A buddy of mine had Rahm Emanuel’s private cellphone number and dialed it by mistake, which he discovered when the mayor’s voice barked, “I’m with my family!” from his back pocket.
When I heard that story, I did not think, “Poor Mayor Emanuel, interrupted while on the floor playing Monopoly with the kids.” What I thought is that family is the club he pulls out automatically when fending off the prying gaze of the media, the fire ax behind the glass. A trick he learned from Mayor Daley: Put Maggie in a magic garden with unicorns and bristle indignantly whenever anyone looks over the rose hedge and asks, say, about the fat salaries she draws sitting on corporate boards. How dare you! That’s my family!
But family isn’t always of practical use in every occasion, and so other families, particularly other families’ kids, are a surrogate, and the mayor uses them continually as the perfect human shield to duck behind for political cover. Emanuel’s second inauguration speech Monday continued the trend, evoking, to me, Karen Lewis’ classic assessment: “Rahm thinks you’re stupid.” Not me, personally, though I’m sure he does. But people in general. You’d have to consider the intelligence of the city pretty low to, at a moment of true civic financial crisis, look to the clouds and wax poetic about the intractable problems of urban poverty and Our Young.
“I want to use this moment to shine a spotlight on preventing another lost generation of our city’s youth.”
He didn’t address kids who’ll be lost because their schizophrenic parents can’t go to the mental health clinics that the city closed, who suffer living in an economically collapsing city, or the disabled kids who’ve had their support kicked out from under them by his buddy Bruce Rauner in the name of making Illinois a more hospitable place to run businesses.
Rather, he told us that every child holds “the spark of the divine.”
Well thanks for the big reveal, Mr. Mayor, because some weekends it seems like they’re the cast of a zombie shooter video game.
Like “the most American of American cities” line he keeps repeating, Emanuel said a lot that sounds good but falls apart upon examination. “They may have been born in poverty, but poverty was not born in them.” Nice chiasmus, your Honor, but what does that even mean?
I half expected Rahm to trot out a kindergarten class, right there on stage at the Chicago Theatre, and start reading them “Hop on Pop.” Delivered by another politician, the inauguration speech would be an unobjectionable effort. But coming from our mayor it is the zenith of cynicism, his standard schtick, children being the shiny watch he hopes to dangle in front of the electorate and the media hoping to mesmerize them.
This time it was an epic fail. The front-page stories in both Chicago dailies presented schizophrenic coverage of the inauguration, alternating between the mayor’s empty city-on-a-hill bromides and the looming economic disaster that he barely mentioned.
Inaugurations are superfluous. The law doesn’t require the mayor to be sworn in. His new term would have begun anyway at noon, with or without the Festiva del Rahm. Compare his one-size-fits-all speech to how powerful it would have been had he said, “You know, we’re in a crisis, so rather than throw myself another bar mitzvah party, I’m asking that the money go to fund an after-school program in Roseland.” That would have been something to applaud.
Instead, we got endangered kids and how “we must make them ever present in our conversation.”
Oh, we’re going to talk poverty away. Who knew it was that easy? Was there a specific thing in there that the mayor said he’d actually do? Good programs we’re already doing, and the importance of parenting and mentoring. The usual suspects.
The speech left me with this question: If talking about disadvantaged youth puts them on the road to solving their problems, in the mayor’s mind if not in hard actuality, then what does not talking about a problem, say the city’s finances, mean? That we’re nowhere? Exactly. Which is why the mayor isn’t talking about it. Maybe it’s about time he does. Put down “Hop on Pop.” Pick up Crain’s. And start talking about the elephant that is not just in the room but in the room standing on the city’s neck.