STEVEN INSKEEP, host:
For most of the past half century, the mayor of Chicago has been a man named Richard Daley. Two mayors, father and son, share one of the biggest names in American politics. In a novel about Chicago politics, NPR's Scott Simon aims lower - a good deal lower. He writes of the members of the Chicago city council known by the antique title of alderman.
Describe them please, Scott.
SCOTT SIMON: Most people recognized only a few aldermen by name, but tended to associate almost all of them with a series of traits - alderman mangled language. Unless disciplined, they behaved like four year olds trying to catch candy spilling out of a pinata.
They would tell a blind newsstand clerk that a five dollar bill was a twenty. They might be occasionally entraining in the way that Roman emperors kept young children at their banquet tables for amusement. But you wouldn't want your sister, your daughter or nowadays your son to marry an alderman.
INSKEEP: Scott Simon's novel is called "Windy City." It's a familiar voice to many NPR listeners. He's the host of NPR's WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY. Scott's in our studios.
Welcome to the program here.
SIMON: Thank you (unintelligible).
INSKEEP: What do you remember of aldermen growing up and spending much of your youth, anyway, in Chicago?
SIMON: Objects of fun, like the people who would sit on dunking stools at carnivals or something like that.
INSKEEP: Dunking stools? You mean the…
SIMON: The one you throw the ball at…
INSKEEP: …ball at they go into a tank?
SIMON: There was the occasional exception, but for the most, they were objects of fun.
INSKEEP: And a key part of one of the great American cities, I guess.
SIMON: Yes. And objects of fun and ridicule and mocking as they are, at some other level they managed to get the job done.
Now, when I became a reporter, I, you know, I understood that a few of them out of the 50 were people who were capable. And then when I became a human being and a father and I understood that all of them were human beings. They weren't just mere clowns.
INSKEEP: Now, you talk about becoming a human being. What do you mean by that?
SIMON: Something about politics that I understood - and I had to come face to face with it in writing "Windy City" - is it is at once the most self-absorbed and selfless enterprise I can think of. Self-absorbed in that if there's a volcano in Krakatoa, East of Java, a politician, even a Chicago alderman, asks, well, how does this affect me? Selfless in the sense that the sheer time and the emotional energy that politics sucks out of people. It makes me wind up with a fundamental respect for anybody with the nerve to put their name on a ballot.
INSKEEP: We should mention this novel begins with the death of a mayor of Chicago.
INSKEEP: I don't think that's giving away too much.
SIMON: In his - at his desk in City Hall.
INSKEEP: Drops dead with his face in a pizza, as I recall.
SIMON: A pizza he was consuming.
INSKEEP: And the rest of the novel is consumed with a number of different things, but one of them is the selection of the next mayor of Chicago. It'll be one of these aldermen. Within hours, you depict these politicians having already counted the votes…
INSKEEP: …already calculated their chances. They're looking for the next opportunity…
INSKEEP: …even as this man, who they've worked with for years, has died.
SIMON: That's how politicians react. You spend a minute dabbing your eyes and grieving and then go onto, you know, what can I do? How does this affect me?
INSKEEP: And why did you decide to focus on a main character who was an Indian American alderman?
SIMON: I think Indians, if they choose to pursue it, could have quite a career in American politics, in the same way that I think the Irish had a big impact on American politics.
INSKEEP: There was a period when it seemed that every policeman and many politicians were Irish.
SIMON: Yes, I think we can say that. And in Chicago, there is sometimes still the sensation that a lot of policemen and politicians are Irish.
(Soundbite of laughter)
INSKEEP: And Italian period and many other things. Sure.
SIMON: Yes, because I think for some of the same reasons as the Irish, the Indians speak English, often quite beautifully and lyrically, and they have experience in a rambunctious democratic system.
INSKEEP: And you're also telling me how this city that…
INSKEEP: …you've written about for so many years is changing.
INSKEEP: That it's not just Eastern European or Irish immigrants we're talking about…
SIMON: Yes. It's the immigration that's coming from different areas now than it used to. And it's made Chicago, along with New York and Los Angeles, a real reflection of the world.
INSKEEP: Well, now tell me, though, this is a city that was at one point famous for excluding African-Americans from power.
INSKEEP: For having all kinds of racial problems.
SIMON: And a lot of policemen have recently been under investigation for police brutality. I had an alderman tell me - I forget the exact number of people on the present city council who have actually been indicted or convicted.
INSKEEP: This is a real alderman telling you. The real (unintelligible).
SIMON: This is a real - yes, a real alderman telling me this about the real present-day Chicago city council. And he said, you know, if you run the numbers, this could be the highest crime area in the United States based on the number of people who've actually been brought out of here in handcuffs.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: That - I think that's quite true.
INSKEEP: Do you think the people who come to Chicago end up practicing politics any differently than anywhere else?
SIMON: I think politics is a local specialty in Chicago, the way that blues and improvisational comedy is a local specialty. And as a matter of fact, I think politics often resembles the blues and improvisational comedy in Chicago.
(Soundbite of laughter)
SIMON: And, yes, I think so. I think there's a distinct way of practicing politics in Chicago. There's a distinct fun to politics in Chicago. I think that's why so many people participate. I used to think that was a little odd, but I think the fun factor is important to keep people engaged, you know. It's local theater.
INSKEEP: Now, is the fun embracing the selfishness of this? That if you're a city councilman you may be serving the public, but you'll do anything, it seems, to serve yourself as well?
SIMON: Yes. I think that's sometimes the case. But, you know, I come back - and I kept thinking about this - to a line Joseph Conrad once wrote, where he said, all I know is that he who forms a tie is lost. The germ of corruption has entered his soul.
Take a look at all the minutia that has to be done in the city. And I have an alderman at one point say, look, people might forgive you for voting for or against the war in Iraq, but they'll never forgive you for putting up a four-way stop sign at the corner of Wrightwood and Clark.
All that detail is accomplished with compromise. I found myself using the word compromise more than corruption, because I think to get stuff done, you have to recognize what's in the mutual self-interest of the people sitting across the table.
INSKEEP: What Conrad is saying in that quote, is he not, that if you have a friend, if you have an ally, you're going to end up being dragged in a different direction by them.
INSKEEP: That's what he said.
SIMON: And that's exactly the case. There is the balance between having some sense of yourself and standing for something and yet also being open enough to being changed, you know. Otherwise, you could just do all of this by computer.
You could ask people, do you want the four-way stop at the corner of Wrightwood and Clark, or do you want to authorize the president to invade Iraq? And you could just have people push buttons on computers. But the whole idea is to get people together and talk to each other and change their minds.
INSKEEP: Well, tell me, here in Washington where we're having this conversation, people will sometimes say Congress and the Washington scene is horrible. It's corrupt. But it ends up working about the way that it's supposed to be. That is the defense that is sometimes made of Washington. Are you saying the same thing about politics in general, or the Chicago city council in particular?
SIMON: The fact is, look, I have of fun with the corruption and the temptation in Chicago politics. And I think there's a lot that's hideous, that's not worth having fun about, a lot that needs changing.
I think I say - Sunny Roopini, my principal character in "Windy City," says at one point, of course the system isn't fair. It favors the rich and the beautiful and the shameless. But everybody gets a chance to try.
INSKEEP: The novel is "Windy City." The author is Scott Simon.
Thanks very much, Scott.
SIMON: Thank you, Steve.
(Soundbite of music)
INSKEEP: By the way, one of the alderman in Scott Simon's novel offers some insight on politicians and sex scandals - timely reading this morning. And you can read that rather explicit passage at npr.org. It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
And I'm Renee Montagne.