scandal: a reminder of how I learned about
May 19, 2013
As the IRS scandal attests,
President Barack Obama brought
The Chicago Way to Washington.
(Andrew Harrer, Bloomberg / May
The Internal Revenue Service scandal now devouring the Obama administration —
the outrageous use of the federal taxing authority to target tea party and
other conservatives — certainly makes for meaty partisan politics.
But this scandal is about more than partisanship. It's bigger than whether the
Republicans win or the Democrats lose.
It's even bigger than President Barack Obama. Yes, bigger than Obama.
It is opening American eyes to the fundamental relationship between free people
and those who govern them. This one is about the Republic and whether we can
And it started me thinking of years ago, of my father and my uncle in
Chicago and how government muscle really works.
Because if you want to understand The Chicago Way of things in Washington these
days, with the guys from Chicago in charge of the White House and the federal
leviathan, there's one place you start:
You start in Chicago.
My father and uncle ran a small business, a supermarket on the South Side.
Uncle George worked in the front, my father in the butcher shop in the back. My
uncle had been a teacher. My father had plowed his fields with a mule.
They were immigrants who came here from Greece with nothing in their pockets
but a determination to work, and the belief that here, in America, no other
power could roll in with tanks and put their boots on the necks of their
My father and uncle, like the rest of the family, valued education and books
and free political debate. And so at large extended family Sundays, we'd all
sit around the dinner table, many uncles and aunts and cousins, young and old.
There were conservatives and socialists, Roosevelt Democrats and Reagan
Republicans and a few bewildered, equivocal moderates in between, everyone
squabbling, laughing, telling stories.
No matter whose house we were visiting, the TV was never turned on after
dinner. Instead, we'd have coffee and fruit and dessert and argument. We had
different views, we loved each other, and even strangers who showed up were
expected to join in, to debate education, the presidency, social issues, the
war, drugs, bluejeans, long hair, baseball, everything.
Uncle Alex was the uncle who told us young people how best to make our points.
He ran a snack shop in the Bridgeport neighborhood — the legendary home of
Chicago mayors and Democratic machine bosses.
"Don't wait for a ticket," he'd say, and puff on his cigar, always in
a white shirt and tie, on those family Sundays. So we'd just jump in when we
could, like the rest.
One Sunday, I must have been 12 or 13, I decided to ask what I thought was an
intelligent question that was something like this:
We talk politics every Sunday, we fight about this and that, so why aren't
you politically active outside?
Why don't you get involved in politics?
There was an immediate silence. The older cousins looked away. The aunts and
uncles stared at me in horror, as if I'd just announced I was selling heroin
You could hear them breathing. No one spoke. I could feel myself blushing.
Someone quickly changed the subject to some safe old story. It could have been
the one about how our grandfather named the family mule — a white, big-headed
animal — after President Truman. My sin seemed forgotten.
But I couldn't forget it. I couldn't understand how we could argue about
politics over baklava and watermelon and coffee, but not put it into practice.
We could support a political candidacy, we could donate or work for one or
another politician that we agreed with.
This is America, I said.
"Are you in your good senses?" said my father. "We have lives
here. We have businesses. If we get involved in politics, they will ruin us."
And no one, not the Roosevelt Democrats or the Reagan Republicans, disagreed.
The socialists, the communists, the royalists, everyone nodded their heads.
This was Chicago. And for a business owner to get involved meant one thing:
It would cost you money and somebody from government could destroy you.
The health inspectors would come, and the revenue department, the building
inspectors, the fire inspectors, on and on. The city code books aren't thick
because politicians like to write new laws and regulations. The codes are thick
because when government swings them at a citizen, they hurt.
And who swings the codes and regulations at those who'd open their mouths? A
government worker. That government worker owes his or her job to the political
boss. And that boss has a boss.
The worker doesn't have to be told. The worker wants a promotion. If an
irritant rises, it is erased. The hack gets a promotion. This is government.
So everybody kept their mouths shut, and Chicago was hailed by national
political reporters as the city that works.
I didn't understand it all back then, but I understand it now. Once there were
old bosses. Now there are new bosses. And shopkeepers still keep their mouths
shut. Tavern owners still keep their mouths shut.
Even billionaires keep their mouths shut.
One hard-working billionaire whose children own the Chicago Cubs dared to open
his mouth. Joe Ricketts considered funding a political group critical of Obama
before last year's campaign. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Obama's former chief of staff,
made it clear that if the Cubs wanted City Hall's approval to refurbish
decrepit Wrigley Field, Ricketts better back off.
It happened. He backed off. It was sickening. But it was and is Chicago.
And now — with the IRS used as political muscle and the Obama administration
keeping that secret until after the president was elected — America understands