Photo: Obama with Mayor Daley
Relationship with the
By Don Rose
Chicago Daily Observer
Read the newest trash-Obama book, check Tribune columnist John Kass, hear some of my Hyde Park buddies and you get a picture of Barack Obama as a traitorous cog in this incarnation of the Daley machine.
Others still revere him as a pure and cleansing light, lasering through the old politics, beaming us up to Democratic Nirvana.
Both portraits are pure bulljive, depending on which surface of this complex, multifaceted politician glints in your eye. There is something of the "Being There" quality to Obama: He is so new and exotic and appealing that everyone has a personal interpretation of who and what he really is--a blank slate we inscribe with our own dreams.
This is largely because Obama never fully plants himself in anyone's garden. The columnist David Brooks had an interesting riff on this, pointing out, for example, that while he was on the University of Chicago Law School faculty, he never was of the faculty--never fully engaged.
He was involved in independent Democratic politics but never fully immersed--and as a state senator never wedded to the legislature.
Brooks cites other instances, then insightfully points out that this peripheral stance, only one foot planted anywhere ideologically or emotionally, is what sharpens his critical intelligence and exceptional analytic powers.
There is no doubt he is a progressive, reform-minded politician, although not every position he holds reflects that image. He is a liberal who believes to a limited extent in the death penalty--and while some call it a flip-flop, it is a long-held position.
He is a civil libertarian who voted for the recent Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), including immunity for miscreant telecom companies. It was as destructive to the Constitution as anything G. W. Bush ever proposed. It also was an actual flip-flop. Earlier, Obama pledged to filibuster against telecom immunity.
And so it is with the Machine.
Obama was elected to the Illinois Senate as an independent Democrat--as one must in Hyde Park--by winning the primary with no help from the regular organization. But, like all but a tiny handful of earlier independents, he never ran an "anti-Machine" or "anti-Daley" campaign.
He was welcomed into the Dem caucus, which needed his vote, and in return got help for his own progressive legislation. There's a long tradition of this trade-off, going back to Abner Mikva and Dick Newhouse, his progressive predecessors. A fellow Hyde Park "independent," Barbara Flynn Currie, not only joined the House caucus, but became surgically attached to Speaker Michael Madigan.
Obama also was mentored by one of the hackiest hacks, Senate Majority leader Emil Jones, in a relationship that eventually helped him win the U.S. Senate primary.
That race, too, was independent of the Machine--except for some black ward committeemen Jones lined up--but not "anti" the Machine, whose white minions were backing Dan Hynes, son of Daley's pal Tom.
Minimally, Obama had to reach détente with the regulars to win the general election--as Carol Moseley Braun and Paul Simon did before him. (Later Daley leaped at the chance to endorse Obama for president, just to keep him out of Chicago and any thoughts of the 5th Floor.)
Virtually all the independent progressives elected to Springfield or Washington paid little attention to corruption in Chicago.
When was the last time Currie mentioned it--or U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky?
Only Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr. keeps at it--and that's because he still has his eye on the 5th Floor.
Obama endorsed several fellow independents, but never framed them as warriors against the Machine, as in the Harold Washington era.
When he endorsed a couple of the worst Machine hacks, including Cook County Board President Todd Stroger, it was less an act of obeisance to Daley than to the African American political base. But many read it as homage to the Machine.
Once again, though he has a cooperative relationship with the Machine, he keeps another foot planted with independents and reformers such as Mikva, Leon Despres and former Washington Corporation Counsel Judd Miner.
Yes, he is a politician with a good whiff of the old but still much of the new. His interrelationships are as complex as the man himself.
He is an extraordinary figure negotiating a dangerous political minefield on his way to the prize. He knows he will never make everyone happy in the course of that zigzag journey. He sometimes goes astray, as with FISA, but he has kept most of his personal integrity and progressive values reasonably intact.
Franklin D. Roosevelt's coalition included the nation's most corrupt urban political machines as well as the racist bourbons of the segregated old south. Yet he also managed to beam us up to Democratic Nirvana.