Once inside, [my father] put down the bundle of newspapers he carried under his arm . . . and hugged my mother. Then he took his fedora hat off his head and put it on mine.

It was assumed that I would have a fedora hat of my own by the time I was twelve years old. My father had had his first fedora at the age of nine, but he recognized that the circumstances of his bringing up had been different from the circumstances of mine . . . and he would not insist on anything inappropriate or embarrassing. . . . But certainly, he said, at the end of boyhood . . . it would be necessary for me to wear a fedora hat. I have, in fact, worn a fedora hat, but ironically. Irony has seeped into the felt of any fedora hat I have ever owned–not out of any wish of mine but out of necessity. A fedora hat worn by me without the necessary protective irony would eat through my head and kill me. –George W.S. Trow, Within the Context of No Context

They should just stand up and say they don’t want the 70 million. Somebody should get some guts. –Mayor Daley, on opponents of the Com Ed franchise

Somebody should hand the mayor a hat. Soon. Please. The irony is killing him. Us. The city.

It seems whenever it’s crunch time in Chicago, the mayor has this compulsion to crack wise. If some fellow pol crosses him, he turns on the Jimmy Cagney routine. The least press probe elicits whiny emissions of bitter (and often irrelevant) pith.

School Chief is rattling off numbers that clash disastrously with the city’s? Just send that naughty schoolboy back to do his “homework.” Top Cop starts complaining about murder rates and manpower? Suggest he might be happier “back in China.” Uppity Lady Treasurer standing between a few close pals and some juicy pension funds? Ice that gal–talk about “gratitude.”

He’s bad to the bone, this mayor of ours. Too bad it’s only the funny bone. Master of sarcasm, king of the quick quip, sultan of insult, grand potentate of the putdown: All the backroom, closed-door modes of crony control, Richard M. has them packed and ready in his tool chest, but he’s like a humor nerd who keeps insisting on bringing all his tools to the party. This is a kid who equates bluster with power, flippancy with toughness, irony with strength.

It’s one thing his daddy couldn’t teach him: the lash of wit is a great disarmer, scatterer of opposing forces, tickler of the social plexus–but you do not rule by ridicule. Leadership takes the weary populace the shortest distance it can find, which is usually close to a straight line.

Our body politic is overdosed on irony. We are woozy with one-liners–everybody is cleverer than the next guy, and still no one can tell us where the buck really stops.

We are all gasping in the bad gas of free-floating irony. As a cautionary tale, we can contemplate the modern myth of The Witches of Eastwick, the evil forces unleashed by people who refuse to acknowledge the nature of their inner powers. But we are not looking upon a tidy New England hamlet suddenly awash in rut and the vomit of cherry pits here. Here we are looking at our schools, our transport, our garbage, our police, our utilities, our sewers, our streets, our bridges–bad jokes piled up everywhere we look, heaped and steaming like the man-made berms of methane-seeping Cal City sludge. (“Hey!” goes the punch line, “let’s build an airport on it!”)

The mayor’s protective layer of irony is so thick, the fedora hat his father wore will not settle on his head. It’s cockeyed. It looks funny. Everyone can see it now except the one who should.

Put it on right, Mayor Daley. Please. Wear it straight. We’re waiting.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bill Stamets.