Four Books To Help You Master Chicago Politics The term "Chicago politics" gets bandied about whenever people complain about what they see as corruption and abuse of power. But what does it actually mean? These four books examine the city's hardball approach to politics through various lenses.
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Four Books To Help You Master Chicago Politics

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Four Books To Help You Master Chicago Politics

Four Books To Help You Master Chicago Politics

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Throughout this election year, we've been reading and talking about political books. So far we've talked about books examining Abraham Lincoln, a president the candidates often mention. We also picked up "The Boys on the Bus," a classic book about campaign reporting. Today's books flesh out a phrase Republicans often apply to President Obama, Chicago politics.

KARL ROVE: It is a sign of what happens when you have Chicago-style politics, and the President of the United States and his political minions are in essence using our tax dollars to buy...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Mitt Romney said that this action represents Chicago-style politics at its worst.

REPRESENTATIVE AARON SCHOCK: Not only because they know President Obama, but they also know his team, that is really kind of the Chicago machine apparatus.

INSKEEP: That's Karl Rove, an MSNBC anchor quoting Mitt Romney, and Illinois Republican Aaron Schock all talking about Chicago politics. For books on that subject, we've brought in Ann Marie Lipinski. She worked every job at the Chicago Tribune, from intern to editor. She's on the line. Welcome to the program.


INSKEEP: Also Frank James, who write NPR's It's All Politics blog, and before that spent decades in Chicago for the Wall Street Journal and Chicago Tribune. Welcome to you, Frank.


INSKEEP: And Scott Simon, the former chief of NPR's Chicago bureau, now hosts WEEKEND EDITION SATURDAY, a show that pretends that it's broadcast from Chicago. Hi Scott.

SCOTT SIMON, BYLINE: A lot of people think we are. Might as well be.

INSKEEP: It's not an accident. Let's talk about what may be the most famous political book set in Chicago, "Boss," by Mike Royko. What's it about?

SIMON: You know, people will tell you that it's about Chicago politics, and it is. I would also make the argument that it's about politics. I mean, it underscores the fact that when politics is effective, it delivers services to people; and it describes both the successes and the failures in equal measure that the Daley organization had in Chicago.

INSKEEP: I suppose we need to explain this. When we say the Daley organization...

SIMON: Oh, we mean, Richard J. Daley.

INSKEEP: And not the second one who just recently retired as mayor of Chicago.

SIMON: After serving for mayor longer than his father, and he was a different man and it was of a different era. All of that being said, there was a kind of basic commonality of character.

INSKEEP: Frank James, this was a guy who personified Chicago politics. What was Mayor Richard Daley's governing style?

JAMES: Mayor Richard J. Daley's governing style...

SIMON: Frank, you know what I'm going to do for the governing style?


INSKEEP: Just pounded his fist on a table here.

JAMES: There you go, that's very good. That's pretty much it. That's all you need to say, the closed fist. Mayor Daley was a very, very tough guy. He basically ran the city the way a dictator would. If you crossed the mayor, or da mayor, as I should say, he would basically cut your legs off. Not literally, I don't think, but politically you would sent to Nowheresville.

INSKEEP: Ann Marie Lipinski, my favorite chapter of this book is I think the first one which just describes Mayor Daley's commute to work. It's the late '60s, it's the early '70s, and he's coming out of a little bungalow in an ethnic neighborhood in Chicago and getting in a car and just riding through his city, the city that he owned, practically.

LIPINSKI: It's a beautiful and in some ways iconic account of the mayor, and columnist Mike Royko begins this book as Daley begins his day, very early in the morning, the limousine pulling up to the front of this pink bungalow, and then following him throughout the day. Much of day spent, of course, on five as they say in Chicago, which is the fifth floor at City Hall where the mayor resides, and it's there that you really see City Hall in Chicago as not just the epicenter of politics in Chicago, but in some ways of American urban politics at the time.

INSKEEP: Scott Simon, you recommended another book at Chicago politics, "Don't Make No Waves - Don't Back No Losers."

SIMON: Yeah. By Milt Rakove who admired the Chicago Democratic organization, unlike a lot of other academics. And he said the beauty of the ward system was that you had somebody who lived in your neighborhood whom you could go to and say something as modest as, look, I really need my trash picked up, which is not modest if it begins to pile up.

LIPINSKI: There are also a lot of people for whom that system did not work, and that is something that of course gives rise to Harold Washington's election in 1983. I used to sit in aldermanic offices in what was called Ward Night, and every alderman had one. You know, one night a week where his or her constituents - mostly he in those days - would come through, and it was this parade of favor askers.

INSKEEP: Mm-hmm.

LIPINSKI: And if you were not somehow, you know, beloved or in the good graces of the alderman, you may or may not get your trash can changed that week. You may or may not get the streetlights changed outside your house that month.

INSKEEP: Ann Marie Lipinski, you just said Harold Washington's election in 1983. Of course, he was the first African-American mayor of Chicago in that interregnum between the Daleys, I suppose. You're suggesting there I guess that African-Americans were left out of this equation until they sought political power.

LIPINSKI: Yeah. I don't think there's any question about that, and Mayor Washington, I think, very articulately captured that notion that African-Americans had, and that also, you know, the so-called goo-goos - good government types - in the white precincts of the city very much share it as well.

INSKEEP: I'm glad you mentioned that phrase, because it allows us to bring in another book here. Frank James recommended "Grafter and Goo Goos: Corruption and Reform in Chicago 1833 to 2003," which suggests that the effort to reform corrupt Chicago politics is an old, old story.

JAMES: That's part of the problem, I think, in Chicago, that there is this sense that it is just part of the place, that people were always on the make there, and that meant doing whatever it took, politically, or, you know, in business or criminally, and sometimes those things all melded together, to make your fortune.

INSKEEP: President Obama is now part of the Chicago political story, and Republicans mention that every chance they get. How does he relate to this history we've been discussing?

LIPINSKI: I think it's interesting because it sort of begs the question, what do we mean when we say Chicago-style politics? And it seems that people mean one of two things. There was this traditional meaning derived from a style of governing that valued control and patronage and, you know, when you could manage it, the exploitation of one's office for personal gain. I think, more recently, pundits and Republicans have been using it to describe a sort of bullying style of politics, you know.

If they bring a knife, you bring a gun. And so if, you know, Richard J. Daley kind of personifies the first, and, you know, Al Capone sort of personifies the second, it's kind of hard to see where the president fits in that. He's never sat very comfortably in that world.

SIMON: I want to disagree with Ann Marie about that. Senator Obama always got along with the Daley organization and the Daley brothers. He ran against Bobby Rush for Congress as, kind of, their candidate, and lost. The people who were closest to him politically, be they, you know David Axelrod, be they Bill Daley, Rahm Emanuel, obviously they were both chief of staff. They were members of the - what I'll call the Daley fraternity, if not necessarily the Daley organization.

LIPINSKI: Well, I think Scott's right to draw connections to that, that I'm not sure that he fits the classic mold as, you know, Royko describes in "Boss."

INSKEEP: I feel like this discussion underlines that Chicago politics or Chicago politician is a double-edged term. It can mean ruthless and nasty and tough, but it can also mean, ruthless and nasty and tough, and not weak in getting things done.

SIMON: Well, and I mean, for a lot of Americans, who do you want sitting down with Vladimir Putin? Do you want the goo-goo Chicago reformer, or do want someone who says I'm not going to go to a gunfight with a cap pistol?

INSKEEP: Scott Simons of NPR's WEEKEND EDITION, and author of the novel about Chicago politics, "Windy City." Scott, thanks very much.

SIMON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Frank James of NPR's It's All Politics blog. Frank, thanks to you.

JAMES: Thank you.

INSKEEP: And Ann Marie Lipinski, once the editor of the Chicago Tribune, now with the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Thanks.

LIPINSKI: A pleasure. Thank you.

INSKEEP: And you can find their book recommendations on Chicago politics at

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