Richard J. Daley Hard to Figure, Even for the Pros at Public TV

Article excerpt

Byline: Ted Cox

"The American Experience" is one of the best shows on television. The PBS documentary series delves into details and dwells on motives that even the more respected network newsmagazines merely touch on.

Earlier this season, it did an excellent job of recapping the 1968 Democratic Convention. And next week it looks at the battle between Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst over "Citizen Kane."

But even greatness has its limits. In re-examining the life and legacy of Mayor Richard J. Daley, "The American Experience" may have taken on a figure too big, too contrary and too ambiguous to be captured in a mere two-hour documentary.

But hold on just a second. Mayor Daley, Hizzonner, ambiguous? On the surface, it would seem that no public figure of recent times in Chicago is more solid and straightforward in what he was and what he represented. But that's just it: That's the surface conception.

"Daley, the Last Boss," which airs at 8 p.m. today on WTTW Channel 11, does a fine job of tracing the course and the larger events of his life and political career.

But in the end, the conclusions "The American Experience" reaches about what he was, what he meant and what really motivated him aren't satisfactory.

They don't seem to explain the great heights Daley achieved, nor the great blind spots that plagued his political vision, especially over his last 15 years.

The main problem is that "The Last Boss" never really settles on which of two contrary viewpoints to adopt.

On the one hand, it sees Daley as a big fish satisfied with his small-pond existence. It depicts him as an unpolished if astute bumpkin, a lifelong Bridgeport resident given to mispronunciations and malapropisms.

The documentary says that Daley called O'Hare Airport "O'Hara" to his dying day, and it repeats an enduring Daley line: "The policeman isn't there to create disorder. The policeman is there to preserve disorder."

When "The Last Boss" isn't cutting Daley down to size, however, it's busy building him up into some sort of tragic hero. Series host David McCullough does much of the damage here, saying that Daley's tragic flaw was that he was a political despot unable to accept change.

The truth, of course, is somewhere in between, and for people prepared to accept "The Last Boss" as a jumping-off point it does a serviceable job of tracing the basic themes of Daley's political career.

He was, indeed, a lifelong resident of Bridgeport, an area that produced "only three things in abundance," the narration says, in the early years of this century: policemen, priests and politicians.

After a brief boyhood flirtation with the priesthood, Daley headed straight into politics. And he learned the ways of the Chicago machine at the knee of Mayor Cermak in the '30s. …