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The [Tuesday] Papers

Today's "analysis" by Fran Spielman is the kind of piece that has had me, for years, longing desperately for another job in another place. That feeling is only all the more crushing given how local journos continue to pile the accolades on Spielman for reasons I can't with all my energy fathom. As I've noted before, I've documented here for 13 years the utter falsity and amateurism of Spielman's body of work to no avail. Then again, Neil Steinberg is still employed too, despite a raft of racist columns and unethical practices. Maybe, like God's Plan, it's not for me to understand. Maybe God's Plan is to torture me with horrid journalism until I finally crumple to the street and die of a frustration aneurysm caused by knowing two plus two equals four unless you work for a newspaper, in which case it can be anything the paper wants it to be without consequence.

Let's get to it, then. And if I don't make it to tomorrow, you'll know why.

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"Is it possible to succeed as a mayor of Chicago and fail as a leader of its people?" Spielman asks today.

No, it's not. There is no definition of mayoral success that includes failing as a leader of its people. That is pure sophistry. That is not even an interesting question. That is an "F" in any college - or high school - classroom across the land. As Spielman so often does, she starts with a failed premise that gives me heartburn before I've gotten beyond the first sentence.

Let me brace myself for what's next. Let me prepare properly, lest I commit violence on the nearest inanimate object. Let me just try to get zen . . . let me eat lunch and have another cup of coffee to fortify myself against what I am sure is to come.

*

Okay. Deep breath. Here goes. Sentence two:

"As he leaves office, Rahm Emanuel appears to have done just that."

"If the measure of success is having the guts to make the tough decisions his predecessor punted, Emanuel passes that test with flying colors."

I'm old enough to remember when Emanuel's predecessor was the tough one - according to Spielman. Upon his departure from office:

"[Richard M.] Daley shed no light on what he plans to do with the rest of his life. His only goal, he said, is to charge to the finish line. He plans to spend the next seven months tackling the tough issues that candidates for re-election have trouble confronting."

Sure, you might say, but did Spielman say he was tough, or is she just passing along his sentiments? Well . . .

In 1995, she wrote, "With the election behind him, look for Daley to take tough stands on a variety of issues - ranging from schools and airports to work-rule changes and collective bargaining agreements with city unions."

It was a constant theme.

In 2006, she wrote, "But as Daley sees it, no pain, no gain," about a "tough decision" to close four schools.

("These are tough decisions. No one likes to close a school down. I guess we're not supposed to make tough decisions. We're supposed to make kids feel happy, look happy, but [they] can't read or write. That's the failure of society. It's the failure of adults to make decisions," Daley said.

("Tough decisions have to be made. If you're unwilling to make tough decisions and unwilling to lead, then unfortunately the education system keeps falling farther and farther behind. . . . I think there's a better way here. Schools that we close have come back in a much better way academically, attendance-wise, everything.")

I mean, Daley was reputedly unafraid to make the tough decisions. And who reputed him that? Spielman & Co.

"He has a national reputation that's well-deserved," Barack Obama once told her, "as somebody who's innovative, as somebody who's tough, as somebody who's willing to make the hard decisions, as somebody who is constantly thinking about how to make the city better."

I wonder where he got that idea.

I mean, I could go on all day with this. But browsing the archives for five minutes is enough for me - and more research than Spielman seems to do for her own stories, and she's getting paid and I'm not.

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The tough guy narrative is one that Emanuel set for the media from the day he announced his first campaign for mayor. It became such a thing that even Miguel del Valle found himself explicating on his toughness to the Reader's Ben Joravsky.

Emanuel was going to make all the tough decisions that had been left unmade for too long by the guy he supported and advised for 20-some years and had previously been known as being tough enough to make those decisions. The Daley family sat by silently but with teeth gritted as their former courtier ran against the suddenly weak, punting outgoing occupant. How in the world did Chicago put up with him for so long?!

It was the same thing four years ago: Chuy Garcia wasn't tough enough to be mayor. The narrative worked, and that it still survives is a testament to the inability of some media members, first and foremost but not just Spielman, to avoid being (easily) manipulated. In fact, when Emanuel first came into office, he was obsessed with spinning Spielman, seeing the opportunity to use her as a patsy the way some use Sneed to set a daily media agenda.

But it hasn't just been her.

"[Rahm] has Daley's will to power," Greg Hinz wrote for Crain's in 2011.

"And now the mayor is Rahm Emanuel, who got my vote and will get my next vote for exactly the reason [John] Kass suspects: because I think he's smart and tough enough to run a complicated and tribal city," Michael Miner wrote for the Reader in 2014.

And so on.

In 2019? The "Chicago needs a tough guy" narrative disappeared without Rahm in the race. It was his narrative all along, after all. He took it and went home. Nobody was asking if Lori Lightfoot, Toni Preckwinkle or even Bill Daley was tough enough to run Chicago. What kind of question would that have been?

Yet, Spielman is still touting Rahm's tough calls.

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"Who else would have the audacity to push through a $2 billion avalanche of tax increases to chip away at the pension crisis?

"Who else would stop subsidizing retiree health care and brag about it, consolidate mental health clinics, close 50 schools in one fell swoop and lengthen the school day, demanding that it take effect immediately?

"Who else would give movie mogul George Lucas lakefront land to build a museum and cut an O'Hare Express deal with Elon Musk - two projects that ultimately went nowhere?"

I doubt any mayor would have handled the pension crisis differently - except being tough enough to demand more in taxes from the wealthy instead of nickel-and-diming everyone else. The rest of the list? Heartless, heartless, a documented colossal failure, strictly power politics, stupid and stupid. I don't see "tough" anywhere in there.

I mean, I'm looking at this list and trying to find the successes.

A smarter analysis might, instead, note that Emanuel's mayoralty was one that was All About Rahm, all about him trying to project what a tough decision-maker he was when in fact he was a really poor decision-maker; an analysis that noted Rahm left the city yearning for a successor among 14 balloted (and several other unballoted) candidates who was not like him - they all ran against him and not one sought his endorsement. That, my friends, is a failed mayoralty all the way around.

But who else would've rammed the Chicago Infrastructure Trust through the city council with the urgency of containing a measles outbreak? Who, but Rahm.

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"But being mayor isn't only about making tough decisions and giving people what you deem to be in their best interests. It's about listening to disparate views with sensitivity, building consensus and giving people at least some say in their own destiny. On that test of leadership, Emanuel failed."

True. But if you fail at those things, you fail at everything. Your policy outcomes - your tough decisions - cannot be deemed a success despite failing to govern properly. It's not as if Emanuel made the tough-but-right decisions despite his process. If he did, you'd have a list of accomplishments to point to. Instead, Spielman has only a list of failures she calls successes because Emanuel was enough of a stubborn, bullying, moneyed ass surrounded by sycophants and his personal, private city council to push through any ill-conceived initiative he deemed politically beneficial.

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"He was better suited to be a chief of staff for another politician - as he was for President Barack Obama - than he was for being that elected political leader himself."

Really? Rahm was a failed chief of staff who alienated members of Congress as well as White House colleagues - just as he did in the Clinton White House. His best success came as a congressman by standard measure.

Not that he's suited to be an elected political leader, but he's definitely not suited to be a staffer.

"It was frustrating to me - who very much admired his courage, his vision and his intellect - to see his inability to recognize that one important aspect of leadership is listening to people and bringing them along," said soon-to-be former Ald. Joe Moore (49th), whose defeat can be blamed, at least in part, on his alliance with Emanuel.

"Too often, he'd make these pronouncements and drop them down on people. Sometimes, they fell like lead balloons. If he had talked with people initially and said, 'Hey, this is what I'm thinking. What do you think?' it may have headed off some embarrassing missteps."

Moore isn't wrong, but what he says also doesn't lend support to Spielman's thesis. What he's describing in no way illustrates "tough decisions" that added up to successes.

African-American political consultant Delmarie Cobb acknowledged Emanuel was "fearless" enough to "step out on faith believing that his vision was the right vision." But he dropped the ball on the execution phase.

"You don't just ram it down peoples' throats. You try to coalesce and get people to come on board with you. That's where I find him lacking," she said. "He had a very paternalistic approach, especially when it came to black people, of, 'I know what's best for you.' That was established, almost from day one."

Really, though? Brutal, bullying bossism is not the same as paternalism. Take Daley, for example. Daley was daddy.

"Richard M. Daley has laughed and cried, apologized and cajoled before Chicagoans for so long, he's almost like a member of the family."

Spielman wrote that in 2007.

Rahm, on the other hand, was never daddy. And good for him, we don't need a daddy mayor. We're not children. It's just that Rahm was the mean, abusive uncle.

*

While the rest of Spielman's piece catalogs Emanuel's failures sure enough, that only serves to show how upside down the whole effort is. His failures, in fact, show that it was his decisions above all, not his unwillingness to collaborate, that doomed him. He didn't make tough decisions, he made self-interested decisions that backfired. He didn't make smart decisions, he made political decisions that defied policy expertise and left a trail of misery. And he left still learning on the job, defying another cliched theme of the political press - that somehow his resume (and Rolodex) gave him an advantage over other candidates. He could "hit the ground running." Instead, he hit the ground running over people and never looked back.

Remember, Emanuel's approval ratings in his second term dropped as low as 18 percent in the aftermath of the Laquan McDonald video release; 51 percent of Chicagoans thought he should resign. I'd say it was a miracle he survived, but he didn't. Chicago doesn't have a recall mechanism. Instead, Chicagoans never gave Emanuel enough support again to make him believe he could win a third term.

Let's face it, Emanuel was a disaster - we were held captive to an individual's power-tripping ego and psychological deficits.

*

Meanwhile, the national media accedes to his newly created role as pundit and policy wonk. Analyze that. Tell us how that happened and how he retains credibility in circles where he should have none. That's an analysis I'd love to read - once we're all clear on the last eight years.

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Posted on April 30, 2019


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