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Kennedy had a ‘Chicago’ side

Posted: November 18, 2011 1:44 p.m.
Updated: November 21, 2011 5:00 a.m.

"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 who are easily sickened as the plots thicken.

Full of postgraduate idealism, I zealously set out to liberate the city's good people from the tyrannical rule of their machine boss, Mayor Richard J. Daley. How surprised I was to discover, as many newcomers did, how many folks sounded like they 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 1960s riots, crime, factory closings and "white flight." You could 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 on time.

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'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 g--damned thing you want.

Kennedy laughs. "Well," he says, "can you get him?"

"I surely can," says Daley, who adds later, "... he'll do it. The last time I, I told him, 'Now look it, I don't give a g--damn 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 big 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 insider's view. "They show Kennedy doing the work of a politician," Matthews said: "applying the pressure points." Indeed.

And, although Matthews doesn't mention it, the chatter also illustrates the old saying about how politics make strange bedfellows. Libonati, a World War I veteran and former state legislator who died in 1991 at age 90, also made history as defense attorney and friend of Chicago mobster Al Capone.

In today's heat-seeking media world, such an association might well be a career killer. Yet, Libonati was frank about his friendships with Chicago crime figures, according to his Chicago Tribune obituary. Asked during his 1957 campaign for Congress about Capone, years after the two were photographed sitting together at a Chicago Cubs game, Libonati told the Tribune: "I liked him because he respected me."

At the same time, Libonati was a widely respected supporter of local civic causes. He had an honorary street named after him. He enthusiastically backed federal civil rights and civil liberties legislation -- including, not insignificantly, bills to protect people from being wiretapped without their knowledge.

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 wanted to get their streets cleaned.

(Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist for the Chicago Tribune. E-mail responses may be sent to cpage@tribune.com.)

 

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