The Candidate of Cool

“I’ve been reading and rereading The Art of War by Sun-tzu, said Paul O’Connor while he was running for mayor. “What it is is a Taoist masterpiece, the Taoist philosophy, a fascinating document and very small, as all great things are. One thing that’s clear is that when you get in the kind of situation I’m in here, I’m basically in a kayak in an ice floe, and basically I have to see if I can see a way to get through and paddle fast and not get crushed by these huge ice floes.”

The ice floe that scared him most was Ed Vrdolyak.

O’Connor got into the race in November, he told us, because “this race stuff is so profoundly objectionable. Fuck this! This is 1988, not 1965 in Selma, Alabama. It’s just this group of 14 or 15 guys [the other candidates]. If they ever rode the bus or went into the Jewel they’d see whites and blacks in Chicago are pretty mellow.”

So O’Connor figured an “Abraham Lincoln Republican” like himself would be good for the city’s soul and the party’s soul, and might even get elected. “I sent a note to the governor saying ‘I’m thinking of running for mayor. I think I can win. I think I would be a good mayor. I’m probably too chicken shit to do so, but you ought to know.'” Some black committeemen were encouraging, the Sun-Times did a story–there O’Connor was, a candidate.

O’Connor got out of the race a couple of days ago because he was in over his head. His statement of farewell began: “My 15 minutes of fame is up, and I’m outta here.” He got out before he started spending himself silly, and before he’d been so much as dinged by that big ice floe, whom O’Connor also enjoys describing as his party’s “800-pound gorilla.”

“I’d love to be the mayor of Chicago, but I’d rather not be a punching bag to Ed Vrdolyak, thank you very much,” O’Connor explained. “It’s a matter of personal and family honor.”

Paul O’Connor is the eldest son of retired TV commentator Len O’Connor. “He stood for something,” said Paul wryly. “And more important, he stood toe-to-toe against the Machine. And here’s his kid wading into the shark-infested waters.”

And right back out. Too bad. What O’Connor brought to the race for mayor was perspective. During the summer of ’66 he was a teenage film courier for NBC. His job took him to all the worst things that were happening in the city. Nothing equaled Dr. Martin Luther King’s march into Marquette Park. “It was the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen,” O’Connor said. “It was white-heat violence. It was like watching antelope. Everyone was actually in the park running. They would be going at top speed one way and then suddenly shift direction. It was terrifying.”

In ’67 O’Connor did something remarkable. He dropped out of the University of Chicago and joined the Army–his protest against what he now calls the country’s “racist and Darwinistic draft policies for Vietnam.” He wasn’t a civilian again until 1971. Then he enrolled at the School of the Art Institute under the GI Bill and studied color and sculpture. In 1972 Mike Royko hired him as his legman.

O’Connor had a few things under his belt, but Royko ragged him as a white kid from Winnetka who needed to see the real city. “He’d send me on the el out into the projects,” O’Connor remembered. “The only way to do it in those days was to carry yourself like a policeman. And you got another acculturation just answering Royko’s phone. He was a court of last resort.”

O’Connor went on, “The main thing is, on the sidewalks of Chicago there was a palpable intensity of racial hatred. You’d get this eye contact of racial hatred that was like a thump in the chest. Every transaction was like a nervous deal. For all sides. Even the white kids who’d marched in Selma were jumpy. It was hot. Blacks were steamed up after being kept down on the farm. I got the hell out of here in ’75.”

He split for Seattle, a place “where you see what tolerance is like.” O’Connor went to work for the Post-Intelligencer, and in 1981, when John Spellman, a liberal Republican, was elected governor of the state of Washington, O’Connor signed on as press secretary. “I wound up with the exalted title of counselor to the governor. I was his closest personal aide and the only one of the personal staff who went the distance with him.”

But Spellman failed to get himself reelected in 1984; and for ten months O’Connor didn’t have a job. The two things he didn’t want to do were go back to the Post-Intelligencer and go back to Chicago. He wound up back in Chicago, taking a humble PR job with the state Department of Public Health. While he was here interviewing for it, he visited our jazz festival.

“It was a phenomenon. Everyone was mellow. There was a blanket of blacks here, a blanket of blacks there. Banter. Sharing of jokes. People being mellow.”

So? We were silently accusing O’Connor of gross extrapolation, when he embellished his case. “Then I drove all over the city. I walked all over the city. What used to be forbidden territory to someone who was white was nowhere [to be found] now.”

Today, said O’Connor, “I shop at the Jewel on Harrison on the near west side and there may be 20 percent white customers. There’s no heat there; nobody’s mad. We’re nice and easygoing in the aisles. Get on the Congress Street el and we’re all on there doing our middle-class things. You can watch racial tension. There’s a nervousness in the eyes, the look of trapped animals.

“It’s not there. That great racial divide is not there.”

O’Connor continued, “The difference in 10 or 15 years is enormous. And I sincerely believe Harold Washington made this happen. It was not a conscious plan, but he was the white nightmare come true and the world didn’t end. Here was Harold saying he was going to punch Vrdolyak in the nose and he’d laugh and everybody on the ten o’clock news laughed.

“So I just don’t see it. The emperor of racism has no clothes on. There’s a way to win [the mayoralty] and the key is to blow through racism, hit it hard, say bullshit on the deal, and in three days you’re out of there and you don’t do racism again.

“Jesse is right. He was right until he came back home. The issue in elections, the issue that faces the underclass, is not their skin color, it’s economic justice. Racism has always had the economic result of keeping people down. . . . We have huge tracts of the best-served industrial land on earth and we can’t get anybody to go in there with a dime store. And the reason is race. I’m sorry to go on and on but it drives me nuts. And the other thing that drives me nuts is Jesse. Here’s the Rainbow Coalition–it plays in Peoria, it wins in Michigan. And he comes home and it’s racial again.”

O’Connor rose quickly in Illinois government. He’s now deputy director of the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs–“responsible for six divisions,” he pointed out.

Here’s what he would have brought to City Hall: “Juicy quotes, comedy, regular guyness, and an infinitely greater understanding of the executive branch of government operations.” Those are glittering assets, even the last one.

Common Ground: George and Mikhail

“Five hundred thousand troops! I told you this fellow is a marvel,” the president beamed. “Don’t you wish you had his balls?” he whispered to the vice president, giving him a friendly elbow in the side.

It was lunchtime on Governors Island. Everyone was in a terrific mood. The Soviet leader had just made a historic speech and the wives were off shopping.

“You think I was a little too romantic?” the Soviet leader wondered.

“Heck no,” said the president. “This is America.”

During lunch the president told the one about the welfare queen and the rabbi. Then he yawned. “You two fellows can read each other’s lips without me,” he said with a twinkle. “I think I’ll catch 40 winks.”

He rolled over on the couch and fell asleep.

“I am not sure how much he ever understands, but it is impossible to dislike him,” said the Soviet leader warmly.

“Yes,” the vice president agreed. “He is a great American.”

“So . . .” said the Soviet leader. The vice president wriggled self-consciously. He fiddled with the laces of his Topsiders.

“Let me tell you one or two things about my country,” said the Soviet leader thoughtfully. “We are a sentimental people. We believe in the glorious heritage of Mother Russia. Of course, when Mother Russia was most glorious you were lucky to have a beet for your borscht and a potato for your vodka. Still, it is a glorious heritage.

“Let us call that the nostalgia thing.”

The vice president nodded.

“Then along came the revolution. Of course it was a glorious revolution. The workers took over the country. And now there is no such thing as poverty in the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the ruble is worth nothing, and we cannot make a decent pair of shoes. But no man is poor.”

“Let us call that the voodoo economics thing.”

A sigh escaped the vice president.

“Now who was the architect of my nation’s present glory? Why it was Lenin, of course. The people love Lenin. Of course I love Lenin too. ‘If only Lenin were here,’ say the Russian people when times are hard. ‘Lenin would know what to do.’ As I struggle with one or two small difficulties that somehow escaped the attention of our great and all-knowing father. In my country, you see, Lenin is never the obstacle; he is always the inspiration.

“I sometimes think of that as the win-one-for-the-Gipper thing.”

The Soviet leader fell silent. There was no sound in the room save for the dozing president, who was wheezing sign-off lines from General Electric Theater.

“All I ask in the days ahead is that you try to understand my position,” said the Soviet leader gravely.

“I can certainly try,” said the vice president.

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