The Daley Years

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Richard M. Daley, the king of American mayors, just ushered his city into a Twilight Zone: Chicago Without Him. White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and others who want Daley's job would be wise to study his legacy: astonishing political vision and finesse that, in recent years, have come undone by harsh economic realities.

Sailing along as probably the most effective practitioner of the most difficult task in American government, Daley stunned even the savviest insiders by announcing he won't run for re-election next year. But, there is unavoidable logic to the longest-serving big city mayor not seeking a near-certain seventh term.

Having taken office in 1989, Daley has lately endured a perfect storm of bad luck, awful economics, and personal frustrations. A man born to run the city - and who did so with surprising skill and control - has started to unravel at times. And it happened in the blink of an eye, in the process obscuring a remarkable achievement in reviving an American city against long odds but also providing a cautionary note about the vicissitudes of power.

A failed bid for important international recognition. An uncharacteristic lack of planning for a major transportation change. Needless secrecy on a key component of economic development. Rising debt amid continued borrowing. Plunging approval ratings. The indictment of one City Council ally and the conviction of a former top aide. The unexplained suicide of another consigliere. The announcement that the city's best-known resident has had enough. And, maybe toughest of all, his wife's precarious health.

It's all bordered on the tragic, given the little-understood backdrop: the ascent of Chicago into the upper rank of world metropolises; a place to be parroted, not parodied, as a result of his reign.

Even in these waning days of summer, you'll find a city that's Martha Stewart on steroids. Saul Bellow's acidic image of his hometown as "somber, heavy, growling, low-brow" vanishes amid the post-industrial reality of Millennium Park, the most stunning new public space in America. It's a 24.5-acre populist playground mixing grand sculpture, beguiling architecture, and a video-filled fountain cascading down upon children from all parts of town who shriek with glee.

A new century supplants the packinghouse hog squeals of Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" with those of rich and poor kids of all races and ethnicities in shorts and swimsuits. A few weeks ago, my six-year-old and dozens of others splashed at the base of Crown Fountain, the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa's 50-foot-tall, steel, glass and video towers whose genius is to replace stone with startling, close-up images of everyday Chicagoans and shatter our traditional concept of a public fountain.

Tourists encircle the park's iconic sculpture, Cloud Gate by Britain's Inesh Kapoor, like Tiger Woods stalking a putt. They're entranced by the reflections of themselves and the skyline in the polished, 162-stainless steel plates that have come to be known as "The Bean." And, nearby, some wedding party or tandem of lovers pose for a photo in front of the Jay Pritzker Bandshell, a web of billowing sails made of stainless steel designed by Frank Gehry.

All along adjacent Michigan Avenue are planters filled with flowers, among the 110 miles of landscaped medians and boulevards, some coursing through long-forgotten neighborhoods. Then there are the 7 million square feet of green roofs and the 600,000 trees planted over the past two decades. When it comes to green, the city with the rough-hewn, gray, forbidding reputation is a pacesetter.

The late Richard J. Daley, the iconic modern political boss, might turn dyspeptic at this softening of his own triumphant and concrete-filled legacy, marked by the University of Illinois at Chicago, major expressways, O'Hare International Airport, scores of initially well-intentioned but grim public housing and the Loop's startling high-rises, most notably the Sears Tower, for decades the world's tallest. In place of a long-desolate stretch of railroad tracks behind the Art Institute of Chicago, one finds a garden expanse that's downright HGTV feminine, along with the Art Institute's own $400 million new modern art wing designed by another international superstar, Italy's Renzo Piano.

"The Boss" as Mike Royko dubbed the Old Man, would have just one person to finger: the son who's served in dad's old job since 1989 and will surpass his record for longevity just after Christmas. Overseeing the demise of the patronage-driven Democratic Party Machine, even as he crafted a smaller apparatus of different racial hue amid the town's economic and cultural metamorphosis, the son ascended to the top of the nation's mayoral heap. During this same period, New York and Los Angeles have had four mayors each, while Dallas, Seattle and Detroit have had five apiece, and Miami's had eight.

It's likely an impossible act to follow, all the more so with declining resources. His run includes replacing the city's Rust Belt economic core with a globally-oriented essence built on brains not brawn; the alluring remaking of a stunning lakefront; revitalization of the downtown; nervy assault on a disgraceful public housing and school system; the little-understood revival of community partly via expansion of public libraries; co-opting virtually all potential rivals and leaving most critics on both the left and right impotent; and the election of a Chicagoan as president and elevation of a small army of onetime Daley associates to key positions throughout the administration.

"If you called Central Casting and said, 'Send me a great, forward-thinking mayor who does the job and doesn't pander,' that's who they'd send," says New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Daley, he says, is a "transformational leader. He's a doer, has guts, has beliefs."

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James Warren is the Chicago editor of The Daily Beast and an MSNBC analyst. He is the former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune.

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