Comparing the reigns of father and son

Our special report

On Tuesday night at the Economic Club of Chicago, before some 2,500 people seated at 246 tables in two Hilton Chicago ballrooms, Rich Daley delivered a 30-minute self-congratulatory and, at times, inspiring speech. It was also relentlessly upbeat, even sunny—“the future [of Chicago] is brighter every day,” he said.

Though often ridiculed as a parochial product of the Bungalow Belt, Daley looked and sounded like a world leader at the event—the most oft-used words in his prepared text were “global,” “education,” and “green.”

The audience, heavy with past and present Chicago CEOs, loved him—never mind that many are surely suburbanites and Republicans. And he loved them back. “Much of the progress we have made,” he said, “has been made possible by the business community that is fully engaged in the goal of improving the quality of life for every resident of our city.”

The most intriguing aspect of the evening, for me, was what wasn’t said—Daley mentioned nothing about the census figures released that day showing the city’s population plunging by more than 200,000, matching its level in 1920. He said nothing about the parking meters and the resources spent in our losing bid for the Olympics. Oddly, on two giant video screens that magnified the mayor’s face, alternating with images of Chicago—mostly lakefront and skyline and more flowers and trees than any brochure for a tropical getaway—there was not a single scene that contained snow. One would have thought Daley was mayor of Miami, but with a smooth turquoise lake and much better architecture.

And there was no mention of the race for mayor (and, no, none of the candidates were there).

Presiding was John W. Rogers, Jr., CEO of Ariel Investments, Obama basketball buddy, and backer of Carol Moseley Braun in Tuesday’s election. Also on the dais was Rogers’ ex-wife, former White House social secretary Desiree Rogers; her boss, Johnson Publishing’s Linda Johnson Rice; Lester Crown; Patrick Ryan; Christopher Kennedy; Andrew McKenna, and 21 others. 

As Rogers introduced them, he asked the audience to hold applause. But when he reached Maggie Daley—looking pretty, healthy, and beaming—the crowd ignored the request and burst into a standing ovation.

Much of the speech and the Q&A that followed was nothing new—just stated better, but there were a few surprising tidbits.

Daley recalled that in 1999 President Bill Clinton gave him responsibility for the Chicago Housing Authority, but it was George W. Bush who understood that public housing was destroying a generation of city dwellers and gave Daley money to implement change. (Daley also claimed that his father went to Washington in the late ’50s and warned Eisenhower’s men that high-rise public housing wouldn’t work.)

Daley drew laughs when he recalled asking the state government to give him the “broken” public education system to fix. “Believe me, they were only too happy to give it to me.” (If he thought mayoral hopeful and former Chicago Board of Education President Gery Chico played any role in helping Daley with the schools, the mayor didn’t say.)

The mayor spoke lovingly and at length about manufacturing, saying that the topic—including its nuts and bolts, not just theories—should be taught in MBA programs. He added that he would have given the industry a shot himself had he not run for mayor.

As gorgeous photos of Lake Michigan flashed on the video screens, Daley declared that if oil was the driver of the 20th century, water is the driver of the 21st.  (No mention of recent suggestions that Chicago’s water system be privatized.)

Presumably unscripted during the Q&A, he mentioned that he hasn’t much use for Washington. “Washington is not part of America,” he said, suggesting that government lumbers on, regardless of the peaks and valleys in the economy.

Earlier that day, the news broke that Daley, infamous for his inability to express himself, signed with New York’s Harry Walker agency to start speaking around the world—in the range of  $50,000 a pop—when he leaves office in May. (Walker also represents Bill Clinton, Bono, Al Gore.) 

As he travels the world, I have a feeling that audiences from Boston to Beijing will hear many of the lines he delivered Tuesday night.