Three views of Harold Washington
By ED MARCINIAK
Melvin G. Holli and Paul M. Green. Bashing Chicago Traditions: Harold Washington's Last Campaign. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1989. Pp. 217 with index. $19.95 (cloth).
Alton Miller. Harold Washington: The Mayor, The Man. Chicago: Bonus Books, 1989. Pp. 368 with index. $17.95 (cloth).
Dempsey J. Travis. "Harold" The People's Mayor: An Authorized Biography of Mayor Harold Washington. Chicago: Urban Research Press, 1989. Pp. 349 with bibliography and index. $19.95 (cloth).
The subject of these three books is the same person: the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington. But in the vernacular of the game of poker, one of his pastimes, the books are not "three of a kind."
Dempsey J. Travis, a successful real estate entrepreneur, writes a memoir about his good friend. The mayor's surname does not even appear in the title of this "authorized biography.''
With a splendid sense of drama, Alton Miller recounts the tumultuous political events that electrified his 33 months as the mayor's press secretary -- until Washington's sudden death on Thanksgiving Eve in 1987.
In Bashing Chicago Traditions, two local university professors zero in on Washington's successful reelection campaign in 1987. Melvin G. Holli and Paul M. Green have also produced the best account, to date, of the ups and downs of the Chicago Democratic party in the decade following Mayor Richard J. Daley's death in 1976.
Travis supplies details about Washington's early years that have never before been published: his studies and extracurricular activities at DuSable High School; a stint in the Civilian Conservation Corps and military service during World War II. Travis also covers Washington's sojourns in the Illinois General Assembly and the U.S. Congress as well as the maneuvering in the black community to rally them behind Washington as their consensus mayoral candidate.
In narrating Washington's election victories over Bernard Epton in 1983 and Edward Vrdolyak in 1987, Travis overwhelms the reader with a cascade of names (unfortunately, often misspelled), places and quotations. Balancing this weakness is Travis' helpful reprinting of Washington's two inaugural addresses, which reveal the shift in Washington's own political thinking. In 1983, he was the victorious leader of an embattled "movement" fired by racial politics. Four years later, he had begun to pave the way for his supporters' return to the Democratic party fold.
From the perspective of an infantryman fighting in Chicago's political trenches, Miller, the late mayor's media liaison, writes passionately. Here is an insider's view, full of pride and prejudice, of the mayor's many confrontations: the winning of the city council wars; the side-tracking of his controversial aide, Clarence McClain; the rumors of Washington's homosexuality; his frequent travels in search of national acclaim; his unending battles with the mass media; and his refusal to denounce Louis Farrakhan for antisemitism.
The touchiest political issue confronting Washington, and every other recent Chicago mayor, was the future of Chicago's high-rise public housing projects. Miller reveals Washington's view of the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA), which managed these units: "Mayor Washington didn't have a comprehensive solution for the CHA. He even said once that he didn't believe there was a solution. The CHA didn't have a problem, he said, they were the problem. . . ." Referring to the highrise family units, he said, '"They're obscene,'. . . .'an abomination. They should never have been built in the first place. . . .' The only long-term solution was to do away with them, redevelop the land they were on for lower density living. But not until there was some guarantee of housing for those who would be displaced."
Harold Washington: The Mayor is also a perceptive if self-centered account of the modern press secretary's role. Journalists aspiring to become press aides to elected officials will find it a superb introduction to the profession. However, some may be discouraged by the demands of a 12-hour day and a seven-day work week.
Streetwise Holli and Green help undermine the stereotype of university scholars addicted to academic prose. Without discarding their objectivity, they maintain a flair for midwestern metaphors, as when they write, "Harold Washington rushed upon the Chicago political scene like an angry burning ember on tinder-dry prairie grass, and he ignited a political prairie fire that burned fiercely in 1983, profoundly altering the 'natural order' of things and changing the political ecology of power."
They describe the convulsive changes in the leadership and influence of the Democratic party of Chicago during the Washington years. In two successive mayoral primaries (1979 and 1983), Chicago voters not only overturned the party's slated candidate but also the city's incumbent mayor. Jane By me upset Mayor Michael Bilandic. Four years later, Washington ousted Mayor Byrne. Ironically, the city's first woman mayor was succeeded by its first black mayor.
Holli and Green understate the crucial role played by George W. Dunne, the president of the Cook County Board, in Washington's reconciliation with the party after his reelection. It was Dunne, as head of the Cook County Democrats, who reached out to Washington's key black supporters, slated them for public office and then worked hard to get them elected. When the Chicago City Council convened in December 1987 to choose Washington's successor, the city's racial politics had shifted. The white aldermen, with one exception, understood that the new mayor had to be a black alderman. The only decision was which one to choose.
Do these three books provide an appraisal of the Washington mayoralty? The accounts by Travis and Miller tend to be overly sympathetic and partisan. Green and Holli, on the other hand, accent the striking difference between Washington's two terms, describing his second term -- shortened to seven months by his death --as "a flowering springtime for Democratic politics that came after a four-year winter of bitter wrangling and discontent."
Ed Marciniak is president of the Institute of Urban Life at Loyola University in Chicago and author of Reclaiming the Inner City: Chicago's Near-North Revitalization Confronts Cabrini-Green, his third book on the city's struggle to cope with change.
May 1990/Illinois Issues/29