Big Bill Thompson, Chicago, and the Politics of Image

By Bartlett, Dave | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Big Bill Thompson, Chicago, and the Politics of Image


Bartlett, Dave, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Big Bill Thompson, Chicago, and the Politics of Image. By Douglas Bukowski. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998. Pp. ix, 280. $21.95.

William Hale "Big Bill" Thompson, the last Republican mayor of Chicago, has long been a colorful, if misunderstood, character in Chicago's history. Big Bill served three terms as mayor. First elected in 1915 he served until 1923. His last term was from 1927 to 1931, and then the Great Depression frustrated his fourth run for the position. Douglas Bukowski, a Chicago writer and historian, has given us a book that separates much of the fiction from the facts about Thompson, and in turn, reveals a complex personality behind the persona of the Clown Mayor of Chicago.

Big Bill Thompson, Chicago, and the Politics of image is a great improvement over Herman Kogan and Lloyd Wendt's Big Bill of Chicago. The most obvious superiority lies in Bukowski's use of endnotes. His sources are extensive, and include a considerable amount of information gained through Freedom of Information requests.

Thompson was flamboyant; his colorful antics were often taken at face value by his foes. My favorite Big Bill stunt was his debate with two large rats, who represented his opponents. Thompson won the debate; while his critics decried his buffoonery, and his constituents re-elected him! Another colorful incident was Thompson's threat to punch Great Britain's King George in the "snoot." Bukowski explores the local ramifications of Big Bill's apparent venture into international relations. Again, Thompson knows his ethnic constituents, and in their eyes he is standing up for them.

Thompson publicly proclaimed "America First" during World War I and stated American troops should not be sent into a war among Europeans. At the same time, he cooperated with Federal authorities in tracking those who were considered "subversive" because of their anti-war stance. Bukowski shows how, even on the issue of a popular war, Thompson was anticipating the disillusionment with that war that was prevalent in the Midwest during the 1920s, and thus, was often closer to the grass root sentiments of his constituents than his critics.

Bukowski is especially insightful in his treatment of Big Bill and race. To African Americans he was the "Second Lincoln"; to his critics he was catering to blacks to the point that city hall was referred to as "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Bukowski shows how as alderman, Thompson's pushing for a playground in a black neighborhood led to his being identified by blacks as a politician who was concerned about them. But concern was tempered by political reality His protest against the showing in Chicago of the Birth of a Nation was perfunctory, as the number of black registered voters was still small. Later, as numbers grew, blacks, along with other ethnic groups, became an important constituency He was a pioneer of the balanced ticket, a technique that Anton Cermak and the Democrats later mastered. …

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