In complaining that America had become a "country of whiners," retiring Mayor Richard M. Daley unloaded a speech that no candidate would dare give during a campaign. The speech raises a question: Why didn't this Daley show up sooner?
He said we whined about the Japanese taking us over in the 1970s and whined about the loss of manufacturing jobs to Mexico. Now we're whining about China and India slicing off prime cuts of our economy.
In a speech last week at Wheaton College, he went where no politician is supposed to go: criticizing us. Recall what happened to former Texas Sen. Phil Gramm in 2008 when he complained about America becoming a "country of whiners" whose constant complaints about the economy showed that Americans are in a "mental recession." Democrats hopped all over the comment and in a flash, Gramm resigned as co-chairman of John McCain's presidential campaign.
Be mindful, too, of President Jimmy Carter's famous "malaise" speech, in which he scolded: "Too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and consumption," and the critical response that rolled over him for daring to berate Americans when he should have been showing more "leadership."
Daley obviously said more in his 44-minute speech, touting, for example, school reform as the major accomplishment of his career. But no matter how brief his references were to whiners, he could have said as much about Chicago, Illinois and the Midwest.
For example, Chicago students "enjoy" possibly the shortest school day and year in the nation, one of the things that long has rankled Daley. Yet, he said, when he asked the teachers union to add 15 minutes to their six-hour workday, the request was trounced. Can't work for nothing, you know. His retort in the speech: "Unions have to understand that you have a responsibility. It's not just a job."
"The cost of government has to come down," he said. "It can't keep growing." Of course, this same Daley ran his city into towering debt. Never mind that he is among big-city mayors who whine about trims in federal aid to cities. Maybe Daley is retiring because he became fed up with all the whining, knowing firsthand that he can't keep all the bellyachers happy. Like whiners at the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison, banging their drums, comparing Gov. Scott Walker to Hitler.
As annoying and counterproductive as their antics are, whining is constitutionally protected speech. The problem isn't the whining itself, but the reason for the whining: a national culture not just of "where's mine?" but of "I've got mine and to hell with the rest of you. So what if Illinois and Chicago are heading for bankruptcy; I'm not giving up a cent of what I was promised."
Judging by the passions displayed by public employees unions, you'd think that they're in danger of starving on the streets if their benefits were brought into line with what's reasonable, if their bargaining rights were modified, or if their union leaders' assured source of campaign spending were threatened.
Honestly, most of us have thought along such selfish lines at some time. For now, it's the public employees unions whose appetites are displayed in all of their ugliness. Next, it could be ... My fellow senior citizens, you could be next in line when politicians finally get around to repairing Social Security and Medicare. The squealing you hear now from the unions will be as nothing compared to when we seniors get our turn.
We were treated to a sample in 1989 when the landmark Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act, which includedprescription drug coverage, was repealed a year after it was enacted because seniors raised a gigantic stink about having to pay for it. So effective was their wailing that it took almost another 20 years to enact a Medicare prescription drug plan.
Some of us will, no doubt, whine, but something has to be done. I don't know what; maybe someone can come up with a fair, compassionate and effective way to do it. Whatever it is, we'll have to join in the collective sacrifices required to clean up the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. And that, my friends, would be solidarity.
This column also appeared in the Chicago Tribune.