I usually don’t write about the arts. Politics is my passion. But when the arts cross into politics, especially Chicago politics, an interest of mine both by profession and birth, well, it’s something I just can’t ignore.
Boss is a new TV series on Starz. It is about a political boss in Chicago. It has gotten a lot of good publicity, especially about Kelsey Grammer’s thespian skill in his portrayal of a tough Chicago mayor, loosely modeled, some say, after the inimitable Richard J. Daley, not to be confused with his son, Richard M. Daley.
Grammer’s Tom Kane character is tough and violent, caught between the pragmatic desire to get things done for the city he loves and the numerous obstacles presented by a multiplicity of parasitic, selfish interests wanting to forever feed on the body politic. Kane accomplishes this by being ruthless, violent, and demanding a type of loyalty and obedience last seen when Saddam Hussein had members of the Ba’ath Party hauled out as traitors, one by one, from a large meeting in July 22, 1979, when those yet to be manhandled started singing Saddam’s praises hoping if they sang loud enough they wouldn’t face the executioner.
But this is not Chicago. This is some Hollywood writer’s myopic, stereotypic view of Chicago as probably seen from the top floor of the “W” on a foggy night. Chicago politics is not about the mayor grabbing a henchman’s ear and squeezing it until the pain is so excruciating he is about to faint. This scene occurs because one of his underlings violated the chain of command and in so doing, stupidly threatened a major construction project that required years of negotiations and ugly payoffs to get built. It is a project that Kane desperately wants and the city desperately needs — the expansion of O’Hare Airport.
Chicago politics is about power, ambition, greed, and functional corruption, at least it was under Richard J. Daley. Chicago politics is not about a ruthless and violent mayor torturing his henchman or his henchman demanding medieval-style tribute by taking the ears off the lackey who forgot what the chain of command looked like. The lackey, at a very upscale festive occasion, his ears bandaged, hands over a tastefully wrapped gift box to Kane. At home, Kane opens the box to find the man’s ears. Without emotion, Kane simply puts the ears in the garbage disposal and grinds away. I got the immediate impression the shows producers thought they were competing with AMC’s The Walking Dead for an audience.
There is more drama in the reality of Chicago politics than in this pimping out of gratuitous violence. Richard J. Daley was a complex individual. He was not violent. He was inclined toward nepotism, which he did not deny, but real corruption was not his suite. Yes, corruption flourished around him. And early on, Daley realized there was little he could do about it and survive politically. But it didn’t mean he had to get his own hands dirty. By well-placed accounts, he didn’t. His Catholicism was not a political veneer as it is with many a political figure that discovers God with all the sincerity of a con up for a parole hearing. Daley’s religion was his North Star in a world of misdirection.
If corruption meant getting things done, it was the cost of business, but Chicago was not and is not New Orleans, where corruption meant pockets got lined but things didn’t get built. And a complex man trying to stay above the fray of corruption is far and away a more intriguing story line than a violent thug showing his displeasure by taking a leaf from a brutal Iraqi dictator.
Richard J. Daley presided over the beginning of the transformation of the city, a city so rich in architectural splendor that there is a boat tour that focuses on the captivating skyline and its history. His son, Richard M. Daley, transformed the neighborhoods, bringing the middle class and the ex-patriot whites back into the “Fatherland,” as we affectionately call the city. Before the real estate crash, the adage in Chicago was, “The neighborhood you were afraid to walk in last year is the one you can’t afford to live in this year.” And Richard M. Daley’s pragmatism sometimes got the better of him, as when he wanted Meigs Field, a private, downtown airport, turned into a nature preserve, and famously had the runways stealthily bulldozed in the middle of the night. So much for due process standing in the way of progress! But Richard M. Daley had a love for and vision of Chicago that transformed blighted neighborhoods into great places to live.
So, maybe the writer’s of Boss can get beyond the ear chopping and down to some of the great stories of Chicago politics, stories the machine’s historian Milton Rakove, a raconteur par excellence, told with wit and flourish, and which he also set down in two well-received academic works. These are stories laced with humor, pathos, compassion, irony, and, yes, corruption. And there are many new ones since Rakove’s passing. There are stories of who got the lock on the land for the Olympic Village that was never built. and how they are hanging out in the economic cold. There’s “Planet Blago,” the story of former Governor Rod Blagojevich, which could be its own sitcom. And of course there are enough stories swirling around the Obamas and the Chicago machine that could make a subplot for seasons, if the writers of Boss have as much affinity for gonads as they do for ears.
But if the writers continue down the path of unreality in a city where fact is more intriguing than fantasy, even Kelsey Grammer’s acclaimed acting is going to be wasted on a script that people who live in and around the city are going to equate with competition for AMC’s The Walking Dead.