First Son: The Biography of Richard M. Daley

  • Keith Koeneman
  • University of Chicago Press
  • 326 pp.
  • Reviewed by Kenneth D. Ackerman
  • May 13, 2013

The dynamic of fathers and sons is a major theme in this portrait of a political heir who managed to grow into his own as mayor of Chicago.

History and public opinion rarely turn a kind face toward children of famous people. We usually just love to knock them down — a combination of jealousy, envy and vanity, the presumption that each of us could have done better given the same advantages. 

We love stories about the sons who never lived up to the father’s reputation (think Robert Todd Lincoln), or became depressed, alcoholic or magnets for bad luck (think Kennedys), or became general embarrassments to their fathers (think Charlie Sheen). When children of famous parents succeed, we easily dismiss them because of their advantages (think George W. Bush, the Vanderbilt offspring or some of the Adamses). How irritating, then, to come across someone like Richard M. Daley, son of epic Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley. How dare he turn out to be a perfectly good guy who not only out-performed his father in his signature achievement (longevity as Chicago mayor) but also avoided his father’s controversial weaknesses.  

I thoroughly enjoyed the new biography of Daley the younger by historian and Huffington Post columnist Keith Koeneman because of the engaging way it addressed two of my favorite themes: the eternal dynamic of fathers and sons, and the special chronic crazy dynamic of the city of Chicago. (Full disclosure: My first job in Washington was as a staff lawyer to Illinois U.S. Senator Charles H. Percy, and my first up-close exposure to Chicago politics was Percy’s suspenseful reelection race in 1978, which locals will remember as a wonderful brawl.)  

Chicago has produced a long parade of great heroes and villains, from gangster Al Capone to lawyer Clarence Darrow to athlete Michael Jordan to TV host Oprah Winfrey. But in 20th-century politics, none loomed larger than Richard J. Daley. Daley the father served a record 21 years as Chicago’s mayor, from 1955 until the day he died in office in 1976. He left a legacy that was a bipolar mix of great and terrible. He built the city into a modern mega-metropolis, played kingmaker in national Democratic politics and perfected the mechanism of the urban ethnic political machine. There was no bigger, badder Boss — as Chicago columnist Mike Royko forever crowned him — than Daley. But Daley also left a trail of bitter race relations, ethnic and political cronyism, autocratic rule and the national embarrassment of a globally televised police riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.   

As Koeneman shows us, Richard J. Daley also found time to be a good father to his children.  The early chapters of First Son inescapably read like a dual biography of the two men of different generations, with their relationship at its core. In the early years, Daley the father provided his son with every advantage, using political connections for jobs, college placement, friends and respect. No one could cross young Richard M. Daley for fear of crossing his father, the Boss. Not surprisingly, son Richard came across during this period as spoiled, arrogant and self-indulgent. The inevitable turning point, of course, comes when father Richard dies in office and his then-34-year-old son finally must stand on his own two feet.  

But instead of getting a comeuppance, collapsing or withdrawing, Richard the son used this moment to evolve and mature. Over the next few years, Richard M. Daley grew up quickly and his political talents flowered. He assembled a great political staff including future Obama luminaries David Axelrod, Rahm Emanuel, Valarie Jarrett and his own younger brother, William M. Daley. Richard won the Chicago mayoralty in 1989 and served six terms until 2011. His 22 years in office bested his father’s 21, and son Richard then managed to walk away on his own terms. Richard the son had his controversies, including a police-torture scandal, a takeover of the Chicago school system, chronic budget problems and an early feud with prior mayor Jane Byrne. But he avoided his father’s rough edges, especially in smoothing Chicago’s chronically stormy race relations and bringing rare unity to this very diverse town. 

Koeneman’s First Son is a satisfying, engaging read for anyone who enjoys modern politics and has a heartstring or two for Chicago.  

Kenneth D. Ackerman is the author of Boss Tweed: The Corrupt Pol Who Conceived the Soul of Modern New York; Young J. Edgar: Hoover and the Red Scare, 1919-1920; Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield, and The Gold Ring: Jim Fisk, Jay Gould, and Black Friday, 1869.

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