September 02, 1996 12:00 PM

CHICAGO MAYOR RICHARD M. DALEY much prefers the White Sox to high culture. So it came as a bit of a surprise when Daley spent three full hours last September admiring artwork in the woefully inadequate quarters of the National Vietnam Veterans Art Museum, then asked curator Sondra Varco, “How can I help?” She answered that she had long had her eye on a vacant, city-owned building across the street. “You’ve got it,” Daley pledged on the spot. Within seven months, Varco was not only given the building, she also was granted $1 million for renovations. In return, Daley, 54, exacted a single promise: The museum had to be ready for the Aug. 26 opening of the Democratic National Convention, which Chicago is hosting.

Daley’s horse-trading savvy would have pleased his father, Mayor Richard J. Daley, the take-no-prisoners pragmatist who ruled the city from 1955 until his death in 1976.

The first Mayor Daley was master of the political favor—most famously in 1960, when, as head of the state party, he delivered Illinois to the Democrats and gave John F. Kennedy the narrowest presidential victory in history. Eight years later, itching to play kingmaker once more, Daley brought the Democratic Convention to Chicago.

But what was to have been his finest hour turned into a five-day street battle waged in a fog of tear gas between billy-club-wielding police and Vietnam War protesters. By letting police use what a federal commission later condemned as excessive force, Daley took the brunt of the blame for the debacle—a verdict his son still feels is a bad rap. After President Johnson, unpopular for his Vietnam policies, chose not to run for reelection in 1968, says today’s Mayor Daley, “there was only Richard J. Daley left on the top, and they had to make him a scapegoat.”

Hoping to redeem both his city’s and his father’s reputations, the scapegoat’s son planned to host a Convention-eve reception at the Vietnam art museum for some of the 5,000 delegates and 15,000 reporters expected this week for Chicago’s first national political convention since that fateful one 28 years ago. Daley has ordered that police be schooled in First Amendment rights, and he has welcomed protesters, though they are to be kept at least 80 feet from the two-year-old United Center convention site. But he realizes that even his best efforts won’t erase memories of the violence that tainted his father’s place in history. “I don’t know if Vietnam [can] ever be healed in this country,” he says.

The eldest son and fourth of seven children born to Richard Daley and his wife, Eleanor, now 89, Daley was raised in the same brick bungalow where his mother still resides and where his paternal grandparents once lived in the working-class neighborhood of Bridgeport. “Families were important in those days,” he says. “Today we have lost it. That is why we have so many problems.” Though his father demanded that the children rake leaves or do other errands around the house before racing off to play, he also doted on his brood, taking them fishing on Lake Michigan, treating them to White Sox games in his private box at nearby Comiskey Park or just kicking around ideas. “I have great memories of my father,” says Daley, “sitting around the dinner table on Sunday talking about politics.”

Even after he built his political empire, the senior Daley would head home most days for lunch, and he guarded his family’s privacy like an armed sentry. “We were never projected into the limelight,” his son recalls, “which was important because you want your children to have their own identity.” Still, Richard would not stray far from his father’s path. Like his father, he was an altar boy at the Nativity of Our Lord Catholic Church and was drilled in secular, as well as religious, catechisms. (“I think life is all about being disciplined,” he says today.) One thing he learned on his own: to be wary of the press. While in college, he made the front page of Chicago’s dailies for running a stop sign. From that moment on, he admits, “I became very cautious.”

He served from 1960 to 1964 in the Marine reserves, which his father considered good training, then studied law at De Paul University in Chicago, his father’s alma mater. Shortly after passing the bar exam on his third try in 1969, Daley entered politics, easily winning a slot as a delegate to a state constitutional convention. He quickly became known as Dirty Little Richie for his perceived mean-spiritedness. “Daley was arrogant and intensely disliked, even by those who had to like him,” says Don Rose, an independent political consultant. But his cockiness had its limits. Once, a few years later, Daley, while serving as a state senator, returned to Chicago with hair down to his collar, only to be shooed to a barber by a withering glare from his father.

At a Christmas party in 1970, Daley met Maggie Corbett, 26, an executive with the Xerox Corp., and asked her out for New Year’s Eve. They were married 15 months later. Maggie, whose warmth and friendliness are credited with helping soften Daley, says that joining the Daley clan “was like getting on a train.” The couple have three children: Nora, 23, who works for a New York City insurance firm; Patrick, 21, a student at the University of San Diego, and Elizabeth, 12.

A fourth child, Kevin, was born with spina bifida in 1978. As the toddler’s condition deteriorated, then Sen. Daley flew home to Chicago every night from Springfield, the state capital, to be at his side. After Kevin’s death at age 2, Daley showed “a lot more sensitivity about the pain that parents feel,” says his brother Bill, 48, an attorney who helped raise money for the Democratic Convention. Don Rose goes further. Daley, he says, became “a better person inside” and showed more sensitivity toward social issues such as mental health and care for the elderly.

A self-described loner who is happy riding a bike or a horse (at dude ranches, on vacation), Daley also likes movies and western-style line dancing. But his main recreation is work, and he toiled nine years as state’s attorney for Cook County before winning the 1989 race to complete the term of Chicago’s first black mayor, Harold Washington, who had died in office. No sooner was Daley sworn in than he summoned an aide to his new office, where he raged about a filthy window. “If this place isn’t clean,” he told reporters at a press conference later, “what does that say about our city?”

In his seven years as mayor, he has virtually rid the city of abandoned cars, filled countless potholes (he points them out to deputies on his many walks through neighborhoods) and planted half a million trees. “Rich has been on that tree kick for years,” says Bill Daley. “He believes that greenery makes life a little more enjoyable for people.” But he has also brought more minorities into government, balanced the school budget and begun plans to rehab downtrodden public housing projects.

Citing his achievements, some see Daley as a better mayor than his father was. “The father was an old-time pol, the ultimate Windy City brawler,” says Walter Jacobson, a political commentator in the city for 25 years. “Young Daley is more into government than politics. The city works.” Eugene Kennedy, author of Himself, a biography of the senior Daley, is less enthusiastic, believing that while Daley “has gone from being a somewhat tentative public servant to becoming very comfortable as mayor,” he is “not quite the enormous figure his father was.” Still, one thing detractors and boosters agree on, says Kennedy, is that this Daley, like his father, is guided by an overriding conviction “that Chicago is the greatest city in the world.”



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