The Biography of Richard M. Daley
Published in April 2013 on Richard M. Daley’s seventy-first birthday, First Son chronicles the political life of Chicago’s longest-serving mayor. Accessible and well researched, this well-written look at the Windy City’s oft-loved, oft-controversial mayor is a compelling read.
Although many of the stories may seem familiar to readers who have followed Chicago politics with even the slightest interest, author Keith Koeneman digs deep to reveal telling details about key events during Daley’s tenure, events that shaped both the man and the city. Koeneman, a third-generation Chicagoan who has studied at Harvard, the University of Chicago, and Northwestern University, does well with his first published book, drawing on more than a hundred interviews as well as more than twenty secondary sources to paint a colorful picture of Rich Daley, his powerful father, his brothers, and the politicos who have surrounded him. Although a couple chapters are superfluous and overwrought, readers will find interesting stories that involve many of Chicago’s key players, names that have long held sway here: David Axelrod, Ed Burke, Jane Byrne, Rahm Emanuel, Valerie Jarrett, Barack Obama, Harold Washington, Ed Vrdolyak. The list goes on and on in what is a veritable Who’s Who of Chicago. (One can easily imagine the city’s leaders thumbing first through the index to confirm whether they rated a mention in the book before even reading the prologue.)
Billed as “the biography” of Mayor Daley, the book feels more like a political history of Chicago than a true biography of the life of the man who served five terms as mayor as well as Cook County State’s Attorney and Illinois State Senator. The first few chapters of the book recount Richard J. Daley’s tenure as Chicago’s boss, setting the stage for the political rise of his eldest son. Koeneman also examines the political gamesmanship that marked the post-J. years, recounting the maneuvering that resulted in a string of mayors from the hapless Michael Bilandic to the fiery Jane Byrne to the controversial Harold Washington to the progressive Eugene Sawyer. Koeneman frames just about every political machination in the city’s recent history in light of how each move affected Daley and what it meant for his future.
Koeneman’s biography argues that Richard M. Daley is largely the product of his father, Richard J. Daley. Koeneman repeatedly points to the Daleys’ Bridgeport background, their religious education, and the Chicago political machine as the elements that shaped Rich Daley. Although there is mention of Daley’s rather lackluster performance as a student—whether in elementary school or law school—readers will find little else to reveal Daley’s formative years. This is by and far a political biography: Readers looking for anecdotes of lessons learned on the childhood basketball court or in the family kitchen will be disappointed. Similarly, there is little in the book about Daley’s wife Maggie or the couple’s four children. Personal details are lacking.
Though largely chronological, the book at times feels a bit jumbled at redundant as it hops back and forth to tell or even retell particular stories. Readers, for example, are reminded constantly of the Daleys’ Bridgeport roots. At times the text is bogged down by needless details, such as turn-by-turn walking directions to and from particular places. And, although his treatment of Daley seems largely fair and objective, Koeneman’s obvious disdain for other political players (James “Pate” Philip and Mike Madigan, for example) occasionally shines through.
Readers who are keen on the political rise of Richard M. Daley, particularly in light of the shadow of Richard J. Daley will find this book of interest. Koeneman does a fine job of shining a light on a complex man who left a checkered legacy after twenty-two years as mayor of what he long believed was the greatest city in the world. Readers looking for a more in-depth picture of the man behind the mayor, however, may well find personal details lacking.
April 2013, The University of Chicago Press
$30, hardcover, 400 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen