Friday, May 03, 2013

Before It's Too Late

God bless Adam Doster over at Chicago Magazine (although you can stop sending me offers to "Win Dinner and West Side Story Tickets!" already) for disinterring what Mr. Doster aptly describes as "one of the great ledes in Chicago journalism history", penned, you will not be shocked to discover, by the late Mike Royko:

”So I told Uncle Chester: Don’t worry, Harold Washington doesn’t want to marry your sister”
Which, in one sentence, describes with machine-lathe precision exactly what was galloping 'round and 'round through the terrified minds of hundreds of thousands of Chicago's ethic white "Uncle Chesters".

Royko went on to explain just how much Harold's experience had differed from the ethnic white Chicagoans who loathed him on-sight, and just how extraordinary it was that Harold had not allowed their hate to drag him down to their level:
First, Washington was born in an era when they still lynched people in some parts of the United States. By “lynched,” I mean they took a black man out of his home, put a rope around his neck and murdered him by hanging. Then they went home to bed knowing they were untouchable because the sheriff helped pull the rope. Washington suffered through it. God knows how he did that. I think that most of us–white, privileged, the success road wide open to us–might have turned into haters. Washington didn’t turn into a hater. Instead, he developed a capacity for living with his tormenters and understanding that in the flow of history there are deep valleys and heady peaks.
On this 30th anniversary of his inauguration as the first black man ever to be elected to the Big Chair on the 5th floor of Chicago' City Hall, lots of people are retrospecting thoughtfully on the legacy of Harold Washington this week, but surprisingly few of them are devoting any ink at all to what I consider to be the two most divisive and, ultimately, educational reactions to his campaign and his first term. 

First, the massive, racist backlash by ethnic whites: people who had been taught to vote straight Daley Party ticket since they were at their sainted mother's breast and who fled the Party overnight to vote en masse for the Republican candidate, Bernie Epton:
Winning Chicago’s Democratic primary is tantamount to winning election in normal years, but 1983 was not a normal election. Four years ago, Alex Kotlowitz and WBEZ’s This American Life—which devoted a full-hour show to Washington in 1997—revisited the unlikely, spirited, and (unintentionally?) race-baiting campaign of Bernie Epton, Washington’s Republican rival: 
Alex Kotlowitz: This slogan—"before it's too late"—became infamous, not only in Chicago but around the country. Its meaning seemed transparent, but not to Epton. Epton insisted, both in public and in private, that "before it's too late" plainly refer to Chicago's financial problems. 
The slogan set a tone for the campaign—the very tone Epton said he didn't want. Now, it was going to be whites versus blacks, with Epton as the white savior. And soon, anonymous leaflets popped up in white neighborhoods all over the city. One of them read, "Your vote for Mr. Epton will stop contamination of the city hall by a Mr. Baboon." Around town, Epton supporters donned various buttons. One depicted a watermelon with a slash through it. Another button had nothing on it at all. It was just white. None of these were being distributed by Upton's campaign, but it was all being done in his name.
And, second, the brutal, obstructionist campaign carried out against him by his opponents after he won fair and square.

Harold terrified Chicago's ethnic white rank-and-file voters because he was black. Period. And Harold terrified the white power structure because he was black and because he came to power on the strength of his coalition-building and on a platform that promised to attack the widespread institutional corruption that fueled much of Chicago government, and to more fairly distribute government services.

What followed was called Council Wars: years of brutal, racist, siege warfare led by Alderman Edward Burke and Alderman Edward R. "Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak and waged every day in the Chicago City Council chambers by the so-called "Vrdolyek 29":

The plan was simple: wreak as much havoc as possibly by blocking every single thing the duly elected mayor proposed while incessantly inflaming the paranoia and rage of their base.  Force Harold to sustain basic city operations by executive order...and then attack him for being a dictator.  Make the city ungovernable on purpose...and then try to hold Harold responsible for the poison fruits of their deliberate sabotage:
After the election of Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago, in 1983, a group of 29 of the city's 50 aldermen led by "the Eddies"—Ed Vrdolyak and Ed Burke—fought the mayor at every turn. The block of 29, known as the Vrdolyak 29, consisted of 28 white councilmen and the body's only Hispanic member.

The Vrdolyak 29 would not only block the mayor's proposals, but would even block his appointments, a purely symbolic move as they were able to take places running city departments on an interim basis anyway. In their first session under the Washington administration, they voted themselves in charge of every single council committee. Some members even admitted that they blocked the mayor's proposals when they thought they had merit, because they claimed a good measure by Washington would be bad in the long run for the city because it would help prolong his mayorship.

Many believe the opposition was racially motivated. There certainly was grounds for believing that as the 1983 mayoral election which Washington won gained national headlines for its ugly and racially divisive nature.

The Vrdolyak 29 had a majority of votes, but not enough to override a mayoral veto, thus creating legislative gridlock. Chicago became known as "Beirut by the Lake."

If this sounds remarkably familiar it is because, 30 years later, this is exactly the same strategy the GOP has been using for the last five years in an attempt to fatally wound the Obama Administration:
“In the end it didn’t pass because we’re so politicized. There were some on my side who did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it,” [Republican Senator Pat] Toomey said.
Keep the base whipped into a constant, paranoid frenzy, make the country ungovernable on purpose, and sit back and watch the Beltway Media do what it is built to do: bitch about Obama's failure to lead
As Joe Scarborough teams up with New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd to rewrite thestill-fresh history of Republican obstruction of über-popular gun reform, Salon editor and MSNBC contributor Joan Walsh forged a bipartisan consensus that Dowd’s “deeply stupid” Obama-blaming column is “preposterous.” 
National Review Online‘s Robert Costa agreed it was Republican politics, and not a lack of effort from the President, that doomed the Toomey/Manchin compromise. 
In the column, Dowd blames President Obama for getting a majority of the U.S. Senate to vote for expanded background checks, with scattershot advice about simultaneously “stroking” and “war(ring)” with senators, but the overall message is clear: everything is Barack Obama’s fault. The 42 Republicans who voted against the bill? Obama’s fault. He should have talked to his friend Tom Coburn (because we obviously know he didn’t), he should have given fewer speeches, except for the more speeches she wanted him to give, he should have been meaner and more strokey. The four Democrats who voted against the bill? Also Obama’s fault. The whole self-contradictory mess is peppered with bad facts (the President, or whoever, got enough Democrats to pass the bill in a straight up-or-down vote), bad conclusions (the people who require “stroking” and other “little things” are the “adults with power”), and just plain character assassination (did the President really care about the issue? Nah, “After the Newtown massacre, he and his aides hashed it out and decided he would look cold and unsympathetic if he didn’t push for some new regulations.”). 
Most ridiculously, though, Dowd argues it’s Obama’s fault because if this were an Aaron Sorkin movie, it would have gotten done. I’m not kidding, that’s Dowd’s argument. Go read it.
his failure to compromise (from Kevin Drum at Mother Jones):
The same is true for [David] Brooks's examples. It's Republicans who picked a fight over the debt ceiling that makes them look like wackos. It's Republicans who picked a fight over hurricane relief, earning the ire of Chris Christie and other members of their own party. (What was Obama supposed to do? Not propose any hurricane relief?) Ditto for gun regulations, where it's the NRA taking an absolutist position, not the president. Obama is plainly willing to compromise here, just as he's plainly willing to compromise over the budget. It's Republicans who aren't.

Brooks thinks Democrats should skip this stuff entirely. Not propose any significant legislation at all. Hell, the GOP is apparently so fragile that he's not even supposed to propose small stuff that might be popular (!) because it would do damage to a Republican party held hostage by—what was Michael Gerson's phrase? Oh yes: the "momentum of their ideology," which, like the law of gravity, literally forces Republicans to oppose even small, sensible spending programs.

This is crazy. You can't expect a president to back down on everything simply because the opposition party is in thrall to a bunch of fanatics who will interpret any action at all as a step on the road to tyranny or financial ruin. You have to try to get things done anyway. And along the way, if that exposes the fanatic faction as a millstone that needs to be dealt with, isn't that all to the good? After all, Brooks plainly has no sympathy for the tea party wing of the GOP. How else does he expect their influence to wane except by exposing their crackpottery to public view?
or his failure to otherwise to put a high enough shine on Mitch McConnell's shoes.

Barack Obama chose to move to Chicago in no small measure because of Harold Washington and owes a substantial portion of his early political victories to the remnants of the Washington coalition.  Which is why, for me, the most far-reaching failure of the Obama Administration was its early and shockingly craven unwillingness to do what Harold Washington did under nearly-identical circumstance: never stop looking for opportunities for genuine cooperation and compromise, but also never sacrifice the core principles on which your coalition was built in order to try to appease your nakedly hateful, hostile opposition and never be afraid to call out your despicable opponents by name and by deed from the podium and in the press.


Phil Perspective said...

So, your saying Obama should have pointed out Yurtle the Turtle's statement, before Obama was even inaugurated, of wanting to make him a one-term president? If so, I certainly agree!!

LitttlePig said...

Newly married to my Chicago bride in 1983 (she's actually from Steager, but that was Chicago to this hillbilly), I remember watching this all play out on that cable TV station I'd just discovered called WGN. Reading that Royko column and seeing that name '"Fast Eddie" Vrdolyak' brought it all back, a crash course in 'racism is not unique to us Southern folk'.

Thanks, dg. Gave me chills.

LitttlePig said...

This brings it all back to a fellow newly married to a Chicagoan in 1983 (actually she's from Steager, but that was Chicago to this hillbilly). Reading that Royko column and seeing the name 'Fast Eddie Vrdolyak' again puts me right back there, watching it play out on this new cable station, WGN. A crash course in how racism is not unique to us Southern folk.

Thanks, dg. Gave me chills.