 1976, three days before Richard J. Daley died. Then Burke was a 32-year-old "young Turk" on the City Council. Now he is its elder lion, king of the Finance Committee and, with Rahm Emanuel in a position to possibly be elected Chicago's first Jewish mayor Tuesday, and his faith in the headlines—I didn't want to be the guy to broach the subject—I wondered whether Burke, who is backing Gery Chico, cared to revisit his remarks.
"Times have changed a lot," Burke said Friday. "I was talking about politics in general. I was not advocating that position, I was making an observation."
Burke pointed out that, in the same interview (with Milton Rakove—you can read the whole thing in his excellent oral history We Don't Want Nobody Nobody Sent), he also talked about bias in the electorate against Catholics.
"There was only one Catholic elected governor of Illinois," he said to me. "In 1911."
There is no question voters don't take the same chauvinistic view of candidates as they once did; John F. Kennedy's Catholicism was a huge issue in 1960, by 2004, few people even knew that John Kerry had studied to be a priest. Emanuel's faith was hardly mentioned until a union leader called him a "Judas" and Mayor Daley condemned it as an anti-Semitic slur. What caused times to change?
"I think people are more educated," said Burke. "You'll find that, as children get educated, they help break down stereotypes that parents carried with them. A lot of people grew up in the Depression, and people who held those stereotypes are no longer alive."
Not to say that prejudice has been banished—not judging by my e-mail. There will always be bigots, but a) they become more circumspect, using whatever codes can still be trotted out in public (hence Emanuel is an "outsider" and Barack Obama "born in Kenya"); b) there are fewer of them, relatively.
Just as knee-jerk, ethnic-based rejection has ebbed, so has its flip side, automatic support. Though not everybody has gotten the memo. The effort to find a "consensus candidate" in the black community, for instance, was based on a false assumption—that African Americans would line up behind whichever African American they picked, even Carol Moseley Braun. Unless something very unexpected happens Tuesday, Braun will be remembered for trying to take a streetcar to City Hall long after streetcars vanished and the tracks were torn up.
Past ethnic dynamics can also linger in ways that aren't quite bigotry. Just as there are bigots opposed to anyone Jewish (or black, or Catholic) I'm sure many Jews feel a frisson of ethnic pride at just the thought of a fellow Jew being mayor of Chicago.
|"The scourge of humanity."|
I've said it before, but I still think that either Emanuel or Chico, both being savvy, smart rich guys who gigged the system for their own pecuniary behalf, would have no trouble running the city, and each would offer personal advantages. Emanuel has that rock-star-driven ferret of ambition thing going; that would be fun to watch—from a distance, as the moment the mayor's office door clicks behind him he'll run a ship sealed so tight that it'll make the closed granite fortress of the Daley administration seem like one of those loosey-goosy communes twirling around a VW bus at a Grateful Dead concert.
As for Chico —well, no need for me to cite his benefits when I have Ed Burke on the line. I asked him why he is supporting Chico.
"It's pretty hard for me to turn my back on somebody who has been with me for 35 years," Burke said. "He worked for me while going to law school. I recommended him for his first job as a lawyer. I've known his whole family going back to his parents, his uncles, all Back-of-the-Yards people. They were supporters of my father."
I complimented Burke on his over-the-decades loyalty to Chico, particularly given the fact that Emanuel is so strongly favored to win—and has said Burke may lose his police detail and chairmanship of the City Council Finance Committee.
Was it smart politics, I asked the alderman, to ignore this hard reality for what is basically a sentimental consideration?
"We'll talk again, Neil," he said, hanging up.
—Originally published Feb. 21, 2011