During this presidential campaign, you’ve already heard Mitt Romney attack Barack Obama for being a Chicago politician. John McCain said the same thing four years ago. And it’s true. Obama is a Chicago politician. But he’s a particular kind of politician – the kind other Chicago politicians don’t want around.
To go along with its tradition of producing vulgar hacks like Richard J. Daley and Rod Blagojevich, Illinois also has a tradition of producing honest, articulate, intellectual statesmen. Think of Abraham Lincoln, Adlai Stevenson, Paul Douglas, Paul Simon…and Obama. The Democrats in particular have always been eager to slate such politicians. It’s good for the party’s image. It’s equally important to get those out of Springfield and Chicago, so they can’t stick their goody-goody noses into the dirty money-making going on there.
Everyone on that list, you’ll notice, eventually went to Washington. Lincoln was president; Stevenson ran for president twice, then became ambassador to the United Nations; Douglas, Simon and Obama were all senators. (Simon was a particular irritant to Machine politicians, writing an expose on Illinois politics for Harper’s.)
When Obama began his political career, his goal was to become mayor of Chicago. One reason Richard M. Daley became an enthusiastic supporter of Obama’s Senate ambition was that it removed a rival from Chicago, and put him in D.C., where he couldn’t cause any trouble. Instead, Obama passed on the office to a much more suitable successor – Rahm Emanuel, an unscrupulous Machine team player.
So next time you hear Mitt Romney talk about Obama’s Chicago politics, he’ll want you to think of Daley, Emanuel, Ryan and Blagojevich. But if Obama really were that kind of Chicago politician, he’d still be here in Chicago.
This month, Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland’s Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President will be available on Kindle for $1.99. Tracing Obama’s career in Chicago from his arrival as a community organizer to his election to the U.S. Senate, Young Mr. Obama tells the story of how a callow, presumptuous young man became a master politician, and of why only Chicago could have produced our first black president.