Chicago-style politics aren't always evil. That's what the more pragmatic old-timers told me as a young reporter. I was a newcomer to Chicago, where, as Bullwinkle J. Moose might say, politics were not for those easily sickened as the plots thickens.
Full of postgraduate idealism, I zealously set out to liberate the city's good people from the tyrannical rule of machine boss Mayor Richard J. Daley. How surprised I was to discover how many folks actually loved "da Boss."
Welcome to the world of "realistic politics," I was told. "Hizzoner" was respected, newsroom old-timers told me, because he "got things done." Other old industrial cities seemed to be falling apart behind the 1960s riots, crime, factory closings and "white flight." You can keep your "goo-goo" good-government reforms, as far as many folks were concerned, as long as their garbage was picked up and their snow was removed.
Lessons from those old Chicago days came flashing back to me as I came across a telling example of how Boss Daley's talents of persuasion could come in handy as a force for good behind one of my favorite pieces of legislation: the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
In Chris Matthews' new best seller, "Elusive Hero," the NBC and MSNBC talk show host excerpts transcripts of a taped conversation between Daley and John F. Kennedy. The president was rounding up votes for the civil rights bill in late October 1963.
It was two months after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s historic march on Washington -- and only a month, it would turn out, before Kennedy would be killed in Dallas.
On this day, the White House taping system picked up Kennedy asking Daley for help. Rep. Roland V. Libonati, a Chicago Democrat like Daley, was holding up the act, Kennedy said. The congressman wanted a tougher bill. The trouble was that if Libonati had his way, the bill would lose the Republican support it needed to survive opposition from southern segregationist Democrats.
"He'll vote for it," Daley said calmly. "He'll vote for any [expletive] thing you want."
Kennedy laughs. "Well," he said, "can you get him?"
"I surely can," said Daley, who added later, "He'll do it. The last time I, I told him, 'Now look it, I don't give a [expletive] what it is, you vote for it, for anything the president wants and this is the way it will be and this [is] the way it's gonna be.' "
That, as the old-timers used to say, is how you get things done in the city.
Matthews, whom I know as a frequent guest on his NBC and MSNBC "Hardball" news panel programs, told me in an email exchange that he loves the transcripts because they show "old-school" hardball politics from a fly-on-the-wall view. "They show Kennedy doing the work of a politician," Matthews said, "applying the pressure points." Indeed.
I don't know how much President Kennedy knew or cared about where all of his votes were coming from. But in getting historic things done, he probably could not afford to be much more squeamish about it than Chicagoans who just wanted their streets cleaned.