Harold Washington, Chicago politics, and the roots of the Obama presidency

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Judge Charles E. Freeman swears in Harold Washington as Chicago mayor on April 29, 1983. Outgoing mayor Jane Byrne is at right.
  • Keith Hale/Sun Times Media
  • Judge Charles E. Freeman swears in Harold Washington as Chicago mayor on April 29, 1983. Outgoing mayor Jane Byrne is at right.
In 1992, Gary Rivlin published Fire on the Prairie, an engrossing account of the seamy side of Chicago politics (if there's another side to Chicago politics, not even Ben Joravsky has found it) and the election of Harold Washington as the city's first black mayor. On November 29 Temple University Press releases an updated, revised edition: Fire on the Prairie: Harold Washington, Chicago Politics, and the Roots of the Obama Presidency. It's the best book ever on Harold Washington.

The new edition contains a foreword by journalist Clarence Page and an introduction by political scientist Larry Bennett (author of The Third City: Chicago and American Urbanism). Both merit quotations.

From Page's foreword:


Like Mike Royko's Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, Rivlin's chronicle of Washington's rise and power struggles has weathered the test of time as a classic Dickensian portrait of big city politics amid seismic racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic change.

Obama says he never met Harold Washington, but he appears to have been an eager student of Washington's life. The excitement generated by Washington's 1983 election helped to lure Obama as a Columbia University graduate to work as a community organizer in Chicago two years later, he says.

"Those years," Obama told WBEZ radio's Cheryl Corley on the twentieth anniversary of the mayor's death, "watching him as a larger-than-life figure and seeing the impact he had on the confidence of the African American community, the hopefulness of the community, it had a lasting impact on me. And I suspect that was the first time when I fully appreciated the potentials of a political figure, not just to pass laws, but also to change people's attitude about themselves."

And from Bennett's intro:

During the Harold Washington years Gary Rivlin was a young journalist working for the Chicago Reader, a respected weekly periodical with a commitment to aggressive reporting on local politics. Rivlin's writing in the Reader was distinctive, eschewing the insider-shaped, horse-race-oriented reporting of so many would-be heirs to Mike Royko, yet at the same time, nuanced in recording the idiosyncrasies of Chicago politicians' vocal inflections and astute in interpreting what was of fundamental importance about Chicago's political wars in the 1980s.


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If you're a Reader reader, I can presume that you're politically astute and that you've already read Fire on the Prairie, so I won't bore you with a complete recap. (It'll make a great Christmas gift. Pick up a couple copies.) But here's Rivlin's account of that historic Democratic mayoral primary election day (it's as exciting as Argo, even though like in the movie you know how it ends):

"Election day—February 22, 1983—had the Washington campaign riddled with paranoia. Several residents from the Robert Taylor Homes called the campaign in a panic. Each had received a notice instructing someone to stay home for a spot inspection. "Failure to admit [an] inspector," the letter said, "is a violation of your lease, and your tenancy could be terminated." The CHA routinely sent threatening letters like these, but these fueled bitter talk of the machine stifling the black vote. The el line taking commuters home to the south side broke down during rush hour—the critical last hours for voting—and there was more talk of sabotage. The campaign claimed the CTA did not offer a satisfactory explanation, but then the CTA never does. On the positive side, the weather that day was unseasonably warm, which would help drive up the turnout.

"Early returns showed Washington in a tight race with Byrne. On the TV, the newscasters were speechless. Channel 2's Walter Jacobson shook his head, befuddled. How could all of us have been so wrong? he asked. He looked around him and, in a rare moment of candor, offered that the problem was self-evident. They were five white men trying to describe a phenomenon occurring in neighborhoods about which they knew next to nothing.

"The race was close. In the end, Washington secured 36 percent of the vote compared to Byrne's 34 percent and Daley's 30 percent. The margin of victory was 33,000 votes out of 1.2 million cast. Byrne and Daley split the white vote almost exactly down the middle, while Washington pulled 85 percent of the black vote. Black turnout didn't reach 80 percent, as hoped, but the 70 percent turnout among registered voters was astonishing in a country where 50 percent turnout in a presidential election year is considered good. In the end, Washington could have won without a single white vote.

"At Washington headquarters, people screamed and hugged and didn't know whether to laugh or cry. There were reminders that there was still another election, that Washington had only won the Democratic nomination, but they were ignored like teetotalers preaching abstinence at a cocktail party. An old wino partaking in the celebration told a Washington friend that he had stayed sober for three days to make sure he remembered to vote. A little after midnight, someone announced that Byrne had gone to bed. The crowd booed.

"It was nearly 2 a.m. when Washington made his way to the podium. The crowd serenaded him, chanting, 'We want Harold.' 'Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.' Washington must have repeated those words twenty-four times. His next line was one his supporters would joyously repeat over and again in the next few days. 'You want Harold? You got 'im.'"

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  • Catherine Westergaard
  • Gary Rivlin

As noted by Bennett, Gary Rivlin was a staff writer for the Reader at one time, and Rivlin cites a number of Reader compatriots in his Note on Sources: John Conroy, Steve Bogira, Ben Joravsky, Ted Cox, and Michael Miner. It's an honor for me to say that I've worked with all these guys over the years too: top-notch journalists and darn good people to boot.

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