Politics & Policy

That Corruptin’ Town

Let's fix Chicago.

American politics is suffering acutely from the gridlock of entrenched officeholders and election financing controlled by special interests. Over 300 of the 435 congressional districts almost never change partisan hands. Most congressmen have safely gerrymandered districts, receive the bulk of their financial support from one or a few sources, and are reliable legislative supporters of those sources. Their main additional activities are to add “earmarks” favoring their own districts to legislation in exchange for their support of other legislators’ bills. It is a log-rolling and back-scratching exercise that has nothing to do with the Periclean exercise in disinterested law-giving envisioned by the authors of the Constitution. In a 2008 campaign that was otherwise a geriatric blunderbuss, John McCain at least raised the issue of the impropriety of these methods (to the bemused dismissiveness of the winning candidate).

The role of money is greater in U.S. politics than it is in that of any other advanced country, just as the U.S. is in other respects the most commercialized of all advanced countries. Campaign-finance reform has been an exercise in futile and self-serving hypocrisy. Organized labor gave the Democrats $400 million in the year leading up to the 2008 election. Labor has already received an impressive return on its money, although its most cherished goal — the abolition of the secret ballot in union elections and the restoration of thuggish self-perpetuation of labor leadership (card-check) — has foundered on the shoals of public concern, which, beyond a certain point, overwhelms the loyalties of those legislators in whose fidelity supporters have invested.

The federal government intervened to gut the rights of the General Motors and Chrysler bondholders, and delivered those companies into the hands of the United Auto Workers, one of the most retrograde and Luddite unions in America — and the chief author, even beyond decades of incompetent management, of the demise of those companies. President Obama, in complete consistency with his effort to nationalize health care to reduce its costs, secured $50,000 of union health and pension benefits per manufactured vehicle by crushing the shareholders and robbing the other supposedly secured stakeholders.

The American trial-lawyers’ association contributed $47 million to the Obama campaign, which has proved sufficient to ensure that malpractice awards are not capped and that health plans continue to be loaded with expensive preventive tests as legal defensive moves. This has sunk any possibility of reducing the $3,000 additional per capita health-care costs in the U.S. (Compare them with those in other advanced countries. The U.S.: over $7,000. Canada, Australia, the U.K., France, Germany, and Japan: over $4,000.)

The U.S. has become a nation of what were called rotten boroughs” in Britain before the passage of the First Reform Act in 1832 (which broadened the electorate and sensibly redistricted constituencies). These were legislative districts that were won as soon as the nomination process was complete. From post-Reconstruction times to the 1970s, the Democrats had almost all the congressional representation in the South, and so usually controlled Congress; and, through the seniority system, most committee chairmen were Southerners, somewhat mitigating the impact of the Northern victory in the Civil War.

Now, control seesaws between the parties, but the seniority system is still sclerotic, though not regionally dominated. Elections and the preferments of tangibly patronized members of Congress have become appallingly expensive, and the system is profoundly corrupt and taints many of its chief practitioners. Senate majority leader Harry Reid has carved in a special reward of federal health-care money for his state of Nevada, and Democratic Senate whip Dick Durbin has, in the interests of the commodity-exchange preeminence of his home city of Chicago, pulled the teeth out of bills purporting to crack down on commodity speculators. Congress’s most powerful person in matters of public finance, House Ways and Means Committee chairman Charlie Rangel, has apparently filed fraudulent tax returns for years and has even ripped off the New York City rent-control regime. The House Ethics Committee, not an organization martyred to the work ethic, has been “looking into” this for many months.

The bold championship of term limits in the Dole-Gingrich revolution of 1994 has vanished. Those men retired voluntarily from Congress, but few other members of the congressional leadership have. The presidency alone has term limits in this system, but on the only occasion when a president sought a third term, Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, all civilization depended on his success, as the champion of “all aid short of war” for Britain and Canada against Nazi Germany. Without him, those countries could not have stayed in the war until the U.S. joined it after Pearl Harbor.

Yet almost the only dignified retirements of major democratic leaders since World War II have been those of term-limited U.S. presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. In that time, great leaders of other democracies, Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, Charles de Gaulle and Margaret Thatcher, have all, after eleven to fourteen years in their countries’ highest offices, been plunged inelegantly into honored retirement.

Of all the rotten boroughs in America, the most egregious is Chicago. The great-shoulders-and-elbows metropolis of ethnic diversity at the core of America, traditional architectural capital, and rival to New York as cultural center of the nation, one of the most folklorically rich cities in the world, the country’s third-largest urban complex with 10 million people in its environs, has been in the iron and generally benign grip of the Cook County Democratic machine for 80 years.

The last Republican mayor of Chicago, Big Bill Thompson, was largely identified with the rise to immortality of Twenties mobster Alphonse Capone, Chicago’s most famous historic figure, surpassing such eminences in more respectable fields as Clarence Darrow, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ernest Hemingway, Enrico Fermi, Milton Friedman, and Michael Jordan, and perhaps even Barack Obama. Thompson’s most lapidary utterance was his promise to “punch King George [V] in the nose.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt purged or curbed the Democratic-party bosses elsewhere: Tammany’s James J. Walker of New York (Beau James), Tom Pendergast of Kansas City, James Michael Curley (The Last Hurrah) of Boston, Frank Hague of New Jersey. But the Kelly-Nash-Arvey-Daley machine in Chicago held seven Democratic conventions from 1932 to 1968, staging the farcical “draft” of FDR to a third term in 1940, the ejection of Henry Wallace and insertion of Harry Truman as vice president in 1944 (both on Roosevelt’s orders), and the elevation of Gov. Adlai Stevenson in 1952 (the only major-party presidential nominee from Illinois between Lincoln and Obama), this last because Arvey thought “an intellectual would be good for our image.” The Chicago machine effected the outright theft of Illinois for John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon in the razor-thin 1960 election by 9,000 votes out of over 5 million cast, with a strategic disappearance of ballot boxes still theoretically under investigation, and the bloody debacle and “police riot” of the 1968 convention, when Hubert Humphrey defeated Eugene McCarthy after the withdrawal of Lyndon Johnson and the assassination of Robert Kennedy.

Mayors Daley, father and son, have won twelve mayoral terms and have ruled in city hall for 43 of the last 54 years. Richard M. Daley was reelected mayor with 79 percent of the vote in 2003 and 70 percent in 2007, but in the aftermath of the Olympic fiasco is at only about 30 percent in the polls now.

Chicago is beautiful, largely safe, clean, well-organized, and human in scale despite its vastness. No American city has done a better job of keeping its core alive and vital, or its waterfront as ecologically pleasing and accessible. But Chicago is subdivided into scores of wards and minor municipalities that are riddled with corruption and conflicting legal crusades. A terrifying and high-handed U.S. attorney picks off Daley acolytes like clay pigeons, and the Cook County prosecutors are trying to muzzle a Northwestern University law-school project of examining false prosecutions by the machine. The project has saved a number of people from the death penalty and liberated many other innocents, but is now being prosecuted for its inconvenient humanitarian efforts.

There are conflicts, overlaps, subplots, and Machiavellian chicanery everywhere. Another interesting current legal initiative is the personal campaign of Joe Fosco, scion of a Teamster union family once associated with the Capones, to recover blackmail money he claims was extorted from him by the mob and to establish his good name. He is fighting a lonely battle against public- and private-sector interests who are not accustomed to being treated as if they were accountable.

Chicago is the last stand of the conservative Democrats, the tough liberals of the Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Scoop Jackson mold, as the Giuliani-Bloomberg faction is the last stand of the liberal, Rockefeller-Javits Republicans. This Mayor Daley, chastened perhaps by the disaster of the convention of 1968 that alienated the local Left from his father’s hard-hat, multiethnic coalition, has suborned the Bill Ayers Left, and, in the manner of foreign populist-authoritarian regimes, like those of Castro, Chávez, Perón, the Mexican PRI, and even Mussolini, makes common cause with many of the intellectuals. The most visible product of the alliance of these bedfellows is the incumbent president; Mr. Obama and his chief of staff, former Chicago congressman Rahm Emanuel, are skilled and unselfconscious practitioners of the rough-and-tumble Chicago school of politics.

What America needs is a revival of the federal two-party system throughout the land and not just in the partisan identity of the president, Senate majority leader, and House speaker. The rotten boroughs will spoil the whole political system. Chicago, true to its vocation as a swaggering and muscular, streetwise town, has written a gripping suite of chapters in the country’s political and cultural history, but after 80 years, the greatest rotten borough in the world should be sliced, cleaned, and restored to its rightful owners. Thus, and not otherwise, can that remarkable and endearing city continue at the vanguard of national affairs.

Conrad Black is the author of Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom and Richard M. Nixon: A Life in Full. He can be reached at cbletters@gmail.com.

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