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Sweet Dealings, Chicago Style : FIRE ON THE PRAIRIE; Chicago's Harold Washington and the Politics of Race, By Gary Rivlin (Henry Holt: $22.50; 662 pp.) : MY CHICAGO, By Jane Byrne (W.W. Norton: $22.95; 375 pp.)

March 01, 1992|Ward Just | Just, who lives in Paris, grew up in Chicago. His latest novel is "The Translator" (Houghton Mifflin)

The burly shadow of Richard J. Daley hangs over these two books, a presence as mocking, potent, threatening and mysterious as Franco's shadow over Spain. There was about both men a stillness and implacability, and a sense of something always held in reserve; but while both men held absolute authority in their domains, Franco had no hesitation about using his, and Daley did. It would be bad for business to close down the newspapers or send dissidents off to Joliet in chains, and the point about the Machine was that it was inclusive; anyone could join. There were dues to be paid and aldermen and committeemen to be voted for and a kickback from time to time, and a necessity that you keep your expectations in check. But--if you're with us, we're with you. And if you're not--tough luck, baby.

What was good for Chicago was good for the Machine, and vice versa; that was the line, and there is some truth to it. It is impossible to understand Chicago then or now without understanding the Machine and that means understanding Da Mare, Daley; and no one seems to, though Mike Royko came as close as anyone in "Boss." There are anecdotes and the usual folklore--can it be true that he had a hundred relatives on the city payroll?--but they all seem to tail off into sentimental ironies and incomplete paradoxes. How did he do it for all those years? At the height of his power the Protestant Republican business community admired Daley no less than the authorities at the Archdiocese or the sleaziest ward heeler; at some of the better think tanks they studied him as though he were Socrates.

Daley's publicists were quick to call Chicago "the city that works," and for a time it seemed to. Tough town, hard and dry and humorous as opposed, say, to Washington, D.C.'s soft and wet and dour. There were a few goo-goo liberals but they were safely aloft on the near North Side and Hyde Park-Kenwood, and every now and then the Machine would throw them a bone and let them run someone like the Adlai Stevensons. And the Machine was happy to do it! Why not? They were loyal, mostly; and liberals always contributed money. The Adlais, pere et fils , were a little hard to figure out sometimes. They didn't seem to want it the way politicians are supposed to want it, the way you want it if you're an Irishman from back of the yards. Everyone knows they think differently in Libertyville but--those civics courses at Princeton must really've been sum'thun. Probably they had never studied the monologues of Ed Kelly, one of Daley's most distinguished predecessors and a seminal municipal philosopher. Ed Kelly said that in Chicago foxes and wolves dined very well, but lambs ended up head down on the hook.

It did work. The city worked and the Machine worked, yet by the evidence of Jane Byrne's memoir and Gary Rivlin's history the city government was little better than a giant racket (according to Rivlin virtually every one of the city's 40,000 employees was connected to one local ward organization or another, and while that is not prima facie evidence of corruption it is not entirely consoling either), the sort of great good place similar to the sour definition of the Ford Foundation--a large body of money surrounded by people who want some. By the evidence of these books, it is astonishing that the garbage got collected and the fires fought and the street lights lit. But they did, more or less.

Of course in any great civic enterprise there are those who do not fit in. Perhaps they do not have talented or cloutful spokesmen; these folks are often neglected. They belong to the wrong parish or have an indolent alderman, or an alderman who sees himself as servant, not master, of the Machine that selected him. So over the years the blacks were kept in line by Congressman William Dawson and his cronies; Dawson & Company had jobs and favors, and while those jobs were rarely at a supervisory level--well, it was work that paid. And then came 1968 and the disastrous convention that fatally damaged Daley's authority; things commenced to sip out of control. The coincident rise of black nationalism was threatening to the white and black establishments alike; and then ordinary blacks began to understand just how far down they were, relative to whites. When Daley died of a stroke in 1976 the Machine was like the tribe that lost its head, though not its rapacity. And very soon everyone in Chicago understood that here were two cities, one white, one black, and that the black part was angrier than anyone imagined.

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