Classic Royko: Mayor Richard J. Daley dissected

SHARE Classic Royko: Mayor Richard J. Daley dissected

Mayor Richard J. Daley, waving, leads the Chicago contingent at Democrat Day at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield, August 14, 1969. File Photo. | United Press International Wirephoto.

Editor’s note: Richard J. Daley was mayor of Chicago from 1955 to 1976. Before Mike Royko wrote his classic book about Daley, “Boss”, he wrote columns such as this one — in the week of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago — about the mayor.

Chicago is crawling with visiting writers all asking the same questions: What is Mayor Daley really like? Who is this chubby-cheeked man in City Hall who munches cookies with LBJ and is courted by Bobby? And whom will he support for the nomination?

It is a strain for local newsmen, being interviewed by visiting writers, especially the scholarly ones. They always ask if the mayor has charisma. In the mayor’s neighborhood, they could get punched for talking dirty.


To assist visitors, I have prepared a primer on the mayor. Most of it isn’t new to Chicagoans, but it might help others appreciate our most famous citizen.

It is needed because some visitors get confused by the many popular versions of what Mayor Daley is really like.

There is the Mayor Daley his most ardent admirers describe.

This mayor, legend has it, first appeared during the Chicago Fire of 1871. He doused the fire with one hand and milked Mrs. O’Leary’s cow with the other. Before the ashes cooled, he hired Frank Lloyd Wright to redesign the city, dug Lake Michigan to cool it, organized the White Sox and set aside land for two airports in case airplanes were ever invented.

More restrained admirers say he is simply the greatest mayor Chicago ever had, which is like singling out the best player the New York Mets ever had.

The best way to view Mayor Daley is in pieces. At least that’s what Republicans say.

His Early Years. The key to Daley’s success is the fact he was born in a magical old neighborhood called Bridgeport. It has produced Chicago’s last three mayors, their rule spanning 37 years. All this political clout means nearly every family has got somebody on a government payroll. In the East, some families register a newborn son at Harvard or Yale. In Bridgeport, they sign him on with city water department.

The mayor’s father was a sheet metal worker. As a kid Daley worked in the stockyards. This convinced him there are better things than work, so he got into politics.

He showed talent. He did what he was told, never got caught associating with newspapermen, reformers or other low types, never squealed on anybody, wore fat-Max ties, baggy suits and broad-brimmed hats just like his peers and went to church on Sunday.

His only flaws were that he didn’t smoke cigars or wear diamond rings, but the party overlooked this because he had been to college. During the late 1930s and early ’40s, he served in the Legislature and came out clean, which hasn’t happened too often. In the late ’40s, he ran for sheriff and lost. He didn’t like the way that felt and it hasn’t happened since.

Rise to Power: In 1955, the Democrats had a serious problem. The mayor was Martin Kennelly, a businessman and a reformer. The Democrats had put him in because there had been so much scandal they had needed a reform candidate to beat off the Republicans.

But Kennelly betrayed the Democrats by actually trying to reform things. Outraged, they dumped him for Daley, who was then the county clerk. He wasn’t well known to the public, but he had power in party circles. Kennelly bravely fought Daley in the primary, but he was exposed as a reformer and the voters kicked him out.

As Mayor: Daley likes to build big things. He likes highrises, expressways, parking garages, municipal buildings and anything else that requires a ribbon-cutting ceremony and can be financed through federal funds.

He isn’t that enthusiastic about small things, such as people. Daley does not like civil rights demonstrators, rebellious community organizations, critics of the mediocre school system, critics of any kind or people who argue with him.

Daley the Public Figure: Until he became mayor, Daley was known as a quiet, behind-the-scenes politician. When he started making speeches, it was clear why he had been quiet. He has since developed two much-improved styles of oratory: a controlled mumble for TV an an excited gabble for political rallies.

He has simple tastes. Nobody catches him chatting about literature, music or French cooking. He likes White Sox games, fishing and parades. He has led more parades than anyone since Rome fell apart. Hardly a Saturday passes when the mayor isn’t hoofing down the middle of State Street with thousands of city workers behind him. It has been estimated he has paraded the distance from Chicago to Minsk.

Daley the Politician: He is old-fashioned. Other city machines took up civil service and got in other bad habits. They fell apart. The old-fashioned Daley organization controls about 60,000 patronage jobs. It has thousands of others in unions, private industry, utilities, at race tracks.

Loafing or getting lost in a bar won’t get a guy fired, but failing to get the vote out will. Besides patronage, the organization offers something for everyone: There are welfare checks for the obedient poor, big projects for contractors, rezoning for real estate men, prestige appointments for the socially important, promotions for the right cops and firemen.

Nepotism is big. Half the top office-holders are sons of former office-holders. Even the crime syndicate has its men in government. Everyone can join in if they do what they are told. It is truly democratic in a dictatorial sort of way.

Whom will he support for the nomination? The mayor will consider which candidate is the wisest, the noblest, the most inspiring, the best qualified. Then he will pick the one with the best chance of winning. In his parades, the politicians always march up front. No matter how pretty they sound, the flute players walk behind the horses.

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