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Book Reviews

'The best mayor Chicago's ever had'


Frank Sullivan. Legend: The Only Inside Story About Mayor Richard J. Daley.
Chicago: Bonus Books, 1989. Pp. 258 with index and photographs. $17.95 (cloth).

My friend Frank Sullivan has written a dandy book. The most serious complaint I have about it is that it comes nearly 13 years after the death of "da Mare." What took you so long, Frank?

For someone steeped in Chicago politics and its outlandish characters, the book is a delightful reminiscence. For anyone else, it's an absorbing primer on the unequaled tenure of Richard J. Daley as mayor of Chicago from 1955 to 1976.

Sullivan, the mayor's press secretary, gives us the "inside" story on Daley the man, Daley the mayor, Daley in triumph and, finally, Daley in defeat. In telling Daley's story, based on notes Sullivan kept almost daily, he also tells us much about himself and his practical education. Caught at times between a boss who detested reporters and refused to cater to them on the one hand and news people who seemed to awaken each morning with "an overpowering urge to do in Daley" on the other, Sullivan concludes: "I had mixed opinions about Richard J. Daley throughout his years as mayor. I hope this has enabled me to achieve some degree of objectivity in writing about him."

Sullivan writes that Daley was above all else a devout family man, intensely loyal to his wife and scornful of those who put their careers ahead of their spouses and children. As a political animal, Sullivan writes, Daley was not a theorist but a practitioner — "the best urban America has ever seen."

As a practitioner, Daley was "first and foremost. . . always devious." He was probably "the most powerful and controversial urban official in American history," "the essence of all the people who live on the side streets of any great city, and he spoke to this constituency directly." Sullivan believes that Daley's success as mayor "was due to his extensive knowledge of city government, his expertise in municipal finance, his concern for details, the fact that a huge percentage of his city employees were personally cleared by him, and his complete hands-on style of supervision." Yet Sullivan concludes sadly, after reciting Daley's lack of interest in anything cultural, that "even more disturbing, I don't believe he had a clear concept of what a city is or should be."

Sullivan, then a City Hall reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times, began his association with Daley as the police department's spokesman, but concluded after four years on the job that his task was hopeless. Corruption was endemic in the department, and the force always closed ranks to protect its own, often engaging in crude coverups. Sullivan asked out, but instead Daley put him in line to succeed Earl Bush as his press secretary. Bush, federal investigators found, had a secret piece of the action at O'Hare Field, and — like so many Daley cohorts — finally went to prison.

Daley deplored Bush's fall, but Sullivan says bluntly: "It has always been my opinion that Daley gave Bush this business [the O'Hare swindle]."

When then-U.S. Atty. Jim Thompson and other federal officials began knocking off one Democratic officeholder after another, Sullivan decided it was time to quit working for the mayor: "I was, I regretfully concluded, a front man for thieves." That very day, however, Daley suffered a small stroke, and Sullivan stayed on, remaining to announce Daley's death two and a half years later, on December 20, 1976.

As to Daley's own honesty, Sullivan quotes Daley as telling him: "They thought that because I was an Irish-Catholic, the Office of Mayor could be bought and I was determined to prove them wrong." When Thompson tagged former Gov. Otto Kerner Jr. for a racetrack stock scandal, Daley did not conceal his scorn of Kerner from Sullivan, saying that he had been offered the same deal but had turned it down cold.

In two respects the book is flawed, though not enough to spoil its story. First, Daley issued his celebrated "shoot to kill" order to the police force several days after the end of the riots that followed Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination on April 4, 1968. This incident is discussed repeatedly in the book, but Sullivan fails to give it a concise context or even to provide the full text of the mayor's statement.

Second, Sullivan apparently was neither amused by nor disposed to reproduce Daley's frequent losing bouts with our mother tongue. Daley's statements were so opaque, clumsy, contradictory and hilariously ungrammatical that my successors in the City Hall press room got tape recorders to convince doubting rewritemen and editors of the accuracy of his fractured quotes.

Sullivan is no Mike Royko — he does not skewer and roast his subject. Rather, he presents a balanced view of a public figure and the private man, often exploring the contrasts between the two. For example, the public Daley who sometimes ran City Council meetings red-faced and screaming mad was not the private Daley who never raised his voice, remained tightly disciplined and motivated others by praise rather than by blame. Sullivan revealed his overall assessment of his boss when, in announcing Daley's death, he implored newsmen: "Let us all pray for the soul of this good man."

Most observers would agree that Daley fulfilled the prediction of Earl Bush that I left as a confidential memo in the Chicago Daily News files long before Daley's first election as mayor: "Bush says Daley will run, will win, and will be the best mayor Chicago's ever had." The Bridgeport boy indeed made good and became a legend. He was a credit to the great city he served. And this book is a credit to its subject and its author.□

Fred Bird, now of Springfield, worked twice for the City News Bureau of Chicago and for four Chicago newspapers as a reporter, re-writeman and editor. Switching to politics, he served as press secretary to Gov. Richard B. Ogilvie and, briefly, as a speechwriter for President Gerald Ford.

November 1989 | Illinois Issues | 27

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