There have been authors before Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor who have written admirable books about the late Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley. Mike Royko's Boss and Daley: Power and Presidential Politics by F. Richard Ciccone are two titles that come to mind. So the challenge for Cohen and Taylor to come up with something unique was accomplished by publishing the most comprehensive biography on Daley to date. American Pharaoh may not have the verve or panache of those previous Daley books, but it makes up for that with thoroughness and attention to detail.
American Pharaoh carefully chronicles how Daley, a South Side Irish-Catholic, slowly built his political power base through shrewdness, hard work, and patronage. Establishing one of history's most efficient big city political machines, Daley began in the 1960s to wield his power on the national level. Unfortunately, much of the national attention Daley received was negative. He was accused of stuffing the ballot box to secure the presidency for John F. Kennedy. He issued "shoot to kill" orders to police trying to control looters following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King. And in defending the police brutality surrounding the 1968 Democratic National Convention, Daley uttered the infamous malaprop: "The policeman is not there to create disorder. The policeman is there to preserve disorder."While Daley obviously won the battle for Chicago, remaining in office for 21 years until his death in 1976, American Pharaoh convincingly argues that he lost the battle to control the nation. As people were crying out for desegregation and an end to the Vietnam War, Daley insisted on clinging to old values and old practices, making him an icon of an outdated era. Daley was, as the book title suggests, the pharaoh of a crumbling empire.
John T. Slania is a journalism professor and freelance writer in Chicago.