John Kass is so often wrong in my view that I try to maintain a quota system on how often I write to disagree with him. But there's an idee fixe at the core of Kass's Tribune columns, and I would not only defend his right to belabor it but think Chicago is better off that he does.
He put it succinctly in a column last week critiquing the new CNN series Chicagoland: "For a century or so, the people of Chicago have been slapped around by politicians, by the bosses, and the city succeeded not because of them, but in spite of them. Through the years, the bosses have been built up by mythmakers, depicted as benevolent strongmen trying their best to run this unruly city of tribes. Such mythmaking continues on CNN."
Do the people get the government they deserve? Maybe, if they keep reelecting it. I came to Chicago in 1970 preconditioned by the '68 convention to think the worst of Mayor Richard J. Daley, and joined a press corps in which just about everyone under 30 already did. The opposition was largely generational, and included a smattering of aldermen and legislators the mayor largely ignored. The first Mayor Daley was a strong leader but a limited man: his tent was not a large one and you entered it on his terms or not at all. Corruption surrounded him. He could live with that, but disloyalty needed to be weeded out.
At that time, Kass's idee fixe was common currency.
When Richard M. Daley's time came, he was smart enough to realize that a lot of his father's old critics hadn't opposed Richard J. on principle but because they were young, smart, and ambitious—and wanted inside the tent. So his own was bigger. For a long while the press was beguiled by all the grace notes of the second Daley era—the verdant lane dividers, the interest in the arts, the openness to the gay rights movement, and, above all, the success in positioning Chicago as a global city with an economy driven by finance instead of manufacturing. You could walk for miles in Daley's Chicago and never be more than two blocks from a Starbucks. It took the press a while to figure out how much corruption there still was. I'm not sure the national press ever entirely caught on.
And now the mayor is Rahm Emanuel, who got my vote and will get my next vote for exactly the reason Kass suspects: because I think he's smart and tough enough to run a complicated and tribal city. It's not wrong for a city to elect a mayor for this reason, but it's nothing to be especially proud of, and that's what Kass won't let anyone forget. Part of Emanuel's appeal, in some eyes, is that he's Putinesque; Putin rides bareback shirtless, hang glides, and goes eye to eye with wild beasts. Emanuel completes triathlons and flings himself into the icy waters of Lake Michigan, scampering out grinning while Jimmy Fallon staggers to the dressing room, the hapless Dmitry Medvedev to Emanuel's Putin.
But Putin's an oligarch, running a country that isn't ready for democracy—and if he has his way it never will be. Kass wants Chicago to stop thinking it can be no better, and he's contemptuous of journalists he thinks glorify the city. In a column last May he described Chicago government as a kind of reign of chronic terror: "So everybody kept their mouths shut, and Chicago was hailed by national political reporters as the city that works. I didn't understand it all back then [as a kid], but I understand it now. Once there were old bosses. Now there are new bosses. And shopkeepers still keep their mouths shut. Tavern owners still keep their mouths shut. Even billionaires keep their mouths shut."
He slammed Chicagoland because it's a perfect example of what he's talking about. First, there's the element of the guy I know who knows a guy. He pointed out that Chicagoland is "directed by filmmakers with connections to Rahm's brother Ari, the super agent at the William Morris agency." And then there's the myth-making: "It's good TV, good drama. And drama needs heroes. . . . There is one hero above all. The man who keeps his cool and his compassion, while maintaining a hard edge as he runs for re-election: Rahm Emanuel."
Kass isn't the only one to notice the fawning. Alessandra Stanley wrote in the New York Times that Chicagoland "looks more like an ad campaign than a documentary."
As for me, the first hour of Chicagoland was a reminder of how the national media doted on Richard M. in the first part of his administration, and of the ongoing legend of Eliot Ness. Kass would add that it's also reminiscent of the media's treatment of Barack Obama when he ran for president. In a column last week Kass called Obama a "gentle stalk of asparagus when it came to Chicago's City Hall" who was wafted to the White House by journalists "placing laurel wreaths" upon his head. I think Kass is all over the map on Obama, but I give him this: journalists do seem to have a weakness for seeing Chicago in terms of constant mayhem and gallant knights—sort of like Gotham in the Batman comics.
If Kass admires Chicagoland a little as TV it's because he's judging it by what he thinks it was out to accomplish. Emanuel's "election theme in 2011, the one approved by the guys with money in this town, was that he was the only one who could bring order and save the city from uncertainty. This is constantly reinforced in 'Chicagoland.' So of course this is supremely political. This is Chicago, and he's the mayor, and he's got something to sell. That something is himself."
Kass has said all this before and will again, which is its charm. The never-ending drizzle of an old idea against granite is what—sometimes—wears it down a little.