Understanding Political Machines

A problem with reading history books and biographies is the current year take on everything that dominates. It eventually becomes eye roll inducing and sometimes might lead to book tossing. This is worse with the more recent the book. The modern books have to perform the doublethink, as an example to glorify the thriving gay scene of a historical period on page 200 while then crying about the oppression of gays on page 202. Remember America in 2020 is super racist, but it still voted Barack Hussein Obama as president twice a decade ago. A short but fantastic political book with some progressive filtering but a common sense approach is “Boss” by Mike Royko. Boss is a biography of Mayor Richard Daley but covers the Chicago that made Daley and that Daley ruled as an empire. It is a quick but excellent study in power.

To spend time discussing Boss, it is a smooth, fun read from the ’70s as Mike Royko delves into Chicago and everything that come with the weight of that word politically. Royko is a native and a Daley antagonist, but his words read so incredibly well and fun for a biography. He is a great story teller, and this story is about Daley. Royko explains the environment Daley grew up in, and the machine that Daley entered the moment he left school. Royko gives you the ins and outs of how things get done in Chicago, and how Chicago became Daley and Daley became Chicago. The Machine as Royko refers to it became a kingdom under Daley, and Daley wielded his sword and scepter despite the destruction and dismantling of other city machines. The book is a bit dated due to publication in the ’70s, but in a sick way, the Daley behavior has become bipartisan and on a national or even global scale.

How did Daley do it? Where was the root of his power? Daley was not a genius. Daley was not a political scientist who came up with new schemes. Daley was a simple, machine oriented man. Keep the Machine alive and him on top of it. Daley understood the levers of political power better than anyone else. Their was a political job for every ally. Only reliable voters would be placed in the patronage system. He weaponized any government power to coerce opponents with simple building inspectors used to shut up anyone itching to fight him. Daley remained chairman of the Democrat party in the area as well as mayor, which consolidated power in one man, unlike years’ past when power would be split, giving ground to different factions. There was one faction: Daley’s. It was a kingdom, and in an old time feudal way. An interesting throw away note in Nixon’s memoir mentions how upon meeting Brezhnev, Nixon compared him to an Irish labor leader or even Mayor Daley, with no offense intended for either. They were both men who understood their systems and ruled strongly.

Daley used urban renewal, slum clearances and other government programs not to buy off the poor but to buy off the rich, the Downtown element, and the real estate, construction and union guys. He started to clear out the ruffians and build high rises for the well to do before New York City did in the ’90s. His ability to play ball and his weaponized approach to rules and regulations on opponents made the GOP donate to him and make deals with him. No one wanted to be cut off. He ran the Machine, so he’d always have the votes, and the businessmen all walked in a line behind him like penguins. Daley’s concerns were always with attorney generals and district attorneys who could investigate him, so he was feverishly paranoid about those elections, not just his own. To bring this up to date, this is why Lisa Madigan never ran for the US Senate in Illinois. As the state’s Attorney General since 2003, she never ever investigated her step-father Michael Madigan who has been Illinois speaker of the house since Return of the Jedi premiered. Madigan protects Madigan, and the Velvet Hammer runs Illinois and never wants to see his dirty laundry aired. Daley’s extremely efficient system of governmental corruption and inefficiency worked for him from top to bottom. Everything was aligned to keep the Machine alive, win elections, pay off the men that needed it, but keep the Machine alive.

How did Daley trick the left’s ascendant power bloc when he was just a creature of the machine? This is where it gets interesting, and where the power in Chicago is woven into the story. Daley was always part of the machine, but by hand picking egghead Adlai Stevenson for Governor and another intellectual favorite in ’48 for statewide races, the media and others considered Daley, a youngish man, part of the “new breed” of Democrats who were reform minded. Daley tricked them using his backing of Stevenson, whom he wanted in Springfield to help him, and then potentially in the White House to send federal money his way, as a mask for his true nature: Machine pol to the core. This worked as Daley ran for election in ’55, and the media did not notice anything weird about him. They covered some small brush ups because he was a Democrat. Once in power, he never left.

The media is key here. Royko takes a hammer to the entire media structure for always covering for Daley, selecting specific slumlords to tear into (not Daley’s slumlords), avoiding scandals when necessary, and forever glorifying Daley’s rule. Even when scandals should’ve crushed him, the media would find a way to blame another, lower level man. The media protected him. I may be biased in the fake news era looking for an anti-media angle, but here it was. Royko even mentions how the Chicago Tribune ran the Illinois Republican party. It’s access journalism to a degree and somewhat financially related, but what was the media’s goal? All those years covering for Daley, and advertising is still down. What did the papers get out of it? Exercising power to be used the way they saw fit, their pet projects, who knows what.

This is a fun read, and quick if you are a fast reader. There was one passage, and my buying a used book made it even better, that described the one election where Daley was legitimately challenged. Daley beat a Democrat turned Republican Adamowski only earning 55% of the vote. Sounds like a thumping, but it was the closest re-election he ever had. To reveal the horrible nature of democracy, Royko and the previous book owner combine to drive the point home. Royko writes a nice paragraph of how Adamowski won 51% of the white vote. Royko then sadly recount how the black voters of Chicago, who received the least of Daley, demanded the least, and lived in the worst neighborhoods, were the difference in his victory. They won him the re-election. The book’s previous owner circled that paragraph and put to the side, “WOW!!”.

You, my reader, knew that. I knew that. The book’s prior owner, intrigued enough to buy the book, and their other notes are sharp, was surprised enough to write wow. This paragraph and reader comment come pages after Congressman Dawson explains the game of delivering the votes. Elected men do not matter, delivered votes matter. Follow that through, “wow” reader, and open your eyes to just how ugly a business it can be, and just how easily bought off the poorest individuals can be. Grab Boss and read it over a weekend. You will learn from it and learn to love it.

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