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Remembering Harold: Washington's wisdom, a difficult farewell

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A stream of mourners fill City Hall through the night to view Mayor Washington s casket. Lying In State (photo by Al Podgorski)


As the 25th anniversary of Harold Washington's death approaches this Sunday, November 25, 2012, we're sharing moments of remembrance all this week. All stories are from the Sun-Times archives. And don't forget to check out our Harold Washington timeline.


Washington's wisdom: It's a difficult farewell to a man and a city
By: Basil Talbott Jr.
November 29, 1987

Goodbye, Harold Washington. Goodbye, Chicago. These sad farewells are intertwined for me. The mayor, whose roundabout climb to and mastery of City Hall I wrote about for more than two decades, died at his desk two days after he wished me well at a party marking my move soon to the nation's capital.

"If you need any help, give me a call," the mayor offered as he finished a talk to the 400 partygoers Monday at the Zolla-Lieberman Gallery, 356 W. Huron. "I know all the haunts out there. I know all the places you should go and shouldn't go. I'll give you a book or two before you start. But I really came to wish you well, old buddy."

Like much of Chicago, I feel cheated. Gypped. The book, his help will never come. Nor will Chicago find out what his genius could have accomplished in the rest of his second, or a third or a fourth term. Mr. Washington ran City Hall for less than five years. But his death left an emptiness that can be likened only to the void left when Mayor Richard J. Daley died 11 years ago.

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A man holds a sign to express his feelings as the body of Mayor Harold Washington passes through the community following funeral services. (Sun-Times file photo by John H. White)

Mr. Washington was the catalyst for a movement that started with civil rights protests. By the end of his 1983 campaign, black children were smiling from street corners as they showed off the blue buttons of joy handed out by his crusade. He brought together a coalition of black, Hispanic and liberal white voters that elected him mayor twice. Just before the overweight mayor's heart gave out, he had started trying to entice ethnic whites into his coalition. With his Irish pal, Cook County Democratic Chairman George Dunne, the mayor fashioned a chancy slate of county candidates that included a Polish American woman with a famous Chicago name, Aurelia Pucinski. Now we will never know whether Mr. Washington could have forged racial equity.

Introduced at my bash as "a great guy" by Michael J. Howlett, an elder statesman who served as master of ceremonies, the mayor told the crowd that he and I met in Springfield in the mid-1960s when he started in the Legislature. "I sort of cut my teeth down there," the mayor said. "I think you probably did too." Though he was nearly 15 years older, he saw me as a contemporary.

Mr. Washington was one of only two black legislators I thought worth cultivating for stories. The other was Sen. Cecil Partee, now city treasurer, a courtly party regular who played by rules that Rep. Washington used to skirt. Rep. Washington didn't have juicy gossip because he was a loner. But his intellect - out of a black world I had seen little of at the time - yielded stunning concepts that helped shape my thinking about Machine workings.

"You used to write good things about me in Springfield," Mr. Washington recalled in my only visit to his Hyde Park apartment, well after he became mayor. Alton Miller, his press secretary, sat nearby protecting him with a tape recorder. The mayor, wearing a black sports shirt, poured tea amd talked.

When he was a Democratic maverick in the Illinois House and Senate, we reporters treated Mr. Washington as a heroic loner. Once elected mayor, stories and columns got tougher on him. The Don Quixotes and Davids get more favorable coverage than the Napoleons.

At my goodbye bash, Mr. Washington returned to that theme. "There were times when I thought you were totally, completely and absolutely, hip-to-hip wrong," he said. "On the other hand there are those times when you were completely right."

That was Mr. Washington. Soothe and slap. Push and pull. Coax and clobber.

One morning in 1983, while being expansive on Bill Cameron's radio show, he let slip that he might levy a commuter tax if he won the mayoralty. That afternoon a TV reporter showed him a story written after the show. He exploded on live TV that I duped and misquoted him. Another time, he was asked about a column speculating how he could have eased out Park District boss Ed Kelly earlier than he did. He remarked about me on the radio, "He smokes hemp."

I plead guilty to at least one count of misjudgment. My error was in joining the chorus that insisted he blew a chance in 1983 just after being elected mayor. I had criticized him for failing to strike deals with a few aldermen fighting him during what comedian Aaron Freeman called Council Wars.

The mayor could have weakened Eddie Vrdolyak, his most shrewd opponent, by whittling away at Mr. Vrdolyak's bloc of aldermen, I had speculated in a column. The mayor was right to ignore me that time. Refusing to compromise with Mr. Vrdolyak and his 28 troublemakers was one show of stubbornness that paid off. Mr. Washington held out until he won a majority on his own terms in special elections ordered by the courts. He mastered politics as only Mr. Daley had over several terms.

Though Richard Daley and Martin Kennelly were the mayors of my youth, Mr. Washington was the mayor crowning my career in Chicago. Between legislative sessions and campaigns, I tracked the civil rights movement with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I covered the Rev. Jesse Jackson fresh from divinity school and during his days at Operation Breadbasket, which became Operation PUSH.

In those months of protest, Mr. Washington was criticized by the frontline of the civil rights crusade. During radical chic salons
hosted by a young advertising couple in their mid-rise overlooking Lincoln Park, Rep. Washington took a lot of flak. Street fighters accused him of being co-opted by Democratic regulars. He insisted he had to try government first.

His slow way won out. The meld of civil rights and politics culminated in Mr. Washington's election in 1983. I had the privilege of following the transformation from protest to political power. My time as this newspaper's political editor and chief political columnist fell between the deaths of Mr. Daley and Mr. Washington. I became political editor just after the death of the Boss. I am leaving my city as Mr. Washington is being mourned. In that span I covered four mayors - Mr. Daley, Michael Bilandic, Jane Byrne and Mr. Washington. It was a chapter in Chicago politics - from Bridgeport to Hyde Park - that I relished.

Politics here is shaped in the neighborhoods, but Mr. Washington's Chicago was not like my Chicago. The polyglot student body in old Waller High School, where I took four years of Latin, had only a few blacks. When I got to the University of Chicago, one neighbor in Hyde Park, the late Paul Butterfield, took me to hear Muddy Waters and Howlin Wolf in the South Side blues joints.

But it wasn't until I started seeing how blacks began gaining leverage through elections that I felt the pulse of politics. Midnight
meetings of crazed politiholics, conspiratorial phone calls, misfired accusations, dirty deals, phony stunts, noble sacrifices, money shakedowns, leaked polls and bitter scraps all make up the stuff of Chicago politics. Somehow voters were moved, often yielding a surprise that embarrassed the best of the city's prognosticators.

A chapter in Chicago has closed with Mr. Washington's death. His legacy is the politicization of blacks. He built a charismatic organization on his forceful personality. Now that person is gone. I am leaving Chicago, its neighborhoods and its factions, for awhile.

"One thing I learned about D.C. is that you appreciate Chicago more when you serve there," Mr. Washington, who once served in Congress, said at my party. "You begin to see just how good Chicago is, what it has to offer. To appreciate the city you have to go to a place like Washington, D.C., which in a sense is rather sophisticated."

Farewell, Mr. Mayor. Au revoir, Chicago.

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Harold Washington's funeral procession at 71st and Vincennes heads toward Oak Woods Cemetery on Nov. 28, 1987. Chicago Sun-Times Library File Photo

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