A FIRE ON THE PRAIRIE: Chicago's Harold Washington and the Politics of Race by Gary Rivlin

A FIRE ON THE PRAIRIE: Chicago's Harold Washington and the Politics of Race

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A mostly admiring--though contentious, flatly written, and somewhat overlong--political biography of Harold Washington, mayor of Chicago from 1983-87. Rivlin has covered Chicago politics for the Chicago Reader and The Nation. The first half of Rivlin's account is devoted to the final years of Richard Daley's political machine and the struggle for power that followed between Daley's protÉgÉ Jane Byrne and--by Rivlin's account--his inept son, Richard Daley, Jr. The portraits of Byrne and Daley, Jr., are anything but flattering, but Rivlin's harshest words are reserved for Washington's rival Jesse Jackson, who emerges here as egotistical and opportunistic to a fault. When Washington won the Democratic primary for mayor in 1983, Jackson jumped forward and tried to introduce Washington's victory speech; when that failed, he tried to raise Washington's arm with his own as though it had been a joint triumph. Rivlin also gives much space to black nationalist Lu Palmer, and to a Polish city council powerhouse who in Washington's first term held sway over machine-loyal aldermen and prevented Washington from accomplishing much of anything. Washington gets high marks for an almost obsessive devotion to his job, for rising above considerations of race, for providing housing initiatives, and for attempting to lift Chicago government above the Daley legacy of cronyism. But he was not always effective as an administrator, Rivlin shows, and many of his own appointments were questionable. Washington's personal life was a shambles, with a succession of girlfriends, excessive drinking, and the tendency to be late or to miss appointments altogether. White backlash and wars with the city council put him under terrible stress, and he finally fell over at his desk with a coronary just at the point, in the beginning of his second term, when he had consolidated enough power to become truly effective. Perhaps his greatest legacy is that, to a large extent, he broke Daley's machine. Uneven and often, it seems, unfair, but Rivlin's research and intimate knowledge of the principals are impressive.

Pub Date: March 19th, 1992
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Henry Holt