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.