Of Salon, Daley and Obama

From 2002, Charles Taylor’s account of a brutal 1995 Chicago heat wave that killed 739 people — more than died in the famous 1871 Chicago fire, more than died in the Oklahoma City bombing, and more than die in most hurricanes. The grim details speak for themselves:

Obviously, many of those people died. But even in death, the bureaucracy let them down. So many bodies came into the medical examiner’s office that eventually nine refrigerated meat trailers had to be set up in the parking lot to house the corpses. With the city’s 56 ambulances overworked, police had to transport bodies to the morgue (many in a state of decomposition), where they often had to wait an hour and a half to file their paperwork, thus delaying them from answering calls about elderly neighbors who had not been seen in a few days. The city finally offered parolees the opportunity to cut their parole time if they volunteered to move bodies.

“It was a classic case,” Taylor contends, “of how deciding to run a city like a corporation can put citizens’ lives in danger. … The Chicago city government operated exactly as a government is intended to operate when it’s following the entrepreneurial model. [Italics his.] When saving money takes precedence over providing adequate services, even in an emergency, then we can no longer expect government to do the basic job of saving the lives of citizens in danger.”

The villain of the story, in Taylor’s view — and he piles up more than enough evidence for most readers to agree with him — is Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley, son of that other Mayor Daley (“a bully,” Taylor calls him, considerably understating it), whose officials considered the deaths the “inevitable” result of an “act of God.” Unwilling to treat the heat wave as a crisis, they expressed the most appallingly callous attitude toward Chicagoans: “It wasn’t going to matter … I think the people were going to die anyway.” In fact, the story reads like a harrowing anticipation of the way the federal government threw away an entire city in the aftermath of an even deadlier natural disaster in 2005. Clearly, the Republicans have no monopoly on short-sighted autocrats.

Taylor was once Salon’s third movie critic, and his occasional political articles crackled with righteous indignation and gleeful, balloon-pricking spite. I didn’t often agree with him — he hero-worshipped Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton — but I always loved reading his stuff. While other Salon writers often seemed to be writing solely for an audience of the type of people who read Salon every day (a phenomenon only exacerbated by the introduction of Salon Premium), Taylor could be hard and unsentimental and angry in a way that was genuinely stirring. “The Chicago media regularly talked about the “debate” over what caused the deaths,” snarls Taylor. “But there was no debate: There was scientific fact and there were Mayor Daley’s efforts to cover his ass.”

Since the coming of new Salon EIC Joan Walsh (whose ignorant pronouncements blight the front page almost every day), political coverage has all but taken over the entire site. Taylor has been fired, replaced by an army of professional commentators. With the exception of the great Glenn Greenwald — still the most consistent critic of the Bush administration’s attack on constitutional liberties and everyone who’s letting it happen — their coverage has been blandly serviceable and inoffensive. Salon’s always been a frustratingly hit-and-miss site. Their coverage of the Democratic primaries was so aggressively pro-Clinton that one commenter rightly complained that, were Obama to win the nomination, Salon’s headline would read “Clinton loses nomination.” But there’s a real partisan blankness to the site now, a discernable reluctance to criticize the powerful.

Just compare Taylor’s piece with this truly repellent article by an ex-Daley speechwriter, Dan Conley. The article’s apparent subject is Chicago politics, but we’re left with little impression of what that kind of politics actually results in. We’re left with a vaguely uplifting picture of a kind of boys’ only club where everyone knows each other and likes each other and does favors for each other. To an insider like Conley, that’s “just politics.” In other words, No Big Deal. He seems to think that it’s just a charming local tradition, like eating a hot dog at a Cubs game. As for anyone who cherishes stupid ideals about government: “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.” Read that last sentence carefully — Conley isn’t just talking about getting a few perks from a few harmlessly shady deals. He’s talking about getting any help from the government. If you “bring nothing to the table” — like all the Chicagoans who don’t happen to matter to the machine — then you’re not worth the trouble. Just like those 739 Chicagoans who it wasn’t worth the Daley machine’s trouble to save.

Inadvertently giving away more than he knows (“You’ll like it here (in Chicago),” Conley recalls Daley telling him on their first meeting. “There’s not a lot of partisan politics.”), Conley attempts to portray the Chicago mayor as, of all things, a principled believer in self-government:

Daley has strong beliefs about personal responsibility. He doesn’t believe that it’s the proper role of government to promise a solution for every problem — citizens have a responsibility to take care of their children, join block clubs, go to police beat meetings, run for local school councils and take ownership of their own communities. It’s a powerful message — one that defines him as a public servant and has made him an effective mayor for two decades — but it can be a difficult message to write without making the speaker sound like a scold.

In other words, shut up and quit pestering those who know better. Somehow one suspects this isn’t what Jefferson had in mind when he proposed dividing the counties into wards!

Conley hopes Obama learned from his time in Chicago. I hope he didn’t learn a thing; Obama’s refusal to stand up against the corruption of Illinois politics is the most troubling thing about him. It’s inaccurate to call him a “machine politician” — he wasn’t supported by Daley on his initial run for Congress and only got a rather reluctant endorsement late in the race when he successfully ran for the Senate — but he’s consistently failed to voice any criticism of Conley’s boys only club.

He certainly doesn’t have to worry about this being an issue in the campaign — the media doesn’t care since no concrete scandal’s attached, McCain’s running the most inept campaign in decades, and the left doesn’t seem to care about crooked political machines at all (perhaps thinking it something only right-wingers are vulgar enough to bring up). But Obama’s wonderfully eloquent speeches — the best of any politician since Reagan — rarely bring up genuine republican issues, the kind you found in the speeches of Lincoln, of La Follette, of Gene McCarthy. To do that, he’d have to attack genuine corruption — the kind that helped put him where he is today. Perhaps it’s too much to ask — but given the amount of, yes, hope we’re all investing in the campaign, I don’t think it is.

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