It’s Thanksgiving and, quite naturally, my thoughts have turned to Harold Washington.
I always think of Washington around Thanksgiving. It was roughly on this day 32 years ago that he died of a heart attack, roughly six months into his second term as mayor.
Hard to predict what Harold would have done had he lived longer—though Richard M. Daley, his ultimate successor, clearly took us in a different direction than he would’ve gone.
In addition to being the city’s first Black mayor, Washington was a leftist. Think Bernie Sanders—before Bernie Sanders.
Not too many of his type are running for mayor, much less getting elected. The last thing anyone in Chicago’s power elite wants is Black people running around talking like Bernie Sanders. Hell, the powers that be have enough trouble putting up with the white Bernie Sanders.
Among other things, Washington championed cuts in military spending and reallocating the money to schools, public transportation, health care, and job creation.
He fought President Reagan’s tax cuts and called for cities in America to band together to press Congress and the president to send more resources their way.
Instead over the last few decades it’s been every city in America for itself, as mayors and governors throw billions at the Amazons of the world, begging them to come to town. At best only a crumb or two of the ensuing development reaches the poor—most of whom will eventually be driven out by higher taxes and housing costs.
Like I said, we’ve taken things in a different direction.
But I don’t want to get too melancholy. There’s another, Trump-related reason I’ve been thinking of Washington these days.
It has to do with Washington’s vast vocabulary. The man could talk for hours—most of it on the record—frequently employing words that had reporters scurrying to the dictionary.
I should know, I was literally one of those reporters.
This was back in 1982. I was covering politics for the Chicago Reporter, a newsletter specializing in racial issues.
I was writing a story about the allegiance many Black aldermen felt toward the Democratic Machine and then-Mayor Jane Byrne. Even in the face of a coming Washington revolution.
I called Washington, then a congressman, for comments. He called me back when I least expected and left me scrambling to find a pen and paper to take notes as he launched into a dissertation ripping the Black aldermen as “scurrilous sellouts.”
At one point in the interview, I asked if he could see himself cutting a deal with some of the Black aldermanic incumbents, swapping promises for future City Hall jobs for their endorsements.
Hell, no, he thundered. There will be no “quid pro quo.”
Now, folks, I realize quid pro quo is all the rage these days thanks to Trump. As in his assertion that there was “no quid pro quo” when he demanded that more than $300 million in military aid, already approved by Congress, be sent to Ukraine only if the Ukrainian president announced his country was investigating Joe Biden.
I agree with Trump. That’s not quid pro quo—it’s flat-out extortion. But back to my interview with Harold.
I must make a confession: I didn’t know what quid pro quo meant.
I’d never studied Latin. Even now the only other Latin phrase I know is post hoc, ergo propter hoc—which roughly means: after this, therefore because of this.
As in—the rooster crows at the same time the sun rises; therefore, the sun rises because the rooster crows.
Obviously, that’s a fallacy. As everyone in Chicago knows—the sun rises because of Mayor Daley.
Just kidding, Chicago. Even I don’t think you’re that gullible.
Now, you have two choices when someone uses a word you don’t know. You can ask for a definition. Or you could plow on with the conversation, hoping to figure out the meaning from the context.
I was ashamed to admit that I—a proud graduate of Evanston Township High School—had never heard of quid pro quo.
Plus, Washington was on a roll. I think he was saying something like the Black aldermen were such sellouts they’d vote to rescind the Emancipation Proclamation if Mayor Byrne requested. Who was I to interrupt?
Instead, I wrote an approximation of what I thought Harold had said, something along the lines of “kwid crow pole.”
After the interview, I raced to the big dictionary we kept in the corner of the office. That’s right, youngsters, the office had a dictionary. And rotary phones. And electric typewriters. And I was wearing jeans and a Bulls T-shirt.
You know, I think I still have that Bulls T-shirt. Other than that—a different age!
It took me forever to figure out that “kwid crow pole” was actually quid pro quo—which, as everyone now knows, is Latin for “something for something.”
That phrase was just one of many things Harold Washington taught me in the few years that I knew him—along with: “Alderman Ed Burke’s not worth a pimple on an elephant’s ass.”
Which is as true today as it was back in 1987, when Harold said it to me during an interview. I tell you—the man had a way with words.
Sad to say, many Black politicians in Chicago headed in a different direction after Washington died, signing on with the very Machine he denounced.
Now we’ve got Barack Obama, cautioning Democrats not to be too “woke” or “revolutionary” or to make too many leftist demands—like health care for all. Warning that the way to beat Trump is to think smaller—to go along to get along.
This Thanksgiving I’m going to offer a toast to Harold Washington—the greatest mayor Chicago’s ever known—as a way of thanking him for all the lessons he taught me.
In all due respect to our former president, it’s going to take more Washington and less Obama to defeat Donald Trump. v