High political office sometimes brings out the best in people; sometimes people bring out the best in a political office. The mayoralty of Chicago often seems to have done neither. That, anyway, is one of the lessons of The Mayors, a new collection of 13 essays, each profiling a man or woman who has occupied–if not always entirely filled–the mayor’s office on the fifth floor of City Hall.

Unhappily, public ignorance of the city’s history is one of the enduring aspects of its political tradition. So even though The Mayors does not offer a comprehensive roster of Chicago’s first and finest, many of the careers summarized will be unfamiliar to the general reader. One such career is that of Joseph Medill, arguably Chicago’s first modern mayor. It also includes the Carter Harrisons, father and son, who managed to rule Chicago for 35 years without a machine; Fred Busse, who presided over the last hurrah of the liberal Republicans in 1907 after a campaign in which he gave not a single speech; Big Bill Thompson, who not only couldn’t have been elected dogcatcher in any other city but probably would have been rounded up by one; Anton Cermak, who organized his new Democratic machine like any other profit-making enterprise; Edward J. Kelly, who turned that machine into a monopoly (and almost ruined it in the process) in part by spurring the transformation of Chicago’s black voters from Republicans to Democrats; and of course Da Mayor and his recent successors.

The Mayors teeters unsteadily in style between biographical sketch and formal academic analysis. Arranged chronologically, the essays recount the change in city politics from intraparty factionalism based on personality early in the century (what one contributor here calls urban feudalism) to the creation of a multiethnic coalition, which evolved into the Democratic political machine that thrived from the Roosevelt and Truman years until its recent demise from something like Alzheimer’s disease. The focus of The Mayors is political biography, but certain key topics–ethnicity and race, partisan factionalism, vice as both issue and administrative style–recur so insistently that they, and not the men who held the office, become the central if tacit theme of this book.

The possibility that mayors are often captives of these underlying forces, that their careers float on historical tides that bear them toward uncharted landings, runs counter to Chicago’s politics of personality. It is the nature of a mayor like the late Richard Daley to create the impression that he is a man who makes events rather than one who is made by them, just as it is in the nature of voters to want to believe him; politics, after all, may be described as a lie that a majority believes in. Historians (whose art may be described as a lie that a minority believes in) should know better. Daley was smart, but he was also lucky, his success owed substantially to expanded federal aid, general prosperity, and an acquiescent state legislature.

Whether Chicago’s preoccupation with personality explains, or is explained by, the city’s appetite for political theater is not taken up directly in The Mayors. Political vaudeville is hardly unique to Chicago, of course (at least as long as Ed Koch is around). But where such shenanigans are decried in other cities as a corruption of or a diversion from serious politics, in Chicago they are serious politics. Melvin Holli goes so far here as to describe street theater as “that powerful impulse that Chicago politics is at its heart.”

That is a descriptive phrase but not a very informative one. A certain portion of bunkum has always been mixed in with American politics. Democracies reward a lowest-common-denominator style of campaigning, and the commercial media have come to insist on it. Chicago, however, is a veritable Mount Olympus of hooey. Its Zeus surely must be Republican William Hale “Big Bill” Thompson, who once amused himself between terms in the 1920s by debating a pair of caged rats. In 1927 Thompson beat William Dever, a reform-minded judge with brains and a reputation for honesty. The rest of the country (in the words of contributor John Schmidt) saw Dever’s defeat as “just what could be expected from Chicago.” Schmidt adds that Dever lacked several of the skills of the successful political executive (he had refused, against advice, to don tanner’s overalls to court the union vote), including “showmanship and a sense of nastiness.” That would be considered a compliment anywhere else.

The perception of the candidate as clown has become ingrained. The “old style of personality politics” may have heard its last hurrah in 1927 (as Schmidt says) but it was not replaced by a new style of politics, just new styles of personality. When Holli says of Jane Byrne that she put on a good show, he clearly intends it as a compliment. The risk is that by judging its mayors by the standards of the nightclub comic Chicago’s government will continue to be a joke.

Until the Progressive Era, the purpose of city government was assumed to be the accommodation of business. Indeed, in the days of Chicago’s headlong expansion, ribbon cutting was a full-time job performed by figurehead mayors who usually were businessmen themselves. (Medill, for instance, worked as publisher of the Tribune during his term; full-time professional politicians are a relatively recent innovation.) Businessmen as a class later quit politics but they did not give up government. Arnold Hirsch recalls that the urban renewal plan of the Martin Kennelly administrations was basically written by Chicago Title & Trust and Marshall Field & Company; Holli reminds us that it was outsider Jane Byrne’s need to reassure nervous big banks that led to her approval of the appointment to key council posts of old-guard hacks.

Political behavior is complicated by ethnicity, race, and religion, indeed is often confounded by them. Ethnic politics began to reshape the city more than a century ago when new immigrants–Irish, Germans, Swedes–struggled for political representation against Anglo-Saxon early arrivals. It is an open question whether Chicago mayors accommodated the city’s ethnic populations or merely exploited them. Other cities have had ethnic populations as diverse, and, overall, as large. But Chicago may have been unique in that so many of its ethnic communities were large enough to constitute culturally and politically (if not always physically) distinct entities.

Chicago politics gets much of its peculiar flavor from this ethnic stew. (Gustatory metaphors are irresistible when discussing ethnic politics, perhaps because of the influence of the major media, which sometimes seem to consider what goes into a candidate’s mouth much more interesting than what comes out of it.) For one thing, coalition politics demands candidates who are inoffensive to the largest number of groups. Usually, what makes for inoffensive politics makes for ineffectual leadership. There are exceptions, of course. Cermak, the Protestant Bohemian, was one, as was the younger Harrison (described by Edward Kantowicz): “A Protestant by birth, educated in Germany, at Irish-Catholic St. Ignatius, and at Waspy Yale, he was nearly a balanced ticket all by himself.” And ethnic politics doesn’t just exploit insularity and cultural (including racial) antagonisms, it risks perpetuating them by making ethnicity the basis of reward.

Our authors necessarily focus less on ethnic politics per se than on its effects, at some cost in understanding. Slightly more rigorous attention is paid to that other recurring motif, reform. Maureen Flanagan, writing about Fred Busse, warns that “reform” and “machine” are slippery categories into which to cram the mayors of the early 20th century. Her advice is still valid. It is the rare mayor who does not promise some kind of reform going into office, or who cannot boast of having achieved some kind of reform as he leaves it.

Much news copy has been chewed into cud by commentators trying to decide if Harold Washington is a reformer. Their confusion results mainly from their failure to ask, “Which kind?” Kantowicz explores the point in his profile of Carter Harrison II. (That “II” after his name, by the way, fit Harrison better than it would have fit any of his successors; he spoke French and wrote poetry.) Kantowicz notes that three distinct types of reform figure in city politics: moral, political, and civic. Moral reformers typically battled the evils of drink and vice; political reformers sought the sunny slopes where civil service and governmental efficiency bloom; civic reformers campaigned for the public regulation if not the outright public ownership of urban services. Chicago mayors’ reform ambitions thus varied according to their constituencies.

Chicago’s enduring reform constituency is small, consisting of (the phrase is Kantowicz’s) “the press, the Protestant pulpit, and the evangelical middle class.” That constituency used to be exclusively WASP, but no longer. At a party not long ago, a newcomer to the city described to an Irish Catholic native her visit to Washington’s second inauguration. The newcomer had been impressed by how polite and attentive the mostly black audience had been through a long speech. “They weren’t drunk,” the native explained. “It was a Protestant crowd.”

In an era when the urban population is substantially black, civil reform and civil rights coalesce. Chicago’s largest racial minority also comprises its largest single Protestant “ethnic” group, and arguably its most potent reform constituency. In the July Illinois Issues magazine, Christopher Reed, who teaches black history at the U. of I. at Chicago, describes the Washington movement as a good-government civic federation rather than a political machine.

William Grimshaw notes in his Mayors essay on Harold Washington that the dependence of poor blacks on the Machine for jobs, aid, and other benefits is an inevitable expedient, given their status in a white world. But it also is an uncomfortable one. The Machine’s endemic racism reinforced the longstanding cultural antipathy in the black community toward machine politics, which had its roots in the church and the civil rights movement. (Before Washington’s election, the presence of Machine-backed black aldermen, so often seen by outsiders as proof of democratic progress, was in fact evidence of its failure, since aldermen typically represented the Machine, not blacks.) Since the 1970s the black middle class has had a more comprehensive agenda. “The issues were not merely favors and jobs,” Grimshaw writes, “but racial equality, representation, and power.”

The result was the abandonment of the Machine by the politically sophisticated black middle class. This is where Washington’s own political roots lie. Indeed, the ambivalence of the black community toward the Machine was reflected in the mayor’s own personal ambivalence; his father, and hero, was a Machine man who was also a minister. Grimshaw asserts that Washington’s election enabled the divergent strains of black politics to merge in allegiance to one man, realizing in one candidacy both a spiritual and a political brotherhood.

Grimshaw’s explanation of Washington’s victories is not the only one entered to date, of course, nor should it be. One of the values of history over journalism, after all, is its assumption that no such question is ever settled. Historians are not immune to journalism’s baser impulses, alas. The Mayors concludes with the results of a 1985 poll of 40 local experts, taken to determine the “best” Chicago mayor. The question is silly, the answers useless; they appear at the tail end of the book, exactly where they ought to be. The Mayors is useful less for the answers it provides about the pre-Daley mayors than for reminding us that there are questions about them still worth asking. The fact that so many of these lesser-known careers seem familiar is cause for both comfort and despair. No battle is ever permanently lost in Chicago, but no victory stays won for very long either. Recurrence is the theme here laid out for the novice student of politics; the lesson for the practitioner is patience.

The Mayors: The Chicago Political Tradition edited by Paul M. Green and Melvin G. Holli, Southern Illinois University Press, $24.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.