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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1884

As working journalists in Chicago, Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor became fascinated with the historical legacy of Mayor Richard J. Daley, and this impressive book reflects their efforts to understand how the mayor’s political career shaped the city in the decades beyond his death in 1976. Based on archives, interviews, and the rich historical literature on Chicago, the biography looks at the roots of Daley’s power and his influence on Chicago’s troubled racial past. It is possibly the best one-volume life of a major player in modern American politics.

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During the 1960’s, Mayor Daley became a national figure because of his political clout, opposition to the racial integration of his city, and the violent conduct of his police force during the Democratic National Convention of 1968. Although there have been a number of biographies of Daley, this new study is the most thorough and ambitious. Cohen and Taylor assert that Daley “was the most powerful local politician America has ever produced” who built modern Chicago on a “commitment to racial segregation.” He was “an American pharaoh” because for two decades he wielded absolute power over his city.

Richard J. Daley was born in 1902 in the Bridgeport slums near the Chicago stockyards. As an Irish Catholic at a time of nativist tensions, he experienced the discrimination that his ethnic group faced. Ambitious and intelligent, Daley entered politics through the city’s Democratic machine, and he performed the routine tasks on which successful urban politics rested during the early decades of the twentieth century. Cohen and Taylor date the emergence of the machine to Mayor Anton Cermak in the 1920’s, but the roots of the Democratic organization went back into the late nineteenth century at the time of Mayor Carter Harrison and the reign of Michael “Hinky Dink” Kenna and “Bathhouse John” Coughlin. By the time that Daley entered ward politics, however, Cermak had built his own organization that tapped the loyalties of white ethnic Chicagoans.

The authors try to get inside the mind of Richard Daley, but the task is a difficult one. A man of few words, Daley also did not commit his innermost thoughts to paper, and his personal papers were not available. He remains throughout the book a man who is defined by what other people have said about his motives and actions. He had no emotional life outside politics and his immediate family. The public Daley and the private Daley seem to have been one and the same. A man with some progressive impulses in his youth, Daley was also arrogant and, in the end, corrupted by the system he served so well. The devotion and adulation he came to expect as mayor grew out of the emotionally starved upbringing he went through on his way to absolute political power.

A running theme of the book is the impact of the “Great Migration” of African Americans to Chicago at the time of World War I. These newcomers, fleeing the segregation and brutality of the South, found both economic opportunity and racial prejudice as they settled into the slums of Chicago. As Daley came to political maturity, tensions flared as blacks expanded their presence in Chicago and impinged on white neighborhoods. The Democratic machine dealt with the problem by creating a “submachine” of black party leaders who accepted the racial restrictions of the city in return for political power of their own. Although legal segregation was not imposed with the fervor that permeated the South, Chicago was for all of Daley’s career a city that mirrored the racial divides of the United States.

Housing was the issue through which racial matters most influenced Chicago in the Daley era. Much of the book is given over to a detailed and well-researched recounting of how the machine used its influence over construction of homes and neighborhood patterns to maintain white dominance and confine blacks to their ghetto. The interplay between sporadic efforts to break down racial lines and the unyielding resistance of Daley and the machine to such changes takes up much of the core of the book. It is a complex and somewhat dry story in the retelling, but Cohen and Taylor tell it thoroughly and well.

The ways in which the machine maneuvered to block integrated housing were varied and ingenious. Highways were located along boundaries between white and black neighborhoods. Public housing was constructed in impersonal high-rises that undermined any sense of community and cohesion. The work of Elizabeth Wood of the Chicago Housing Authority to achieve some measure of justice for the city’s black population brought her into conflict with Daley and his lieutenants. In the end, her position became impossible and her career ended. One of the important contributions of this book is to demonstrate that Chicago’s racial problems could have been alleviated if the machine had not pandered to the prejudices of its constituents at every opportunity.

Daley won the mayor’s office in 1955 and held it for two decades. Cohen and Taylor are adept at showing the corrupt underpinnings of the organization that Daley built. Loyalty to the machine involved turning out the vote on election day and keeping the money flowing through illegal contracts and sweetheart deals for the mayor’s friends. The presence of organized crime also pervaded the politics of Chicago in the first decade of the Daley era.

Success in Chicago gave Daley clout within the national Democratic Party in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The authors describe how the mayor used the presence of such clean politicians as Senator Paul Douglas and Governor Adlai Stevenson to offset the scandals that erupted periodically during Daley’s tenure. The mayor also became a confidant of John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson. In the case of Kennedy and his election in 1960, Daley became famous for his comment to the Democratic candidate on election day that with the help of a few friends Kennedy was going to carry Illinois.

The authors delve at length into the complex issue of whether the electoral votes of Illinois were stolen for Kennedy in 1960. Richard Nixon and the Republicans believed that the returns were in fact fraudulent and that Daley had rigged the election process. The evidence indicates that while vote fraud occurred in 1960, it was directed more at producing the local results that Daley wanted and at offsetting Republican manipulations in downstate Illinois. Even had Kennedy not received the electoral votes of Illinois in 1960, he still would have won the presidency. Nonetheless, the episode left a stain on Kennedy’s narrow victory and played a large part in Nixon’s resentments about his defeat that in turn paved the way for the excesses of the Watergate affair.

In the 1960’s, Daley faced a major challenge to Chicago’s racial practices when Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., endeavored to bring his civil rights crusade to the northern city. That Daley outfought King in this struggle and inflicted a defeat on the black cause has long been known. Cohen and Taylor provide a compelling narrative of the intrigues that accompanied this confrontation. What happened between Daley and King proved to be a case study of how the racial coalition that had built the Democratic majorities during the era of Franklin D. Roosevelt came apart during the 1960’s. In some senses, the Democrats have never recovered from what happened in these years.

Daley became nationally known during the Democratic National Convention of 1968 when the Chicago police tangled with antiwar demonstrators in a series of violent confrontations. The Democrats met in Chicago because of Daley’s close political friendship with President Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson courted Daley’s support during his administration with invitations to attend speeches and his presence at the mayor’s fund-raising event in 1964. In return, Daley helped deliver the Chicago congressional delegation for Johnson’s Great Society programs. The political alliance experienced strains, however, when the Johnson administration pursued the War on Poverty at the expense of the Daley machine. The mayor pressured the White House to ease off on enforcement of antipoverty regulations, and Johnson went along because of his need for Illinois and Daley’s support. The authors have not delved as deeply into the records about Daley at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin as they might have. Nonetheless, they present a clear picture of the interdependent relationship between the Texas president and the Chicago mayor.

Although he was a faithful backer of Johnson, Daley did not like the war in Vietnam, and his unhappiness with the conflict grew out of his recognition that the Democratic Party in his state was splitting over the issue. Daley warned Johnson in 1967 that the war was a political liability for the Democrats. When the president asked him about the effect of a withdrawal on American prestige, Daley responded: “You put your prestige in your back pocket and walk away.”

Johnson did not take Daley’s sage advice, but the mayor stayed loyal to the embattled president in 1967 and 1968. The decision to hold the Democratic convention in Chicago grew out of the president’s need to placate Daley. Once Johnson withdrew from the presidential race at the end of March, 1968, the timing and site of the convention produced an explosive situation for the Democrats. As Senator Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota locked up the nomination, antiwar opponents of Johnson and his designated successor planned to disrupt the proceedings through civil disobedience and demonstrations. Daley prepared for the worst and unleashed the Chicago police in advance of the convention. All the volatile elements came together in late August of 1968.

The story of what happened in Chicago is well known, but Cohen and Taylor demonstrate how the mayor’s reaction to his critics flowed from the nature of his political career. Accustomed to absolute deference to his power and will, Daley could not understand or accept the protests that surrounded the convention. When the police beat demonstrators and journalists before television cameras, Daley became a hero to those who supported the war and a devil figure to those who did not. The mayor’s power remained unbroken, but the Democratic Party went on to defeat in 1968. Daley died in 1976, an old man whose grip on his city had finally begun to weaken. By then he had outlived his time.

Writing the biography of a single mayor, even of a major city such as Chicago, presents challenges of balancing local details with the larger story the authors are trying to tell. There are some slow spots in the narrative, but for the most part Richard Daley comes through as a politician of impressive gifts and equally striking weaknesses. His imprint on the physical character of Chicago was probably greater than that of any other individual in its history. However, as Cohen and Taylor indicate, his inability to see the consequences of his racial policies meant that he left a legacy of intolerance and racial animosity that continue to beset his city. For anyone seeking to understand why Richard Daley was an important participant in the political life of the United States in the twentieth century, this is the book to read and ponder.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist 96 (April 1, 2000): 1428.

Campaigns and Elections 21 (August, 2000): 18.

The Economist 356 (August 12, 2000): 74.

Library Journal 125 (March 15, 2000): 94.

The New Leader 83 (March, 2000): 27.

Publishers Weekly 247 (May 1, 2000): 61.

Washington Monthly 32 (May, 2000): 46.

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