Bush brought Texas to Washington, now Obama brings the Windy City
Barack Obama is back in Chicago after a 12-day holiday in Hawaii. But not for long. On Monday he begins his new life in Washington, temporarily housed in the Hay-Adams hotel until the White House becomes available on 20 January.
Even so, Chicago will never be too far away. Just as George Bush brought Texas to Washington and Bill Clinton brought Arkansas, so Obama too brings a blast of his home city.
The inner circle in the White House will be overwhelmingly Chicagoan. His two chief advisers, David Axelrod and Valerie Jarrett, are both long-time associates from the city, and his White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, is another.
But more than that, Obama brings with him the baggage of Chicago’s political culture – the roughest in the US. The small-scale bribes that older Chicagoans remember from visits to City Hall are a thing of the past but the sharp suits, naked ambition and political trading are much the same. So too is the large-scale corruption that has seen 50 elected officials from Illinois jailed over the past 30 years.
The origins of Obama’s run for the presidency can be traced to Manny’s Deli, an old-fashioned Jewish delicatessen in a bleak neighbourhood. The clientele is mainly working-class but Obama and Axelrod, a former Chicago Tribune reporter and political consultant, were regulars, plotting Obama’s run right up to the presidency.
The deli’s owner, Ken Raskin, who has welcomed back Obama and Axelrod since the election on 4 November, said there had been euphoria among the shop’s regulars after the victory but that had given way to a shaking of heads over the scandal that has engulfed the Illinois Democrat governor, Rod Blagojevich. Raskin summed up his clients: “It is not a case of a bunch of tough guys from Chicago coming to town. But they are aggressive and intelligent and I think they will shake up Washington.”
Russell Lewis, chief historian at the Chicago History Museum, agrees. “He is surrounding himself with people who know how to work in an urban environment like Chicago. It has been a long time since we have had an urban president. Kennedy would be the last. I do not think Washington will engulf him.”
During the presidential election Obama presented himself as a figure of hope, untainted by shoddy politics. The Republican party countered with adverts claiming he was a product of the “Chicago political machine”. Though the ads never gained traction, there was some truth there. It would have been hard for Obama to have risen without engaging in the city’s rough-house politics.
An example of this was in 1995 when he shoved aside the sitting Illinois state senator, Alice Palmer. One of the politicians who backed him in that, Toni Preckwinkle, a Democrat and a fixture at City Hall, acknowledged the scale of corruption in the city. “I think we have a special problem in Illinois. It is a corrupt political system that has ensnared Republicans and Democrats.”
She has expressed a belief that Obama will not be tainted by Blagojevich or any other Chicago scandal. “Obama has managed to be above the fray on the local political scene. He has completely distanced himself,” Preckwinkle said.
Axelrod and Emanuel are a different matter. Emanuel, in a tactic that Al Capone might have applauded, once sent a political opponent a rotting fish.
Dick Ciccone, former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune, said the pair were thoroughly connected to the city’s political establishment, which was “the antithesis of liberalism – a closed shop, a Kremlin”. Don Rose, a veteran Chicago-based political consultant, is sceptical about the chances of Chicago having much effect on Washington. “DC has its own culture and absorbs other cultures. When people try to behave differently, it bounces off, like Teflon. The Clintons were outcasts for trying to bring their culture to DC.”
Echoing Rose, Stephen Hess, a former White House official, said: “This is a president-elect who has done a lot of reaching out beyond Chicago.”
Ewen MacAskill in Chicago
Saturday 3 January 2009
Source: The Guardian