Rahm Emanuel has been mayor for 11 weeks now, and he still doesn’t look like he’s having fun. He snaps at reporters. He snipes at the teacher’s union. Partly, this is because Emanuel is an uptight, hypercompetitive guy. The goal of his social interactions isn’t to have a good time. It’s to put the people he’s interacting with in their place. But it’s also because being mayor of Chicago isn’t a lot of fun.
Try to think of a mayor who appeared to be enjoying himself.
Richard M. Daley was thoroughly unsuited for public speaking, and entered politics only out of family obligation. He was sweaty, inarticulate, and flushed like a chunk of rare roast beef when he got angry, which was often. On the occasions he couldn’t get an alderman to preside over the City Council, he looked incredibly bored.
Daley’s immediate predecessor, Eugene Sawyer, told his fellow alderman “I don’t want to be mayor” when he was asked to take the office after Harold Washington’s death. His mayoral demeanor earned him the nickname “Mayor Mumbles.”
Jane Byrne was so grim-faced that Mike Royko dubbed her “Little Ms. Sourpuss.” During her historic debate against Washington and Daley, she assured voters that she liked her job, in spite of the fact that she almost never smiled. Observers of Richard J. Daley noted that every year he seemed to work harder and take less pleasure at being mayor. Power was an addiction that could be cured only by death.
There’s only one mayor in modern memory who actually looked like he was kickin’ it up there on the Fifth Floor: Harold Washington. Eddie Murphy, who also had a breakout year in 1983, may have had the explanation in his movie Delirious:
"We got black politicians now," Murphy said during the act, which my editor won't let me embed here because of language. "Who’s that boy ... Harold Washington? Harold Washington said: '[Bleep] it!' And won. I know he’s still sitting around going: 'I really won the mother[bleeper]?'
It took a figure of charisma and ebbulience to break the color line at City Hall. Washington spent most of his time in office fighting with Ed Vrdolyak, Ed Burke and Ed Kelly, but still found time for moments of exuberance: dancing with Polish matrons on the Northwest Side, or claiming to have replaced Al Capone as the international face of Chicago. At his re-election party, he told the crowd, “In the old days, when you told people in other countries that you were from Chicago, they would say, ‘Boom-boom! Rat-a-tat-tat!’ Nowadays, they say, ‘How’s Harold?’!”
When people outside Chicago ask “How’s Rahm?” the response will be, “He seems to be in a bad mood.”
Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!