Thurs Dec 9 10, Studio 333, Sausalito
“Just when the sense of unreality and oppression were strongest upon me, and when I most wanted help, a man sat at my side and began to talk what he called politics.”
—Rudyard Kipling, after visiting Chicago
All of it over now, this not much of a secret, but even so, it’s never been told before. “Her enemies,” my father said, “couldn’t use it in the ’79 campaign because they weren’t sure if it would help her or hurt her. In politics you can’t run the risk of embarrassing someone because it might actually make them look more human.”
Voters like a human being once in a while. Not too much human in that being, but a little they can handle. That’s why they love Jane. At first. After a while she got way too human for everybody. It’s not indecent, if anything it’s really sweet, really, and would be sweeter still if I kept my mouth shut. But why stop now? I’ve aired a lot worse dirty laundry than this.
Jane Byrne. Fighting Jane … Mike Royko called her Bear of Boston. She ran against the machine and squashed it, the whole goddamned machine, a machine that gave birth to her, a machine—what was left of it—that she re-embraced practically the day after she sent Mike Bilandic packing. Because first you stomp it, and then you make it yours again. Getting votes is one thing, running a city another. So long you reformers, put on your goody two shoes and run Marty Olberman, operator, get me Eddie Redoliac on the phone.
My father told me this. My father who spent years on the periphery of city politics. He was a lawyer in the city planning commission. If anybody asked him what he did for a living he’d say, “I make plans, not a lot of plans.” But even the wings would pick things up here and there. Jane Byrne, the woman who was to become the 50th Mayor of the City of Chicago, used to stand in the balcony of her Marina City East apartment, naked as a fuzzy little peach—my father’s phrase—and make eyes and more at her husband-to-be, Jay McMullen, who would be standing on the balcony of his Marina City West apartment, also in the buff.
McMullen was a straggled veteran newsman. My father said he looked more like a hairy coconut than a peach. Imagine them, those two unbeautifuls out there on their respective balconies, in the cold, checking each other out with binoculars. Even then they’d both been knocked around enough, not a site to see for most people, but what a thrill it was for the two of them, like two happy grunts eyeing each other from their foxholes on Christmas morning.
Luxury apartments, but that didn’t make a Democratic primary battle any less of a blood sport of fellow chattering gladiators in Chicago. Brothers killing brothers, but they were in this thing to win. Together, they’d conquer Mike Bilandic or die. Those two were going to be the Romeo and Juliet of the municipal government. Bonny and Claude of the streets of sanitation. Jane once said that he’d slept with every girl in City Hall; he’d roll over in the morning and get a scoop. “So tell it to me baby, Santorini … on the take, or what?”
But that was in the Daly years, in the battle days. Now, even Jay McMullen’s gonna behave because he’s in love with the woman who’s going to be the first woman mayor of the greatest city in America. America? The world.
You remember Jane Byrne. Janie in those sexy white heels hanging off that garbage truck, Jane with a J, moving into the Cabrini green and sending out Christmas cards. Mayor Jane Byrne’s Chicagofest. She couldn’t be bought off. That wasn’t the problem. It was that power so seduced her. The mere idea of it, not necessarily what you did with it, and what she did with it was messy. Mostly Jane just seemed to tell people off. Oh how glorious Jane Byrne told people off. She told off George Dunn. She told off Richie Daly. She told off the Chicago firefighters. She told off the Sun Times, the Tribune, WBBM, the Southtown Economist. She told off Jimmy Carter. She told off Princess Margaret. Her mentor, the old man Mayor Daly taught her about timing and in the end that’s what … so off. Because she punched so often, finally the only person she hit was herself.
So in the end, she lost. First to Harold, and then again to Harold. In 1988 she even ran for Circuit Court Clerk—lost. And when Harold watched her die, Richie took over where his father left off. When things had returned to normalcy in the city of Chicago, city of iron will. Chicago the beautiful, the magic city of the west. But of all the scraps of what’s long been forgotten, think of those two out on their balconies, flashing each other, the shadows of two lovers against the rosy … sky. Jane does little come hither dance in those white heels. “Stay there Jay don’t move, don’t come over. Stay right where you are, and watch me.”
And then, she runs for the re-election in ’79 and there’s a primary fight between Richie Daly—the son—and a man named Harold Washington, who is a great hero of mine and a great hero of President Obama. President Obama could get a little Har0ld Washington on right now, I’ll tell you that. But Harold Washington wins the Democratic primary which, in Chicago means you’re mayor. … He had an opponent, his name was Bernie Epton, and this is a story about his opponent, Bernie Epton. Epton had a campaign slogan. His campaign slogan was: “Epton, before it’s too late.”
This town is beset by a wretched plague
He comes to me sometimes in my awake dreams, shouting, Shut up, shut up, shut up…
Election night, 1983. Maybe it was exhaustion. Or maybe the campaign had, finally, driven him as bonkers as some Washington partisans accused him of having been all along. On paper, the man was a living miracle. He won 48.6 percent of the vote as a Republican running in Chicago. Of course it wouldn’t have happened if the Democratic nominee hadn’t been you know who. A vote for Bernie Epton was a vote for survival, plain and simple.
Do you want Chicago to become the next Detroit? Cleveland needs a run for its money? St. Louis? I was a punk kid in November of ‘83 watching it all on television, but even I knew that Epton was a wild-eyed Republican from another planet. And a Jew no less.
Not to put too fine a point on it but Mother said we were Democrats before we were Jews. And, really, was the world ready for another Jewish savior? Especially one so funny looking? Hard to see Bernie Epton in the role. Epton’s lopsized eggy head one more thing he didn’t want exposed to the world along with his sealed psychiatric records.
But that night in Chicago he was a hangnail from being Mayor. Channel Two kept going back and forth from Harold Washington’s raucous victory party to Epton’s bizarre concession. It was hard then not to see Epton as some kind of weird looking white sacrifice. Shut up, shut up, shut up, he shouted at his supporters. They were cheering him on and Bernie couldn’t take it anymore.
He wanted to talk. He wanted to say something profound. His great-great uncle was a rabbi from Shershov. He had wisdom to dispense. I’m an intellectual, a lakefront liberal Jew for God’s sake. I never meant for it to get so out of hand. I’m only a human being. Who wouldn’t have been seduced by the possibility? God grants you how many chances at immortality? And if there’s somebody somewhere who holds a title more noble than His Honor Mayor of the City of Chicago we never heard of him in Illinois. I didn’t play the race card, other people snatched it out of my hand and laid it down for me. Blame a man for going along for the ride for the good of the city? Win first, heal later. Wasn’t that the plan? If the people in the streets have to call Harold Washington a child molester to stop him from getting elected than they’ve got to call him a child molester. Cicero called Cataline a lot worse in the name of for the good of the Republic. Cicero said he murdered his own son to marry his wife, that he had sex with donkeys, all kinds of unspeakable things. That’s politics.
Now wait, Bernie says to me from beyond the grave. Hold it right there, partner. Buggering donkeys? Anyway, I said tax cheat, I never said child molester. I deplored child molester. Get your facts straight. And I always said, This election is not about colors. If I thought for one moment that this election was about colors, I wouldn’t be standing before you today… My fellow Chicagoans, I will lead you from the desert to the city of hope, to the golden city of your dreams…”
And Newsweek shouted to the country, to the world:
WHAT’S GOING ON IN CHICAGO?
Tax cheat? Child molester? What’s the difference? A con’s a con. Go get ‘em Jew Boy. Italians for Eptonini. Irish for MacEpton. Poles for Eptonizinski. Mexicans for Bernie Cruz (Huh? Nevermind, just go and vote for the white guy.) Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!
And I think of you now, delusions thumping down on your head like wet March snow. Jesus or Moses? You weren’t even a very good Judas. You’re a footnote, Bernie. You’ll never be part of the story that gets told and told. The story is Richie and Jane Byrne and how Harold Washington made them both look like the machine hacks they were. It was Harold who had the class, the elocution, the ideas. It was Harold who kept sending the reporters to their dictionaries. Mayor Contretemps. Mayor Hoisted By Your Own Petard. You, Bernie, were Mayor Almost. Mayor Not Quite. Mayor Already Forgotten.
But let’s be honest. Who’s remembered?
And so today that’s all I’m doing. I’m only trying to remember you. And myself. I used to watch TV upside down, my head hanging off the couch, my feet on the wall. I’m an upside down kid and it isn’t the winner I want to watch, it’s not Harold with his salt and pepper hair and his Let’s All Come Together for Chicago grin, it’s you, Bernie. You. On election night, the loser’s party always interests me more, the spirit of chin up, all those dumb balloons hanging up there dreaming of release, of that slow victorious float to the floor. And is there anything so beautifully democratic as a concession speech, even when the conceder’s having a meltdown? Shut up, Shut up. Shut up. I know what you were trying to say, Bernie. That your heart was broken and not only because you lost. The world’s an ugly, ruthless place, you wanted to say. That there isn’t nearly enough love.
Love, you want to sermonize into the microphone, in front of the cameras, in front of the city, Love—
But how to explain this? Who’d believe it? I believe you, Mayor Regrets. Mayor Too Little Too Late. Mayor Tomorrow Tomorrow The Sun’ll Come Out Tomorrow. Mayor Gimme Another Chance. Amen, Bernie. You and me both. In this, you speak for us all. In this, they should put your name on a plaque somewhere. And so I say, sleep well, Bernie. Your bones in Oakwood Cemetery, 1035 Sixty-seventh Street, in the Jewish section, across the road from Harold’s mausoleum.
A large part of this passage was first published over at A Public Space.
This coming week » Tomorrow night is Porchlight Storytelling, where you can see yours truly and a handful of others dish out our Family Secrets. And Tuesday The WordParty returns with a poetry and jazz open mic. Know of any other non-holiday party events? Send them our way!