Starting to publish the Richard M. Daley mayoral legacy in biography

According to one reviewer, the first biography of Richard M. Daley’s time as mayor of Chicago misses the downsides of his time in office:

For a full generation, like his father before him, Richard M. Daley was Chicago. His reign has long inspired debate: In order to improve the city’s international standing and stop the flight of the middle class, was he right to focus on rebuilding downtown? Or did that amount to pulling the plug on the city’s poor and working-class neighborhoods, leaving behind a bill that’s yet to be paid?The answer is arguably both. Yet a new biography of Daley portrays him as the figure who made Chicago a center of international commerce and culture, but largely bypasses the communities and people he ruled over with unchecked power.

“His legacy would not only include finishing the unfinished business of the Daley family—improving race relations, public schools, and public housing—but also the transformation of Chicago into a global city,” Keith Koeneman writes in First Son.

Koeneman is a first-time author who writes about politics for the Huffington Post. He deserves credit for making the first attempt to chronicle Daley’s career and its lasting meaning, and First Son is a well-researched and readable work. But Koeneman’s assessment is flawed.

There is plenty of time for Daley’s legacy to develop and be debated. But, Daley himself will have some role in this. In his talk at Wheaton College in 2011 (follow-up here and here), he was clearly focused on the same kind of good things as mentioned in this biography and didn’t want to address the tougher issues. Will we see an autobiography soon? How will he use his current ties to the University of Chicago to advance his interests?

But, I remember clearly learning about political biographies and memoirs in a class I took in grad school titled Historical and Comparative Sociology. On one hand, these sorts of books claim to offer inside information on what motivated politicians. On the other hand, they are uniquely suited as devices to further a politician’s legacy. These genres can be more objective but they are often written with a particular point of view that then can taint the historical record.

To return to my first point, it will take some time to sort out Daley’s record. He will likely be remembered for being mayor as became known as a rare “comeback city” in the Rustbelt even as his legacy will also include issues with public housing, race and poverty, crime, Meigs Field, and other areas of the city that did not receive much attention.

New polling data on presidential legacies

A number of sources are reporting on a recent Gallup poll on the approval ratings of past presidents. The Atlantic provides a quick round-up of the trends: Kennedy has a strong legacy (85% approval), Clinton and the first Bush are both up 8% compared to 2006 (up to 69% and 64%, respectively), George W. comes in at 48%, and Nixon is still in the dumps (29%).

What is fascinating to think about is how these legacies get constructed. Part of it is based on the performance of the president while in office. But part of it is also based on what happens after the president leaves office and how the cultural narrative develops about that time period. Richard Nixon can’t shake Watergate and Lyndon Johnson can’t escape the turmoil of the mid 1960s. In contrast, Bill Clinton was president during a prosperous era and JFK is still seen in glowing terms. All of these presidents except for JFK had some years to tell their story and become involved in other causes, if they so chose. These legacies are shaped by cultural narratives, common stories by which a country understands its own history.

I would be interested in see how these figures break down by different demographics. For JFK: is his support higher among those who were alive at the time or younger people today? For Reagan: what is his legacy support among Democrats?

This reminds me of a lesson I once heard in class from a professor: don’t trust the information in political memoirs because the purpose of such texts is to promote a particular legacy.