Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Personal Aside: My Interview with Leon Despres.


All Hail Leon Despres…Valiant, Articulate, Infinitely Courageous…and--

Sunday on WLS-AM 890 was a rather special night for me because on my ABC radio program I interviewed a man who was front and center in Chicago news for many years…from the time I moved back to this city from Minnesota in 1964 through today-- and whose idealism colored the politics of the city council, even continuing to the present. He is former Alderman Leon Despres who has just marked his 100th birthday. A gifted lawyer, a friend of Clarence Darrow, very courtly and respectful of my differing point of view, he is as articulate today and as intellectually sharp as he always has been. Indeed the engineers behind the studio glass were amazed at his clarity and conciseness of vision. Co-interviewing him with me was Don Rose, a frequent columnist for “The Chicago Daily Observer” and a legend in his own right, having been the Chicago press secretary for Martin Luther King during King’s stay in Chicago and the guru of many liberal political campaigns, some successful some not-so.

Leon Despres (for non-Chicagoans, his French-originated name is pronounced “de-pray”) was probably the least-liked alderman by Richard J. Daley and because of that and his unflagging devotion to liberalism the least effective from the standpoint of getting things done in the council. As the late Vito Marzullo, the epitome of old-school aldermen (whom I brought to Harvard in 1977) said: “He couldn’t even get a dog out of a pound.” But Despres, who represented the 5th ward—Hyde Park—which encompasses the University of Chicago, occupies a distinguished berth in the city’s 20th century politics. Some aldermen enter political life as so-called “reformers’ and betray their ideals. Not to Leon (or as he is called “Len’).

....a Dogged Fighter for the Left…But Don’t--

His university constituency continually reelected him although it is intriguing to note that originally, as he testified to me, even the U of C was not all that liberal. When Len was a boy, he went to both the John Dewey-formulated Lab elementary school and prep school—an elite education for the time indeed. In the early days of the 20th century, the Lab schools did not admit blacks, the reason being as one of the top educators said, “the Negroes wouldn’t feel comfortable here anyhow.”

As a fighting member of the city council from 1955 to 1975 (but who continued in activism as a leader after he left it), a man who never, ever sold out, Len Despres fought for civil rights (the top of his agenda), followed by strong opposition to patronage abuses, improvement of parks, the first ordinance to get building inspectors to target peeling lead in dilapidated housing which led to childrens’ lead poisoning, a campaign to save historic architectural buildings (such as Frank Lloyd Wright’s Robie House although he couldn’t save the Garrick theatre and the old Chicago Stock Exchange from the Daley wrecking ball), city planning, government efficiency and honesty, housing and urban renewal (the eradication of slums) and greater city responsiveness to ward problems.

His first fight in the council was successful: killing the idea that driveway permits could be sold on the side by aldermen who wanted to make a few bucks). Irving Kristol once said that liberals are turned into conservatives by being “mugged by reality.” Len was more than mugged but never changed, was never embittered. This number one supporter of civil rights for blacks was accosted while walking in his neighborhood at 55th and Blackstone avenue in 1967 when he was 60 years old by two black youths who shot him twice and fled. This event didn’t change his attitude one iota. He was the least likely alderman to call for “law and order” and the most likely to plead that cases of deprivation were prompted by lack of education and failure of government to adequately serve their needs.

…Some of His Nostrums, for All His Courage…

Don’t get the idea that as much as I admire courtly, well-mannered Len Despres, smiling from his wheel-chair, I agree with him in all aspects of his liberalism—although I’m with him on patronage abuses, preserving architectural masterpieces from demolition, improvement of parks, anti-lead poisoning, city planning, government efficiency and thrift. His beneficent liberalism and soft-nosed compassion bother me but I cherish his endurance as a great Chicago monument to integrity himself…just as I just admire his vigor at age 100 and his willingness to say things that may not be taken as popular by a resounding number of listeners, especially on WLS, the Rush Limbaugh station. He spoke out in behalf of his candidate for president, Barack Obama as his daughter and her husband…both somewhat senior in age…listened impassively. He rounded out the show by saying that although a South Sider he supports the Chicago Cubs of the North Side rather than the White Sox, a truly courageous thing to say in this city, despite the fact that the Cubs haven’t won a national championship for more than 100 years.

…Demonstrate the Failure of the Left that Has Made Us Worse Off?

When I asked him whether the LBJ-style welfare policies may have poisoned the inner-city, broken up families and thereby encouraged single-headed households with no male figure—a species that naturally encourage children to run the streets at night due to the overworked, harried and harassed female figures trying to hold the maimed families together, I was dismayed to hear him say that more of the old liberal nostrums must be utilized. Much as I value him and honor him as an icon, I had hoped that he would look back from his centurion vantage-point and say, yeah, blacks have not been helped noticeably by those well-meaning programs…the dissolution of families has brought poverty, lawlessness and barbarism to society that in many cases is worse than what we started with.

No, Len wasn’t buying that. Never mind, his genuine contributions to Chicago political life and his shining integrity endure. But I couldn’t help observing to Lillian as we left him that liberalism will not…probably can not…change or adapt to changing needs because it has turned so overwhelmingly to secularism. The gigantic nostrums prescribed by his candidate, Obama, are no different than those fought for by Len himself from his youth—and when adapted what have they given this nation? Poverty, illegitimacy, sorrow, bitterness, deprivation. The idea that government itself is the great entitlement-dispenser, that federal social programs are the remedy, that religious constructs must be viewed apart from social progress. As we left I felt sad because I as much as I value him as a friend I wish he’d bend and give just a smidgeon of thought to so-called conservative anti-poverty programs that liberals have resisted these many years—as long as Len himself has been active, for a century…educational vouchers, incentives for the private sector to create more jobs, recognition of the vital role the Judeo-Christian teachings on family would have along with the prodding of churches to stress this rather than the insane way they chase the political correctness pellets for adulation of black masses.

But that is too much to ask. What is not is to extend praise and admiration to a gallant Chicagoan of 100 for the courage to fight the crusades he has…which on the local level were invaluable—for which all of us are in his debt. God bless you and keep you, Sir.

And to mourn that Republicans in the city council of his vintage…Robert Merriam, John Hoellen et al…are gone, not to be replaced by a party that has lost its moorings. Please God, let it return to what it once was.

1 comment:

  1. John J. Hoellen (47th) was another member of the aldermanic economy bloc. I would rate him as a liberal Republican on many issues. He worked with Despres on various matters. Hoellen was the son of a former GOP alderman, who served during the late Twenties and into the Thirties. He was elected in 1947 on the strength of a sympathy vote when a Democratic precinct work attempted to kill him with a sawed off shotgun. It was snowing and the powder was wet. Hoellen was wearing a winter coat and survived. He told me that he was losing the election prior to the shooting. The case was tried and the shooter was acquitted. Decades later, the judge admitted to Hoellen that Mayor Edward Kelly directed him to fix the case. Hoellen described the City Council under Mayor Richard J. Daley as a complete dictatorship. He seldom spoke to the mayor. Daley never forgave Hoellen for opposing him in an election for County Clerk during the early Fifties. Hoellen served for twenty-eight years. He lost his aldermanic seat in 1975 when he was drafted to run for mayor simultaneously. He was the last Republican to represent the 47th Ward and he routinely carried the district for the GOP ticket.