Thursday, May 24, 2007

Flashback: City Club Leadership Teaches Me a Lot About Chicago.

[Fifty years of politics written for my kids and grandchildren].

Involvement in several civic groups helped teach me more about Chicago. One was Project LEAP [Legal Elections in All Precincts] which was a coalition of Republicans and liberal independent Democrats which I headed beginning in 1974…which brought with it a board membership in the Independent Voters of Illinois [IVI] a group of largely left-wing Democrats opposed to the first Mayor Daley. Another was a board membership of the Better Government Association which was formed to investigate city corruption and misfeasance. One venerable civic organization was dying in 1977 which had a long and engrossing history—the City Club of Chicago.

I’m not sure I would have joined the City Club of Chicago when it was formed in 1903 because one of its founders was Harold L. Ickes, a vituperative trouble-maker and trouble-shooter from Wilmette, a lawyer who was starving to death until he figured out a solution to poverty: marriage to a wealthy woman. Thenceforward, living and thriving on his wife’s inherited estate, he became a liberal reformer in the Republican party. Joining the City Club which was supposed to be dedicated to urban and civic improvement, he successfully converted it into a political arm for the 1912 Bull Moose campaign of Theodore Roosevelt.

When that campaign died, Ickes switched to the Democratic party…and as the world knows became Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of the interior in 1933. Ickes brought a lot of liberal Democrats into the Club. The Club prospered in the 1920s and it built its own clubhouse at 315 south Plymouth Court. With members hanging around and plotting fashionable revolutions against the establishment in the 1920s it was exactly the place limousine liberals belonged—bleeding for the poor but sashaying around in a magnificent club building. Then with the Depression, the City Club lost the building. It is now the John Marshall Law school.

The Club eased into the 1930s as a progressive club and probably the only one in town…leading a charge against racism in the police department…becoming the first club to bring in women on an equal basis—which was overturned when the women decided to run their own club. They left and started the Women’s City Club of Chicago at a different location. It sort of meandered along until the election of the first Mayor Daley in 1955. Daley was a member but rarely attended.

Thereafter the Club took several positions that were critical of the mayor and it lost influence. It dwindled from a high point of about 1,000 members to just about sixty in 1977. Original members included Richard B. Ogilvie and Michael J. Howlett. By 1977 the Club’s board was filled with crotchety old types…most of whom were younger than I am now. But its future seemed well behind it. For some reason, Ogilvie did not want the Club to die.

He and others hired Larry Horist, president of L. P. Horist & Associates to provide it with fund-raising guidance and public relations assistance. Horist, whom I had known slightly when we were both in Washington, D. C. with the Nixon administration, thought that I would be a natural for president in that I had keen interest in the city. He asked if I would be interested and I said no because I was just leaving for the Kennedy Fellowship at Harvard. When I came back from Harvard, he asked me again and again I said no. He then asked Ogilvie to call me and urge that I take it. Ogilvie did. There was something persuasive about being telephoned by a recent former Illinois governor and I seriously considered it. I then talked to another former governor, my frequent lunch-mate, Bill Stratton aka Billy the Kid who said that I should definitely take it.

Stratton thought I should take it, build it up and “use it” to run for public office…maybe Congress in the suburbs (although he added: “I hope that seeing the political realities you would revert to your old status as a progressive Republican instead of the right-winger you are”)…but an uncanny atypical wisdom has always caused me to veer from elective office. There was a time when a former governor of Minnesota thought I should run for 4th district Congress in St. Paul, given that Ramsey county was overwhelmingly Catholic and a Catholic Republican might suffice. I took a look at the demographics and the fact that I had a wife and three kids and decided not to.

When Bill Stratton said I should think about Congress he was thinking that I should run in a primary against Phil Crane. But I told him if I ever ran…and that was highly unlikely…I would rather run in a contest where I could put my heart and soul into it…and that would be to oppose Ab Mikva who was in fact my Congressman. But saying that was a lark. I always believed that a guy without great wealth should not fool around with politics. Also, I had the world’s best job at Quaker—and why should I quit it to possibly lose and start the job search all over again?

So when I told Billy the Kid I was not interested in running for office, he said: well, you say you would rather have the fun of participating in public events, why don’t you take the City Club for a year or so and see how it goes?” So I did. For a time I was head of both Project LEAP and the City Club. But after the old mayor died in 1976, it was clear that some of the liberal Democrats were not interested in continuing the battle for an honest vote count since they saw an opportunity for themselves to capitalize on dishonest counts.

The anomaly is that there is no Project LEAP today…not because there is no vote fraud in Chicago or sloppy procedures or criminal misbehavior by precinct captains…but because the second Mayor Daley is a liberal-progressive and the liberal community is entirely happy with his being reelected, no matter how inaccurate and incompetent the vote count is. After all, one of their number, the Cook county clerk, David Orr, presides over the most serially incompetent election process in modern history without a word of serious complaint. Reason: the people the liberals like get elected. Similarly, the Independent Voters of Illinois are not much of a force anymore. Not because there is no need for independence…but because the mayor who presides over the government agrees with the IVI on all major issues. So why fight him?

In an earlier piece I reported that I decided to build interest in the Club by inviting challenging speakers. We had a good number of them—from Jesse Jackson, Sr. to Eugene McCarthy to Paul Simon to Jerry Falwell. Larry Horist was of great help as the executive director whose company managed the Club. Our first fund-raising dinner was in honor of former Governor Ogilvie. Our second was to honor Mike Howlett. Successively we honored key business types from the city (all who happened to be Jewish because a fund-raising consultant was herself and knew them): A. N. Pritzker…Leonard Lavin…Philip Klutznik…on and on. The membership list built up to about 600—but we never, ever realized the enormous financial success that much better stewardship than I could supply has been provided by my successor, Jay Doherty. Under him the Club has truly embraced the entirety of the Chicago business, labor, civic and political community.

It goes without saying that Jay Doherty will be…and should be…president for life of the City Club. He has been a brilliantly wise and astute leader. One thing he did that I didn’t do because of my rather rebelliously maverick background is to tie the Club into the Daley organization and the Democratic party. I think it was a wise thing that he did it. It has surely made fund-raising easier. His luncheons are a civic club treat to behold. The Club under my leadership was involved in controversies that gained it press attention but also significant enemies. Under Jay, the Club is not controversial but a booster for the ruling class of the city.

I don’t think there is a soul in this city who does not like, admire and love Jay Doherty—me included (I have written about him and his wife Colleen a number of times). When I was president it was touch and go whether there were more people inside hoping we’d may payroll or outside hoping we wouldn’t. We had contentious board meetings. I got the Club involved in support for vouchers in education which almost split it. Because I had to spend a lot of time at Quaker…which was paying my bills…I ran the Club with masterly inattention to detail. I am indebted to Paul Green among others for protecting my rear on a number of occasions.

But I will say…with all the controversies we had…running the Club was fun! Great fun! Jane Byrne was in as mayor shortly after I started. Her tenure was about as controversial as Rod Blagojevich’s as governor is now. She campaigned as a reformer, was elected because of a series of snowstorms, and when she took office she made peace with those in the City Council whom she called members of “an evil cabal.” She tied in with Eddie Vrdolyak and Ed Burke and Charlie Swibel (not a city council member) and instantly the “cabal” became the “caballeros.” Then she engaged in sweetheart deals with favorite developers and saw that the rebuilding of the South Loop was given to a favorite.

As the City Club president, I would hold news conferences to blast her to the skies. At the same time I was on a weekly radio talk show run by Bruce DuMont on public radio (more about this later) and blasting the mayor. It was fun to get the widespread public attention but blasting the mayor of Chicago was no way to cause the City Club to prosper. The Club would live from fund-raiser to fund-raiser. There were times when I thought we were sure to be evicted for nonpayment of rent—but, Lord, it was fun. We had what I called “the Monday Morning Forum” held at the M & M Club over coffee and rolls where speakers would show up, speak off-the-record scatalogically and profanely about their work and sometimes engage in what was just short of fisticuffs. One of our most vociferous participants was Kenny Hurst, a dinosaur conservative who through no effort of his own was unintentionally uproarious.

On a number of issues, the City Club…and me as president…zeroed in on Mayor Byrne. Every so often a guy would show up at our luncheons whom few really knew, but of whom I was signally aware. He was a short, bald, 70sh black man—well-dressed--by the name of Claude Murphy. He was, believe it or not, a Republican ward committeeman on the South Side…when Republican committeemen in black wards were hardly worth noticing. But Claude was because he was truly bipartisan. He was also thoroughly involved in one of the more confoundingly complicated games of the day in the black neighborhoods—numbers—which helped make him an independently wealthy man.

In those days before cigarette smoking was banned, Murphy would show up, suck a cigarette down to the size of a half-match which almost singed his lip-line, walk over to me and say in a hardly understood whisper and flash a grin that was 140,000-kilowatts-worth: “hah, buddy.” It was supposed to mean “hi, buddy.” He started showing up when the City Club, having alienated the mayor, was regarded as off-limits by the power structure that needed the mayor’s approbation. We were starting to draw 40 or 43 members at a lunch and the tables we had set up had to be scaled down.

The money was draining off. We had to have one hell of an annual fund-raiser in order to save the Club. I thought eagerly of quitting but I didn’t want to be remembered as the guy who saved the City Club only to steer it into bankruptcy and default. We had to find a sugar daddy to be “honored” by the Club at a luncheon. We had honored every living elderly Jewish philanthropist in town and were looking for some gentiles but many turned us down. No big businessman wanted to be honored by a Club that no matter how much fun it was to be with, was alienating the mayor of Chicago.

Then Claude Murphy started a bad habit. He started popping in to my office, sitting on the sofa and read a magazine while my daily work went on. Sometimes he would beat me to the office, at 8:15 a.m. (I came in at 8:30 p.m) and was leafing through some of my books on the shelf when I’d come in. For about two weeks I forgot about him being there. He was very much like the walnut furniture—and about as talkative. My Quaker government relations work passed over his head, between his legs, over his permanent seat on the couch. My secretary thought he was a cute, little, fat old black man with a rim of white hair—like Uncle Remus. Then one day I said, apropos to nothing at all, “Claude, why are you here? Why are you here every day? Why don’t you take the magazine you’re reading and get the hell out of here? Don’t you have a home, Claude? Don’t you have an office?” The more I continued the angrier I got as I thought about him being with me all morning, all afternoons and so I raised my voice and said, “CLAUDE, DOES A HOUSE HAVE TO FALL ON YOU? GET THE HELL OUT OF HERE!”

Nothing made Claude mad and this didn’t either. He smiled his 140,000 kilowatts and said, “who ah you going to honor at de City Club, buddy?” That was exactly why my nerves were becoming frayed. I retorted: “I have no one, Claude. No one! Now you know. I have no one? What’s it to you?”

“Wal,” he said in his drawl, “ah think you oughta honor de Mayah.”

I said, “Honor the mayor? Now I know you’re senile, Claude! I’ve attacked her verbally, in the papers, on radio and TV for the last two months. The City Club is calling for her investigation. How can we honor her?”

He said quietly, “wal—ah know but have you ast her?”

“Asked her? Asked her if we’d honor her? We’re ready to go out of business, Claude! You’ve been around here overhearing my telephone conversations long enough to know that! We can’t pay the staff, we can’t pay the rent. She will kick up her heels when we go under which will be next week at the latest! Honor her?”

“Yas,” he said walking over to my desk. “You oughta talk to her.”

“Talk to WHO?”

“Mayah Byrne.” He picked up my phone and said shyly, “do ah dial nine to git outside?”

I said yes.

He dialed, waited ten seconds and then said, “Mayah Byrne. Tha’s somebody ah hope you will talk to. Tom Roeser.”

He handed me the phone. It was Byrne. He had dialed her private number.

She said in her shrill machine-gun rat-a-tat voice: “I was hoping you’d call. Come over this very minute and let’s see if I can help you keep the City Club afloat.”

I hung up and looked wonderingly at Claude.

He was smiling his old 140,000 kilowatt and reading my magazine.


  1. TR,

    Harold Ickes lived in Winnetka, not Wilmette. You keep moving him a mile south, but I don't think any town with El service wants to claim Ickes, the man who fouled up the El, as a resident.

    Here are a few pictures of Ickes house, nice place