Shangri-la on the Lake | Bleader

Shangri-la on the Lake

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If you ever find yourself singing Chicago's praises to the folks who wish you'd come back home to Topeka, without actually believing a single word you hear yourself saying, then I have just the article for you. Salon's "Look Homeward, Obama," by Dan Conley, a former speechwriter for Mayor Daley, is as dewy-eyed a  portrait of our city as you'll find this side of a City Hall press release. Conley's larger point is that when Obama preaches the politics of consensus he should be taken seriously, because . . .

Because "anyone who doubts that a toxic political environment can be overcome should look to Chicago. Consensus has become more conspicuous than conflict. Deal-making is more important than showboating. In short, the city's politics has become post-partisan. It's a concept that should be familiar to anyone who has followed Obama's presidential bid."

I don't think there's any question but that Richard M. Daley has run a more inclusive administration than his father, Richard J.,  and that the son's big insight was the recognition that most of his political opposition would go away as soon as he cut it in on the action. Conley aggregates personalities as disparate as the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Tony Rezko, and Bill Ayers, because they all measure up to what he seems to think is the only standard that matters in Chicago -- they all have something to offer. Ayers, for example, "has become an expert in public school reform. He wants to participate at the table and he brings something to that table, so he's taken seriously. . . . In Chicago, as long as you bring something to the table, people are willing (almost eager) to ignore the less flattering dimensions of your character."

And as for the screwed-over little guy who's the hero of 10,000 newspaper columns, Conley bathes his tormentors in as gentle a light as will ever find them: "Critics might also argue that leaving a seat at the table open -- and allowing a multitude of unelected leaders to emerge -- opens the door to corruption. Chicagoans would respond that the true naif is anyone who thinks that citizens who are inactive in politics -- who bring nothing to the table -- should share equally in the largesse of government. Politics does not reward passivity."

Conley came to town in the mid 90s, and he's got a shaky grasp of the history that set the stage he found when he got here. For instance, he suggests that Council Wars preceded the '83 primary between Byrne, Daley, and Washington. And today's docile City Council symbolizes restoration, not reform.  Conley writes: "In the same chamber that during the Council Wars featured endless parliamentary maneuvers and more than a few fistfights, policies are ratified in generally dull proceedings; details are usually ironed out internally before going public." Conley likes to think of this colorless secrecy as post-partisan; someone else might call it post-antiauthoritarian. Details are forever being quietly ironed out internally by Chicago's movers and shakers, who regard public knowledge of their intentions in pretty much the same way biologists regard the atmosphere of Jupiter -- as incompatible with life as we know it.

Conley's article has stirred up a lot of response at Salon, where plenty of his readers wonder what he's been smoking. Some don't recognize Conley's Chicago, some don't buy the idea that Obama was ever enough of a player in Chicago politics to warrant being discussed in that context. But others are Obama fans happy  to embrace Conley's premise, which he restates in conclusion: "What Obama promises is an America where politics is a good thing, where arguments on the merits are encouraged, where a seat is always open for anyone eager to sit at the table and contribute what they can."

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