Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Mayor Daley retires. We all ask ourselves: what now?

In an one of the most shocking events in Chicago's history, powerful Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley has announced he will retire from office at the end of his current term.  Don't think it's shocking?  Hasn't happened in about a century.   Mayors either get booted by the voters or are carried out feet first.  Sawyer? Defeated.  Washington? died in office.  Byrne, Bilandic, Kennelly, Thompson - all defeated.  Richard J. Daley and Anton Cermak - died in office.

The mark of a great executive is knowing when to quit.  Mayor Richard M. Daley has decided it's time.  Like his father before him, he could probably have gotten re-elected as many times as he wanted, but also like his father, the later terms in his tenure would become increasingly contentious and unpleasant.  For the first time, we will have an ex-mayor who will be able to become, in retirement,  a beloved presence, courted on all sides for advice.  If he wrote a truly honest book about how things actually worked, it would become a textbook for civic administration.  If written with the bark off, it would top the best seller lists.

We now have those people throwing their hands up in chicken-little style, moaning and groaning:  "We're all doomed!  What will we do now?"

"Grow up."  That's probably not what Richard M. Daley will say to us, but he should.  He should tell us:

"For the past twenty years, I've tried to be everything to everyone.  I've been the great Earth Father everyone turned to, always expecting I'd be able to make everything right.   And over time our leadership structure grew weaker and weaker.  The circle of people I felt I could depend upon grew smaller and smaller, and I had to recycle them from position to position, like a game of musical chairs."

"And exactly where were you in this equation?  Other than flattering me and telling me what you thought I wanted to hear?  Over time, you didn't get stronger to face up to me.  You grew weak."

"When I started, I was a Daley, sure, but basically I was just a guy people thought would do a good job.  By the time I finished, I had somehow - oh, wait, maybe I had something to do with it - evolved into this kind  of all-knowing, all-powerful, all-healing Civic Shaman.  Only I was never quite as powerful as everyone thought.  If I were, do you think I  would have ever have let things gotten out of hand?"

"Don't get me wrong,  I enjoyed the perks.  I really enjoyed the perks.  I enjoyed - maybe a little bit too much - the way you can swagger when you're king of the hill. But if I was sometimes a bully, you were often way too comfortable being my punching bag.""

"But as you've probably heard somewhere, heavy hangs the head, you know?  Now it's on your head.  How are you going to handle it?  Will you just  go looking for another tooth fairy, so you don't have to do the dirty work, the heavy lifting?  Or are you going to become an adult and do what's necessary to keep a great city great?"
It make not look like it now, but our mayor has given us what is perhaps the greatest gift of his career, and an even greater challenge.   We've been spending the last decades having our political and civic consciousness grounded by Richard M. Daley, of loving him or hating him, of having him be the source of gravity that seemingly kept everything from flying off into space.  And now we won't.   As Robert Redford's character asked, after unexpectedly winning election in the film The Candidate, "What do we do now?"

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