Starz' 'Boss' accurately portrays the Chicago Way

Some of my colleagues have observed that the excellent new Starz series “Boss” about a fictional Chicago mayor isn’t really real. And former Mayor Richard M. Daley said the show is not about him.

In a pig’s eye. This show accurately captures that essence of what makes Chicago run, as Daley ran it. Jobs, contracts, intimidation, betrayals. Sure, some of the scenes are completely outlandish, such as the mayor clearing the city council chambers of onlookers and the media, collecting all the cell phones and locking the aldermen in until they do what the mayor wants.

Sun-Times columnist Mark Brown called the show a “cartoonish portrayal of Chicago politics” and “wrong on so many levels I don’t know where to begin.” Yet, begin Mark does.

The Tribune’s John Kass wrote, “Sadly, the show doesn't have much to do with the reality of Chicago politics. This one is a complete work of fiction.” It’s because Kelsey Grammer’s character, Mayor Thomas Kane isn’t at all like his Shortshanks.

Kass and Brown are astute observers of Chicago politics, a claim I don’t make, but it seems to me that they and others missed the startling and obvious similarity shared by Kane and Daley: an obsession to expand O’Hare Airport.

Having read the previews and reviews, theirs included, I was surprised to see no mention that the airport expansion was the centerpiece of the episode’s plot. Just as the expansion had been Daley’s compulsion, so it was Kane’s too. Kane/Daley go through all sorts of machinations to push through the expansion. While a scene of the mayor physically attacking an alderman who is screwing up the expansion plans is fanciful, it well captures Daley’s obsession.

In the scene in the mayor’s office, Kane/Daley nods to an assistant, Kitty, to itemize what he has gone through to get his way. She rattles it off as if in one breath:

KITTY: Six new parallel runways for the O’Hare Modernization Program, total cost, $15 billion. Total life span to project to date, 22 years. $16 million paid to the city of Bensenville to drop its opposition to expansion and the demolition of 500 homes in the municipality.$630,000 paid to the St. John’s United Church of Christ to acquire the 5.32 acres of the St. Johannes Cemetery which stands in the way of the proposed expansion and begin land condemnation. Grave relocation and family compensation programs. 374 state court arguments brought before DuPage County Judge Merriam, 174 in federal court, all pertaining to the alleged assaults of religious beliefs of the families of the interred, all fought and won, costing the city over $10 million. 87 articles of court-ordered respect and dignity etiquette dealing with the various injunctions, the fine for breaking each article $1,000.

Kane/Daley gets out of his chair, moves around his desk to the seated alderman, grabs him by the ear, forces him to the carpet, while shouting: “Do you think this is easy?!” Kane/Daley goes into a rant about all the browbeating, pleading, finessing and threatening he had to do to get the expansion. And for what? For the jobs and the contracts! For the greater fucking glory of this fucking glorious city!

Take my word for it as someone who a few years ago was a consultant for Bensenville and other opponents. I saw from the front row the lengths that Daley went to cajole, browbeat, threaten and finesse to get his way. To airport opponents, Daley’s obsession that drove him to bulldoze their First Amendment religious freedoms, the show isn’t fiction. To the hundreds of families and business that have been booted out of Bensenville’s east side to make way for a runway, this show is not fantasy. The show’s accurate portrayal of the relocation of hundreds of graves dating back to the civil war is no make-believe to the families of the deceased who believe that the consecrated ground should not be disturbed. To the expansion opponents who saw their allies sell out one by one to Kane/Daley this is not mere entertainment.

Even that outlandish city council scene smacks of reality. Kane/Daley needs the council to pass an ordinance that gives him sole control over Indian artifacts discovered buried in the St. Johannes cemetery—a step that somehow will enable him to clear away another obstacle to runway construction. How does he do it? An alderman toady introduces an amendment that will do just that to a must-pass trash collection appropriation. When a few aldermen protest that they’re being denied oversight (read: cut out of the deal) they raise a stink, which ultimately leads Kane/Daley to lock in the aldermen until they pass the ordinance. When we leave them, Kane/Daley okays a halt to city trash collections until he gets his council rubber stamp.

Where the scene doesn’t ring true is that the real Daley would not have to resort to such open extortion. The arm-twisting and ear-pinching goes on behind the scenes.

Yes, so I’m writing about O’Hare expansion again—if Kane/Daley can have an obsession, so can I.  That’s because the plan is stupid. Ineffective. Unconscionably expensive. Unsafe. How can local scribes miss the similarities of the Kane/Daley saga? It seems as if they have been out of town for the past decade. They should be embarrassed; the Boss’ writers seem to have a better grasp of the Chicago Way.

The ear-pinching scene in the mayor's office starts at about  27:19 minutes into the episode.

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    Chicago Tribune contributing op-ed columnist and author of forthcoming historical novel, "Madness: The War of 1812." Reporter, editor and columnist for Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Daily News. Freelance writer and editor.

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