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Book Club Thu Nov 16 2006

Introduction: Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago

In 2007, we are starting the New Year right by reading Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago by legendary Chicago journalist Mike Royko. Boss paints a scathing portrait of one of Chicago best-known mayors. But even more than that, Boss may be one of the few biographies written in which the subject is only slightly better known than the author. Is the book biased? Yes. Is it entertaining? Absolutely.

When Boss was published in 1971 Richard J. Daley was serving his 16th year as mayor of Chicago. Daley Sr. had long been a target of Royko's wrath in the writer's newspaper column. But in Boss, Royko's "steely contempt for his subject," as one reviewer put it, was given free reign. The book is a thoroughly researched and compelling account of Daley, his administration and his political machine.

Boss was a national bestseller when it was released, although reviewers were divided in their criticism. One reviewer wrote that Royko's "intense dislike of Mayor Daley is clearly evident on nearly every page" and dismissed the book as "simply an extended attack on a public official." A second reviewer felt Royko characterized Daley as "a two-dimensional villain, a man of bad will, bad manners, bad grammar, and — one feels certain by the end — bad breath." Ouch. But many more critics praised the book as a "well-directed, devastating attack on the mayor and his machine." A review that appeared in the Tribune acknowledged that, while Royko "does not even pretend to be fair," Boss is an "impassioned portrayal of the arrogance of power, of the curious mixtures of innocence and cynicism, wisdom and stupidity, loyalty and nepotism, honesty and corruption, principle and expediency through which the last of the great city bosses gained control of the nation's most powerful political machine."

Perhaps not coincidentally, Mike Royko earned the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1972, just one year after the publication of Boss.

Mike Royko was born in Chicago in 1932 and grew up in Wicker Park, which was then a predominately Polish neighborhood. He was an indifferent student, and his school career was spotty. He dropped out of at least three different high schools before graduating from the Central YMCA High School in 1951. The following year he joined the U.S. Air Force. His newspaper career began a couple years later when Royko volunteered for the job as editor of the base newspaper while stationed at the air force base at O'Hare.

Royko went on to become on of Chicago's most celebrated journalists. He wrote more than 8,000 columns over his career, and his column was, at one point, syndicated in more than 600 newspapers. Some of his columns are collected in separately published anthologies, copies of which can often be found in local bookstores. Mike Royko died in 1997 at the age of 64.

 
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Joyce Gwillim / March 12, 2007 5:51 AM

As a student studying politics in college, a "required read" was that of BOSS. I can't say I immediately loved the book but for some reason I was fascinated enough with the book to read it a second, then a third time. In fact, I think I became more interested in Mike Royko during my extra readings and soon began collecting his columns and later other books written by him.

During my years as a college professor, I have included "BOSS" as an required reading for State and Local Government classes. For years the students appeared to enjoy the style in which the book is written but now, Spring of 2007, my students have stated how difficult it is to read. They complain about the very things I have come to cherish. It's not unusual for students to complain but not after discussing assigned chapters together. I have a habit of making characters come to life! I enjoy teaching and tend to bring out the best in every student. However, not this semester, as well as a dropping percentage in the last two to three prior.

I hate to blame everything on how our education system is failing to provide the background for students entering universities, colleges, and community colleges across the country. Is it the system or is the young people of our country? I certainly hate to think about "dropping" BOSS from my reading list when in fact I'd rather retire than do that. Any suggestions?

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