CHICAGO: The Ghost of Richard J. Daley

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Boss Richard J. Daley

In the spring of 1987, I was a young reporter in Chicago covering the city’s race for mayor for a national magazine called Irish America. At the time, Harold Washington, the city’s first African American mayor, was running for a second term. Also running that year was Jane Byrne, who had served as mayor before Washington and was now seeking to reclaim her old job. There were a couple other candidates as well. One person who was not running was Richard M. Daley. He had run four years earlier and not performed well, so he was sitting this one out.

As with all Chicago’s mayoral campaigns, this one was rambunctious. Washington was favored to repeat, but Jane Byrne was a fiery, slash-and-burn competitor who seemed to always be in attack mode.

Even though Richard M. Daley was not running, I wanted to interview him – for many reasons, but mostly because of his father. Richard J. Daley had ruled over the city of Chicago for twenty-one years as mayor and twenty-three years as Chairman of the Cook County Democratic Central Committee, holding both positions until he died in office in 1976. He was a legendary figure, larger than life; his blunt repudiation of anti-Vietnam war protesters at the 1968 Democratic Convention, at which he unleashed Chicago police to brutalize everyone in sight – all of it captured live on TV – was a seminal event in U.S domestic politics. Daley the senior had presided over incredible economic and physical growth in the city of Chicago and done many positive things, but because of the ’68 convention he would be remembered, nationally, as the epitome of a political thug and would-be dictator.

I arrived to interview Richard M. Daley on the 22nd Floor of the Daley Center, a building named after his father. At the time, “Richie,” as he preferred to be known, was serving as Cook County State’s Attorney. Already, I had interviewed Jane Byrne, who made some dismissive remarks about Richie Daley. I was curious about that. As a young, up and coming political figure, Jane Byrne had been a protégé of daddy Daley. Presumably, Richie Daley and Byrne had known each other for along time. I arrived at the Daley Center determined to get at the root of this bad blood between Byrne and the Daley family.

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Jane Byrne savors her victory in the previous night’s Democratic primary in 1979, when she defeated incumbent Chicago Mayor Michael Bilandic. She became the city’s first female mayor.

I was ushered into the office of the state’s attorney, and there he was – Richie Daley. This was two years before Daley would himself be elected mayor in 1989 (in a special election). Daley would go on to serve for twenty-two years, one year longer than his father. He was re-elected five times. In 2011, they wanted him to run for a seventh term, but he decided to retire.

Back in 1987, the attribute Richie Daley exuded most was humility. His challenge to Jane Byrne in 1983 had been something of an embarrassment. Not known as verbally dexterous or as a quick-silver intellect, he floundered during interviews and in televised debates. He crawled away from that campaign with his head between his legs, but it was largely thought that he would regroup, re-strategize and one day make another run.

In Daley’s office, the dominant feature was a massive, framed oil painting portrait of his father, on the wall hovering over the room. It was one of those portraits that, no matter what era in which it was painted, it made it’s subject look like a 17th Century lord of the manor. The father, of course, was a forbidding figure, portly, jowly, and salt-of-the-earth. Throughout the interview, I felt the gaze from that portrait; Richard J. Daley was looking down at us, listening to every word.

The first thing Richie Daley did was offer me a cigar. And so we sat underneath the massive portrait of Chicago’s most notorious potentate, and Daley the son said, “Go ahead, ask me whatever you want.”

He was a very likable guy, down-to-earth, earnest and humble. He did not strike me as the brightest guy in the world; his thought process was slow, and his manner of speaking was round-about, but you could tell he was a man with a good heart, and that his concerns and cares were genuine. He was a good listener and a ‘people person.’ You could tell that he was a doer, not necessarily a thinker, and I was not surprised at all that he would go on to became a highly popular mayor known for getting things done.

Anyway, we sat there and chatted, and I waited till our cigars were nearly down to the nub when I asked Richie about Jane Byrne.

I knew that it was a loaded question: there had always been rumors, never proven, that daddy Daley had became so enamored with his young female protégé that they had an affair. After Daley died in office, and Byrne and Richie Daley sought to run for the office that Boss Daley had held so indelibly for so long, it was seen as though they were vying for control of his legacy.

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Richard J. and Richard M. Daley, who served as mayor one year longer than his father. Together, they ruled Chicago for nearly half a century.

I asked Richie about that, whether the tussle between his family and Byrne had been over who was the rightful heir to the Daley legacy. He paused for a beat, and then said, “No. The media commented a lot about that. But that wasn’t it.”

“So what was it,” I asked.

Daley thought about it for a second, puffed on the stogie, took it out, rolled it between his forefinger and thumb, and said, “She moved the Christmas tree.”

I wasn’t sure what he was referring to. Richie let it stew for a few seconds, then added, “The Christmas tree. It was always right here in front of the Daley Center. Every year. It meant a lot to my dad to have it there. And when she got into office, one of the first things she did was move the Christmas tree to another location.”

Daley was seated on the edge of his desk. He looked sad. The pettiness of that action on Jane Byrne’s part had cut deeply. It was an unforgivable slight. In my heart, I wanted to give him a hug, but instead I glanced up at the portrait of his father. When I’d first taken in the painting, the expression on Richard J. Daley’s face struck me as neutral, but now he was glowering. Boss Daley was listening to us, and he was pissed off at what Jane Byrne had done.

And that’s when it hit me: they take their politics very personal here in Chicago. Slights and recriminations are swallowed, digested, and then kept buried deep inside, to be avenged at a later date.

Well, that was nearly thirty years ago, and I’m happy to say that I’m returning to Chi-town on January 22, 2016 for two very special appearances. They are as follows:

  1. The Irish American Heritage Center (4626 N. Knox Ave.): Jan. 22, 2016, Friday, at 6pm.

I’m pleased to be appearing at this great facility to discuss The Irish Mob Trilogy and read from Where the Bodies Were Buried. Please drop by!

  1. City Winery (1200 W. Randolph): Jan. 22, 2016, Friday, at 8 pm.

This is truly going to be a blast. I will be the opening act for the Westies, a Chicago-based folk rock band led by esteemed singer-songwriter Michael McDermott and his wife Heather Horton. The band was created and partly inspired by the book The Westies, and this event is to celebrate the release of the band’s second CD, entitled Six on the Out. I’ll be reading from the Irish Mob Trilogy, including selections from Paddy Whacked and The Westies.

To all my Chicago homies, I hope you can make it! I’m pretty sure the ghost of Richard J. Daley will be there.

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