Rahm’s place in history? Eh, not the best, not the worst
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Roswell B. Mason. Monroe Heath. Thomas Hoyne . . .
Most of the 53 men and one woman who were the mayor of Chicago before Rahm Emanuel are not cherished in the hearts and minds of the grateful city they served.
Hempstead Washburne. William E. Dever. Frank J. Corr . . . They’re barely remembered at all.
So with Emanuel’s surprise announcement Tuesday that he will not seek a third term, one question, besides who will succeed him, is: Where in the pantheon of Chicago mayors will history place Emanuel? How will he be remembered? With respect? Contempt? Or will the waters of oblivion close over him?
Most Chicago mayors served only briefly and were swiftly forgotten. The city initially elected mayors for a one-year and then a two-year term, and the first 22 mayors each served just one term.
Then, Francis Sherman, mayor from 1841 to 1842, won a second term 20 years later and then a third, making him the city’s fifth and 23rd mayor.
In terms of longevity, Emanuel’s eight years in office puts him easily into the top 10, behind Carter Harrison Sr. (8 1/2 years), his son, Carter Harrison Jr. and William Hale Thompson (12 years apiece), the under-appreciated Edward J. Kelly (14 years) and the Daleys, Richard J. and Richard M., at 21 and 22 years.
We tend to be biased toward our own times, lending them more significance than they ultimately merit in the sweep of history. Eugene Sawyer is remembered today because many living Chicagoans remember him. It is a safe bet that his two years in office in the late ’80s will not reverberate through the ages, though, the way that Chicagoans generally do not know that one mayor, Carter Harrison Sr., was assassinated in his own home two days before the end of the 1893 World’s Columbian Fair.
And where does Emanuel fit?
“It’s a little early to say yet,” says Dominic Pacyga, a longtime Chicago historian. “We tend to take the long view. Economically, he’s been really important, building up the city’s economy. He was handed a bad set of cards when Daley dropped out. Daley did a lot of important things — made Chicago more of a global city, Millennium Park — it was a storm when he dropped out. All this financial crisis, Rahm has really tried to deal with that as much as he can.”
So before we rank Rahm, let’s consider what is being measured.
Lasting effect upon Chicago? In that regard, the most consequential Chicago mayor has to be its first, William B. Ogden, elected in 1837, because he gambled on a brand new technology — the railroad — that larger cities along the Mississippi would spend the next 40 years resisting. Ogden pushed for the Illinois and Michigan Canal, founded the Chicago & North Western Railway and designed the first swing bridge over the Chicago River. He made Chicago the transportation hub that allowed it to grow and become the city it is today. Nothing any mayor has done since has had a greater long-term impact. Without Ogden, Chicago might forever have been doomed to play second fiddle to St. Louis.
Despite this and more — he also founded the Chicago Board of Trade — Ogden is not the consensus choice for most important Chicago mayor. In 1985, University of Illinois professor Melvin G. Holli polled 40 historians, experts and journalists. They deemed Richard J. Daley, far and away, the city’s all-time top mayor, followed by Carter Harrison, pere and fils, Anton Cermak — who served only briefly before dying of wounds suffered in an assassination attempt on President Franklin Roosevelt but who laid the groundwork for half a century of Democrat rule, and Ed Kelly.
What did Daley do that made him head-and-shoulders above the rest? It was the power he exerted. As head of the Democratic Party, with armies of patronage workers, he exerted his will not only upon the city but with ripples across the country, building O’Hare Airport, pushing to elect John F. Kennedy, as well as rising to national ignominy in the riots after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s killing and the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests.
We dwell in the city Daley the first created. The iconic skyscrapers that went up under his watch — Marina City, the John Hancock, the Sears Tower. The CHA high-rises he built — though mostly gone, their legacy continues to mold the city. Daley was a national figure in a way no other Chicago mayor has been.
Emanuel made the Riverwalk into an attractive tourist destination.
Daley had Mike Royko to write his biography. Emanuel is the subject of one book, “Mayor 1%” by Kari Lydersen, which paints him as pandering to the city’s elite.
“In Chicago, from almost Day One, he was seen as Mayor 1%,” says Lydersen, a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School. “He took on the unions right away. He came in and made clear he was planning to run the city as a business. He didn’t have time for regular people.”
Lydersen suggests Emanuel might be viewed differently nationwide than he is locally. “Even now, people outside Chicago don’t get the extent to which he’s been Mayor 1%. He’ll be remembered outside Chicago for his aggression, the dead fish [sent to a pollster], will still be remembered in a fond and admiring way on a national level. While here, we’ll remember this very disrespectful and undemocratic style within Chicago.”
In that sense, Emanuel’s place in history might echo that of Joseph Medill, whose is more as owner and editor of the Chicago Tribune and for the journalism school that bears his name than for his single term in office after the Great Chicago Fire. Emanuel’s role as White House consigliere might linger beyond his role in modernizing garbage collection in Chicago.
Mayors can be connected to an era. William Hale Thompson hovers around the Al Capone story. And he might be a model of how Emanuel will be remembered — not so much for any one thing as for being an active part of his era. In this, the mayor’s connection to Bill Clinton and Barack Obama will serve him well — if memory of his mayoralty flickers out, there will still be Obama’s reflected glory to illuminate him in shadow.
The Nation suggested that Emanuel will be remembered as the “Murder Mayor,” mistaking current events for history. The murder rate was higher during Daley the second’s era than it is now, and he’s remembered for building Millennium Park, selling off the city’s assets and ignoring the gathering financial mess he handed to Emanuel.
Affection can be fuel to keep memory alive. Harold Washington did not remake the city in his image — facing a recalcitrant, racist Chicago City Council, he had trouble accomplishing much in his lone full term. Yet Washington’s image reverberates 30 years after his death.
“Harold was the people’s friend,” says Pacyga. “Rahm is nobody’s friend. He’s just not warm and cuddly.”
Even Jane Byrne, the first woman to serve as the city’s mayor, while not loved by Chicagoans, had a certain grit and pathos that outweighs her getting the ball rolling on Taste of Chicago or camping for a fortnight at Cabrini-Green.
Chicagoans kept portraits of Washington — and Richard J. Daley — in their homes. This isn’t true for Emanuel.
“Rahm was never well-liked,” says Dick Simpson, the former alderman who is professor of politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “His polls show that … most people thought he was trying hard. But he didn’t have the likeability factor.”
Northwestern professor Bill Savage often writes about the city’s history (and edited my book on Chicago). I asked him to rank Rahm.
“I am leery of rankings in general, but adding parameters is always a good thing,” Savage says. “How does Rahm rank in terms of Inherited Mess of a City (finances, transport, schools, crime)? If not No. 1, pretty close to it. Richie left him an unprecedented mess to clean up.
“How does Rahm rank in terms of Exerting Imperial Power: I’d say second to Richard J. Daley. But Daley had the advantage of a giant pipeline full of money from Washington, D.C., and Springfield, while Rahm had to go begging.
“How does Rahm rank in terms of being an awkward human being? I’d say second to Big Bill Thompson, but that might just be me.”
I would respectfully disagree — Rich Daley was a more awkward, less pleasant individual than Emanuel, who, if pressed, can exude a certain oily effluvia he no doubt considers charm.
Savage questions the premise of any Chicago mayor being seen as an important historical figure.
“We tend to over-emphasize mayors in this town,” he says. “Like 45 or 47 of the alder-creatures voted for that parking-meter deal; why do we just blame Richie? Twenty-nine aldermen shut down Harold for his first term, so even now they could person-up and do something if they wanted to.”
Whatever else you say about Emanuel, he wasn’t the worst mayor.
“No mayor was worse than Levi Boone, whose anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party is the direct ancestor of today’s MAGA [Make America Great Again] crowd,” says Savage.
Rahm Emanuel might take comfort in that. Though somehow I doubt it.