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Reviews Thu Apr 25 2013

Review: First Son: The Biography of Richard M. Daley

FirstSonCover_4.jpgFor any long-time Chicagoan who would care to read a biography about the man, Richard M. Daley needs no introduction. But with the vast, undeniable influence the former Chicago mayor had on this city (not to mention the entire trajectory of state and national politics), his dense, multi-faceted legacy deserves assessment.

Unfortunately, for all of its breadth and detail about the city and man himself, Keith Koeneman's First Son: The Biography of Richard M. Daley is not quite that book.

From growing up as a spoiled, awkward, yet tenacious son of a powerful Chicago mayor, to the last days under his own tenure as mayor, First Son draws from over 100 in-person interviews to portray the evolution of a man whose complexities resulted in visionary, cosmopolitan leadership and advocacy, as well as raw, ego-driven political gamesmanship. As Koeneman effectively demonstrates, both these traits undoubtedly transformed the look, feel, and stature of Chicago into a globally renowned city distinct from the one firmly controlled by his father--yet one still embroiled in scandal, corruption and nepotism under his watch.

Through the lens of Daley's life and political ups-and-downs, Koeneman guides us through Chicago's transition from the heyday of the Chicago Machine to the consolidation of Daley's own political dominance, all while examining the myriad of individuals whose paths he crossed--powerful aldermen and local officials, business leaders, and former advisers-turned-leading members of the national Democratic Party.

For anyone unfamiliar with many aspects of the recent history of the city--be they from out-of-town, or simply not interested or paying attention until recently--First Son is a good general primer on what happened, from the vantage point of the man and the individuals behind him who largely shape these events.

But as I alluded to above, the book falls short of being a comprehensive account of Daley's legacy.

What initially struck me as I read through Koeneman's account of Daley's life is that much of it--particularly the sections on his mayoral years--were simply a play-by-play of how events and scandals transpired in the news media and Daley's reactions to them, bolstered by reconstructed conversations (for reference, Koeneman includes a timeline in an appendix). Certainly, controversies like the parking meter privatization deal, the Meigs Field demolition, and the 2016 Olympics bid are among the definitive moments by which Daley will most likely be remembered.

Yet while this is a biography and not explicitly a book on Chicago history, the focus on Daley as a protagonist in an epic tale of his own life by necessity opts for personal intrigue over policy details. Unfortunately, this can skew the history of what really happened. While I don't want to belittle the efforts Koeneman made to sort through the details of Daley's life, certain sections led me to believe that there was more to the story than what was on the page.

The best example is the book's explanation of how Boeing decided to move its headquarters to Chicago. Koeneman's character-focused narrative would have you believe that Daley's personal charm and ability to present the city's ample cultural assets that began to flourish during his administration ultimately persuaded Boeing to relocate the company here over Denver or Dallas.

However, Koeneman never mentions the $56 million in tax incentives that the company received from the state and city. In fact, Koeneman never mentions the Daley administration's frequent use of Tax Increment Financing districts (a program begun earlier under Mayor Harold Washington) to divert funds from public assets like schools to draw in or retain other corporations such as Coca-Cola, United Airlines and Miller Coors. Furthermore, his chapter on the creation of Millennium Park also (disappointingly) neglects to mention the TIF funds used to help fund the construction of the park. Rather, the reader is given a "Daley as aesthetic visionary and cultural patron who built bridges to the business community" storyline that might lead on to believe the park was simply funded by private donors.

While these missing facts are certainly less scandalous and intriguing than the many other aspects of Daley's storied life, they left me wondering what else was missing from or flat-out wrong in Koeneman's portrayal, and how the author chose to frame other events and incidents to fit the "Daley as complex blend of sophistication and Machiavelli" narrative arc that seemed to be the overall thesis of First Son.

Overall, Koeneman does a sufficient job of tracing the life and political career of a distinctly flawed and powerful man, and his relationship with the city that defined him.

However, while First Son may be the first book-length look at Richard M. Daley and his legacy, let's hope it's not the last.

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