- Sue Kwong
This winter, the Reader has set a humble goal for itself: to determine the Greatest Chicago Book Ever Written. We chose 16 books that reflected the wide range of books that have come out of Chicago and the wide range of people who live here and assembled them into an NCAA-style bracket. Then we recruited a crack team of writers, editors, booksellers, and scholars as well as a few Reader staffers to judge each bout. The results of each contest will be published every Monday, along with an essay by each judge explaining his or her choice. The Reader reader who best predicts the judges’ rulings will win a trip to Mexico.
This week, in round one, bout four, Reader writer Danette Chavez has to choose between Mike Royko and . . . Mike Royko. Yes, in an example of true Chicago election chicanery, the late, great columnist has a pass to move on to round two. The question is, will it be for Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago or for I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It? To see the results of previous bouts, look here.
On some level, I think the Mike Royko bout of this tournament has the lowest stakes. No matter which book I pick, Royko’s work lives to fight another bracket. As a lifelong Chicagoan and a more recent fan of his work, that’s something I can get behind. There’s a more comprehensive Chicago presented in I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It, but there’s no denying the legacy of the subject of Boss.
Boss was the favorite going in, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to commend in its opponent. I May Be Wrong, But I Doubt It is a collection of Royko’s columns that were originally published in the Chicago Daily News. It’s an excellent sampling and a great example of the pithiness and vinegar that his daily readers enjoyed, and part of the body of work that earned him a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1972.
The columns range from vignettes of Chicago life and its players, such as the day Maishe Baer left his restaurant never to return to it in “LaSalle Street Lament,” to satirical pieces like “A Flip of the Ethnic Coin,” in which Royko “interviews” a self-made black businessman who has no patience for eastern European (read: white) immigrants who don’t immediately assimilate and contribute to society.
There’s a fair amount of condemnation here, too: “Chicago Mourns . . . But Not Too Much” is a police-blotter-type post that ends with the author admitting he can’t keep up with reporting crime statistics because he’s writing a “daily column, not a daily book.” And in “Poverty, Who Can Afford It?” he compares disparate food pricing in Chicago neighborhoods to set up the relationship between “the cost of catsup in the winter and the cost of replacing busted store windows in the summer.”
I know that “Mary and Joe, Chicago-Style,” a reimagining of the Nativity, is probably the best-known column from this collection, but I’m going to close out my commentary on I May Be Wrong with a look at “Vogue on Clout.” Although Royko wasn’t much concerned with fashion, a Vogue magazine article lands on his radar for what he considers its misuse of the word “clout.” The article tracks the rising popularity of clout, as if it were an accessory or a new type of yoga. It even cites the Pope and President Johnson as people who are following this latest “trend.” As a Chicagoan, Royko’s more familiar with the word’s regional connotation: “Clout means influence—usually political—with somebody who can do you some good.” So, for example, a policeman wields clout when he calls in a favor to get a promotion. Royko argues that world leaders like the Pope or LBJ don’t need clout because they don’t need to dabble in the favor trade.
Richard J. Daley was another fella who knew a bit about clout. (I think, or at least hope, we’re all familiar enough with Daley the Elder to not require a mini history lesson here). As I made my way through Boss, I got the sense that this was not only an unofficial biography of Daley, but a trial as well.
Each chapter begins with excerpts from defense attorney William Kunstler’s cross-examination of Daley at the Chicago Seven trial. Daley’s words don’t provide much of a defense against Royko’s own inquiry (and even less of one now), but Daley was never really one to back up his actions with eloquence. There was no need, since “Da Mare” had control of the local governing bodies. (Now where have we seen that before?)
Boss is the least romanticized rags-to-riches story you’ll ever read. Royko takes us back to Daley’s humble beginnings, but it’s to put his rise to power in perspective: here’s a Bridgeport kid who made it, and “it” is the Chicago political machine. Where I May Be Wrong was a collection of Royko’s journalism, Boss is a culmination of his time as a Chicago journalist. As such, it sometimes feels like Royko assumes the reader has followed his coverage of the Daley administration, and rather than rehash the finer points, he uses a little poetic license to illustrate wrongdoing. When he accuses Daley of pandering to the rich with housing developments at great cost to the poor, black citizenry, for instance, he does so with vignettes and commentary rather than with hard data.
Time affords the contemporary reader (me) a lot, and that’s history; most modern-day Chicagoans are only too aware of the lasting effects of Daley’s racism and patronage peddling. But Boss was published right around the time Daley was elected to an unprecedented fifth term, and his subjects were still in thrall to him. While I wouldn’t describe this as a lack of diligence, I feel it’s a move that Royko could get away with, if only because he dared to do so.
Still, I can’t think of anything more “Chicago” than a city that gave Daley the Elder his mayoral terms like so many punches on a “buy ten, get a free sandwich” card. Unless it’s cops on the take, or cops gone wild on detainees, or appointments in place of elections. (Or how about pitting two Mike Royko books against each other in a tournament to determine the Greatest Chicago Book?) Which is why Boss wins this bout.
After two weeks of upsets, the favorite among the voters, Boss, with 58 percent of the vote, will move on.
- Sue Kwong