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Mayor Dever: Chicago's 'marginal man'


Courtesy Northern Illinois University Press

John R. Schmidt. "The Mayor Who Cleaned Up Chicago": A Political Biography of William E. Dever. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 1989. Pp. 239 with appendix, notes, bibliography and index. $28.50 (cloth).

He was a reformer and a progressive in a city where reform was an orphan. A great builder and dreamer, he helped inspire the now widely accepted idea of public ownership of mass transit, and his impressive public works, including Midway Airport and Wacker Drive, combined Daniel Burnham-like vision with panache and purpose. He was as revered by the advocates of good government as he was reviled by the mobsters and corrupt public officials of the Roaring '20s. Other mayors, like those in Philadelphia and New York, admired and envied him. He was even touted by many as the best hope the Democrats had of recapturing the White House.

Yet his many stellar accomplishments notwithstanding, it is for his failures that William E. Dever is remembered, if he is remembered at all. The great promise of his administration, linking as it did a united Democratic party with the progressive agenda of New Dealer Harold Ickes and University of Chicago professor Robert Merriam, never was fulfilled. He served but one term (1923-27), sandwiched between the second and third terms of the more colorful and much more pliant William Hale Thompson. Devcr's administration was marred by the violence of gang warfare, and it finally foundered on the politics of ethnicity engendered by the unhappy experiment of Prohibition. Today Dever remains an enigma, a man of major accomplishment, but the city's least known mayor of the 20th century the "Calvin Coolidge of Chicago," according to Studs Terkel.

In "The Mayor Who Cleaned Up Chicago" John Schmidt attempts to account for the peculiar political career of Dever. A second generation Irishman, Dever moved to Chicago from Massachusetts in 1887 and almost immediately entered the bedlam of Chicago politics on the side of the angels, albeit angels with occasional underworld contacts. Schmidt tells us that the young Dever had it all: intelligence, charm, good looks, presence, a tincture of ethnicity and the ability to walk comfortably in all camps. When he was elected alderman from a near northwest side ward in 1902, Dever's political fortune seemed to have been made.

But early on, according to Schmidt, the future mayor revealed his political Achilles' heel of too close association with the Progressives and too much distance from the ethnic working class that was coming to dominate Chicago politics. The Progressives condescending, petulant and unctuous embraced the Irish Catholic Democrat largely because they believed, correctly, that he would enforce Prohibition, halt lawlessness and usher in an era of good government and reform. They

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were half right. Dever did enforce Prohibition, but in doing so he tragically abetted gang warfare and drove away the wet Poles, Germans, Italians, Irish and Czechs by the thousands. Ethnic defection cost Dever dearly, especially on the question of public ownership of mass transit which the mayor had vigorously advocated throughout his career. For most ethnics public ownership was simply not an issue, but opposition to it was used by ethnic leaders like Anton Cermak to embarrass the mayor who, though personally against Prohibition, nonetheless enforced it with the vigor of a Billy Sunday in the vain hope that strict enforcement would somehow lead to repeal.

Dever learned too late, writes Schmidt, that you cannot win repeal of an unpopular law by compelling strict obedience. It is not clear, however, whether he learned that, captious though they may be, ethnic politics would henceforth hold center stage in Chicago public life, a fact lost as well on the Progressives, who persevered in their delusion that good government was their government.

Humiliated by the failure of his Prohibition policy and the defeat of public ownership, Dever would have preferred to end his term and return quietly to private life. But because the Democrats could not find a suitable candidate to run against Thompson, Dever was persuaded to seek another term. Thompson, though personally favoring Prohibition, campaigned against it and, though a WASP, supported issues dear to the ethnics. Dever, on the other hand, appeared to be frozen in lethargy as he continued his campaign for enforcement. Worse, he allowed the Democrats several shameless episodes of race baiting against Chicago's blacks. In the end Dever, whom Schmidt calls "the marginal man," was soundly defeated and slipped into anonymity.

Schmidt's book serves to remind us of Marx's observation that history presents itself, as it were, twice: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. Many of the issues of the Dever era have a familiar, if depressing, counterpart today. The city's public schools of 1920, for example, were judged a ''national disgrace." and differences over the proper display of the flag led to street fighting and self-serving gasconades in the municipal politics of the teens and early 1920s. More ominously, Prohibition is replayed today in the hopelessly riven politics of abortion.

Yet the most striking parallels between the 1920s and the 1990s have to do with the inability of the Cook County Democratic party to integrate racial and ethnic interests and to accommodate a decent measure of reform. William Dever's failed administration helped usher in the sclerotic politics of race and ethnicity so familiar to us today. And if there is a lesson in the history of the Dever years, it is that the self-styled reformers and progressives are as ineffectual today as they were then.

Schmidt's book fills a void in the history of recent Chicago mayors. He writes with calculated verve about a man who lost his personal and political moorings and allowed his administration to flutter between bathos and pathos. Chicago survived him but accords him no place in its memory. Little is the wonder.

Robert Klaus is executive director of the American Fund for Dental Health and serves on the board of the Illinois State Historical Society. Formerly director of the Illinois Humanities Council, he has published several articles and reviews on Illinois and Chicago history.

July 1990/Illinois Issues/35

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