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Fire on the Prairie: Chicago's Harold Washington and the Politics of Race Hardcover – March 1, 1992
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From Publishers Weekly
The first black mayor of Chicago, Harold Washington, who died in office in ok? 1987, welded a multiracial coalition that replaced the corrupt political machine put in place by ex-mayor Richard Daley during his 21-year tenure. Washington's embattled administration was, in the author's judgment, "a grand experiment with national ramifications," an assessment not entirely borne out by the facts in this engrossing behind-the-scenes account of the mayor's narrow electoral victory in 1983, the racial backlash his rule inspired and the rancorous City Council wars that deadlocked his reforms and almost subverted his program. Rivlin, who covered local politics for the Chicago Reader , blasts the press for stereotyping Washington as "racially polarizing" and for insinuating that his coalition was rotten. The book witheringly portrays Jesse Jackson as an ultra-ambitious, cunning opportunist who claimed undue credit for Washington's election. Rivlin's corrective critique provides a much-needed perspective on Chicago's racially divisive politics.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
Rivlin, a journalist at the Chicago Reader during the Washington administration, presents a history and commentary on black participation in Chicago politics. Beginning with the irony of Chicago's founder and first resident, a black trapper, he chronicles the conflict between white machine bosses and the growing black community. The details of personality and politics are remarkable and, as such, Rivlin's book is a valuable account of conflicts within the black community and among leaders such as Jesse Jackson, Lu Palmer, and William Dawson, as well as between black and white. This view of Chicago politics is invaluable and a very readable contribution to the literature on the Washington years. It provides a nice counterbalance to the memoirs of Washington's supporters in Harold Washington and the Neighborhoods , edited by Pierre Clavel and Wim Wiewel ( LJ 12/91) and will be of interest to urban specialists and lay readers.
- William L. Waugh Jr., Georgia State Univ., Atlanta
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
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The book will appeal to anyone interested in politics, even if Chicago is of no particular interest. City-level politics is politics at its most raw. This story, set in the 1980's, features (literally) brawling aldermen, overtly race-based electoral appeals, bribery, graft and other interesting forms of corruption, and the more creative bad-mouthing that we'll likely ever hear on the national stage. The cast of characters - real political figures - read like they walked out of central casting. The impervious, heroic Mayor Washington, the nefarious but canny Ed Vrdolyak, the bumbling Jane Byrne, the barbaric Ed Burke, the big-talking con man Clarence McClaine, the ego-maniacal Jesse Jackson and on and on.
An unusual feature of this book is that while Washington is the central character, the book is almost not about him so much as Chicago politics in the 1980s. A third of the book devotees equal time to Washington and his arch-nemesis, Vrdolyak. Indeed, the Vrdolyak is painted with greater depth and may actually be quoted more than Washington. Washington comes off as pretty much impervious to corruption, pettiness, and most of the regular dynamics of Chicago politics - but he also comes off as inaccessible. The book plunges immediately into the political story without the customary 80 pages devoted to the central subject's early life. Rivlin never writes, "Washington thought..." nor does he report on conversations that occurred between two people, neither of whom subsequently spoke with Rivlin. The overall effect is double-edged - the story comes off as more credible but also Washington himself is left as something of a mystery.
A more serious problem with the book is that its fascinating emphasis on pure politics comes at the neglect of an in-depth exploration of Washington's policies. Policies are certainly mentioned, but I retained more about how Washington made a difference in the life of his city from an hour-long radio show on him that from this 420-page book.
The absence might be explained by what Rivlin explains is the difference between "white reform" and "black reform." Rivlin basically explains that white reformers are more concerned with process, where as black reformers are more concerned with results. White reformers may decry cronyism and call for the elimination of patronage jobs. Black reformers call for a more proportional share of the jobs. FIRE ON THE PRAIRE is written with a greater sympathy for what Rivlin would characterize as the black style of reform. The overarching point of the book was that Chicago's racial divisions were so great that residents (especially white residents) voted with their ethnicity against all considerations including logic and self-interest.
Washington's second term was cut tragically short by his untimely death. Rivlin does a great job of creating the sense of unfinished business as he continues the story of Chicago's political turmoil for 20 pages after Washington's death, until a new, interim mayor was elected. At that point I wanted to keep reading, but I also wanted to know what Washington was going to do next. Unfortunately we'll never know.
I was a Chicagoan, a convert to the Washington Movement and a friend and a source for Gary's coverage of City Hall at the time. He never pretended to be objective, but he ended up telling about the complexity of what was going on better than anyone at the time because of it. We attended Harold's funeral together - he understood what it meant for me, someone who grew up feeling that the Chicago system would always keep me out, when someone opened it up.
This book is a great story. It won't bore people who aren't political junkies. He goes way beyond the Harold vs. Eddie Vrdolyak personality conflict that the mainstream media dwelled on. He doesn't dwell on everything, but he shows it was more than just a Black-White conflict, though it was that. It was also about people excluded banding together and prying open a closed system. It was about a coalition that brought Chicago into the 20th century just before the beginning of the 21st. It was about Latinos moving from the margins to the balance of political power in one of the continent's largest cities. It was about Asian Americans, Native Americans, the poor, refugees, community organizers and others becoming part of a process.
The personalities, the feelings and the environment of a city going through tremendous change are laid out in this book. While written long before 2008, even reading this now, you can picture a young African American organizer who began to see politics as something that wasn't beyond his grasp, who was excited by change that some thought would never come. This isn't just about Harold Washington in 1987. It is also about each of us, including the current President of the United States and the current Mayor of Chicago, who were changed and then made change in a new world of possibilities.