Second Only to the President: Richard J. Daley in Mike Royko’s "Boss"

Second Only to the President: Richard J. Daley in Mike Royko’s "Boss"

Mike Royko | Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago | Penguin | 1971 | 216 Pages


The fall issue of Middle West Review will feature an important article about the once-famous Cleveland mayor Tom Johnson. Some day a good book will be written about Dennis Kucinich, the Cleveland mayor who went to Congress and held down the left end of the Democratic Party for many years. Other books will surely follow about the mayors of blue Midwestern cities who operate in largely red Midwestern states.

All these books will need to contend with Mike Royko’s Boss, a memorable treatment of the famous Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago—“duh mare,” “hizzoner,” “duh leader.” Royko’s columns could once be read in millions of American homes. His column was written directly for the Chicago Tribune and other Chicago papers, but it was syndicated nationwide. I remember seeing it constantly in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader as a kid, back when the newspaper editorial pages were broad and included a half-dozen columnists each day. Royko grew up above a bar in Chicago—his mother was Polish and his father was Ukrainian. He understood the ethnic machinations of his city and boss-ism. Chicago was a city of neighborhoods, often cloistered and sealed off from each other. Royko smartly notes that Daley “grew up a small-town boy” because the tight ethnic neighborhoods of Chicago are as “small-townish as any village in the wheat fields” of the broader Midwest.

The first impression one gets from Boss is how Irish the whole story is. Daley was raised in the Bridgeport neighborhood, which was part of the Irish South Side. In particular, it was part of the Back of the Yards area, which takes its name from and was made famous by the Chicago slaughterhouses of old. Daley’s father’s parents came from Country Waterford and his mother’s parents from Limerick and they attended the Nativity Church in Bridgeport. He went to mass every day, was protective of his family, dedicated to his wife, and loyal to his Irish friends. He had a bond with the Kennedys. When he became mayor, Daley was the third mayor in a row from Irish Bridgeport, following mayors Ed Kelly and Martin Kennelly (when Daley died he was succeeded by another Bridgeporter). Daley’s Chicago was run by the Irish: Matt Danahar, Dan Ryan, Thomas Keane, Tommy Doyle, Joe McDonough, Babe Connelly, David Shanahan, Edward Hanrahan…

Tired of Irish domination, the other ethnic groups in the city once tried to unite under the Czech Anton Cermak. “Uneducated, tough, crude, but politically brilliant, Cermak had the gall to challenge the traditional South Side Irish domination of the Democratic Party” which, Royko says, the South Siders saw as the “worst thing since the potato famine.” It didn’t last, however. In an odd twist of fate, Cermak was in Miami speaking with FDR when an assassin tried to shoot FDR and hit Cermak instead. Cermak died and quickly the South Side installed Ed Kelly as mayor and Pat Nash as head of the Democratic Party. Pints were hoisted to the return of regular order.

Royko’s other focus is how Chicago’s Democratic Machine worked. He explains the precinct and ward system (the ward bosses were known as “the clout,” “the guy,” or “the Chinaman”) and the demands of loyalty to the Machine. Favors were dispensed, housing projects awarded to loyalists, parking tickets fixed, driveway permits rigged, sons of Machine families put on the payroll, cops cut in on the deals, hydrants opened during the summer on favored streets (to cool off children in the spray). The Machine, when functioning, could easily defeat its two main but weaker opponents: Republicans and independents/reformers/liberals who had broken away from the Democratic Machine. The rebels usually failed badly and Daley would win 70% or more of the vote. Besides the mayor’s office, the most important office to win was the state’s attorney position because a rogue DA could threaten the Machine. Above all, the Machine did things—it built massive expressways (the Dan Ryan, for example), it built convention centers, it razed neighborhoods for the construction of the University of Illinois-Chicago Circle campus, it changed O’Hare from an air force outpost into a major international airport.

The crescendo came in the 1960s. Daley delivered Illinois for the Kennedys in 1960, won his own elections by wide margins, and donned the cover of Time. Daley “was the most powerful political leader in Illinois’ history, and, with the single exception of the president, the most powerful politician in the country.” Daley also fatefully secured the Democratic national convention for Chicago in 1968. “Chicago [was] still a square town,” Royko explains, so the full force of the 60s counter-culture and anti-war protesters hitting the city was a recipe for conflict (Daley used to walk down to Michigan Avenue every morning to his office, chatting with constituents along the way, but this ended in the 1960s when the protesters descended). The Minnesotan Hubert Humphrey, a bad fit for an era of rage, was doomed—Daley thought him a “loser”—and riots ensued and Daley’s legacy was sealed for the ages. A new age was arriving. The rise of the civil rights movement, the decline of heavy of industry, urban decay, suburbanization, and other forces all brought the end of boss rule in the 1970s and created a new form of big city politics. But if one wants to understand what came before the current era, start with Boss.


This review was written as part of our series on Midwestern history, a collection of reviews on histories and texts of historical significance in the region. Writers interested in contributing to this series are encouraged to contact its editor, Jacob A. Bruggeman.

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