Jonathan Alter for The Atlantic : Meet the New Boss

March 26th, 2012

The Atlantic
April, 2012
By Jonathan Alter

I was walking around my sister’s Near North neighborhood in Chicago recently and came upon a small patch of green called Bauler Park. Paddy Bauler was the rollicking tavern owner and 43rd Ward alderman who in 1955 famously shouted, upon hearing of the election of Richard J. Daley as mayor: “Chicago ain’t ready for reform!”

More than half a century later, the man who not long ago represented Bauler’s neighborhood in Congress insists that Chicago is finally ready. Rahm Emanuel, who succeeded old man Daley’s son Rich as mayor last May, has to be careful not to repudiate the Daleys, who helped nurture his rise. And “The Missile,” as the Chicago journalist James Warren dubbed him, is hardly a good-government “goo goo.” “Taking the politics out of politics is like taking the money out of capitalism,” Emanuel told me during his mayoral campaign. But in locking on to his three high-value targets—the city’s tattered finances, a murder rate twice that of New York, and schools that aren’t preparing Chicago’s future workforce—Rahm (as he’s known everywhere) is bent on wholesale reform of “the Chicago Way.”

Ever since the film The Untouchables popularized the term, there’s been some misunderstanding about what the Chicago Way means. In the movie, Sean Connery’s Irish cop describes to Kevin Costner’s Eliot Ness how to get Al Capone: “He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That’s the Chicago Way!” And that will be Rahm’s way, at least some of the time. But in practice, this vague urban modus operandi is less about vengeance than venality—payoffs, kickbacks, and ghost-hiring, not to mention the destructive if perfectly legal tradition of cozy union contracts and the newer “pinstripe patronage” of sketchy bond deals and privatized city functions. In its mid-century heyday, the Chicago “machine” often delivered services along with the corruption, but the parts got rusty. In the decade following the first Mayor Daley’s death, in 1976, the city’s political structure broke into warring factions, which beginning in 1989 were brought into a surprisingly sturdy alliance by his son, who developed strong ties to the black and Latino communities.

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