Vol I no. 3 November 27, 2002  
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Ten Things I Learned from Harold Washington

Alton Miller, who served as Press Secretary to Mayor Harold Washington, teaches "Politics and the Media" at Columbia College Chicago. He is also a member of PCG's Board of Directors. Premeditations and Premonitions appears periodically in The Common Good Network.

Harold Washington, the first black mayor of Chicago, died 15 years ago this week, a fact of which I have been reminded again and again over the past few days, by phone calls from reporters and program directors working on tributes.

I was alone with him in his office at City Hall the morning he died of a sudden, massive heart attack -- he sitting at his desk, me on the other side, reviewing with him the items on his agenda. It was the day before Thanksgiving, which is the day I always privately memorialize him, rather than the calendar date which happened to be November 25, 1987.

The reporters and program directors want to know what it was like to work closely with this charismatic leader for whom I served as press secretary for 1,000 days, some of the most tumultuous days in the history of Chicago or any other American city. Often the questions come from journalists too young to have met the late mayor (though they all remember which schoolyard they were in when they got the news of his death). But once in a while I'll hear from a veteran reporter from those days, and our reminiscences inevitably tend toward the personal -- Harold's way with words, his booming smile, his penetrating intelligence.

I hang up the phone and feel the need for an astringent to cut through the sticky nostalgia, and reflect on what I really remember -- the ten most important things I learned from working with Harold Washington. They are the lessons I try to pass on to my students at Columbia College. I list them here because there may be, tucked in here and there, keys to change in our civic dialogue.

1. Politics is good. Harold Washington, as a congressman, and even afterwards, as a member of the Democratic Black Caucus, was a thorn in President Reagan's hide. Among their philosophical differences was the notion that government can't solve problems, government is the problem. Harold Washington didn't buy that. He believed that politicians are a necessary link between the people and the institutions that manage our civilization -- those institutions being partly public, and partly in the private sector but warranting public oversight. Politicians are the ones who take all the good ideas and the vague anxieties of those who desire justice, and craft them into action plans for getting things done. He was proud to be a politician and enjoyed using his political skills to effect change.

2. The power of fairness. Every parent knows that there's nothing so sharp as a five-year-old's sense of fairness. Most of us, as we get older, become dispirited and lose our edge. "Life is unfair," we're told (usually by millionaires), and we accept it. Harold Washington refused to. He believed you could cut through people's jaded cynicism and appeal to their innate sense of fairness. It was surprising to see how readily this worked. His arguments were rational and informed by the facts, but their momentum was fueled by something beyond rationality, something in the hearts of his listeners, something we are all ready to experience when it's properly evoked.

3. There are no monoliths. Whether you're dealing with the Chicago Tribune or the White House or white Chicagoans, you're always dealing with a complex of different interests. That means, for example, that even when you know the newspapers are against your programs for social change, you take the trouble to articulate your point of view and press forward. Within those seemingly solid bastions there are dissident factions who agree with you, and others who can be persuaded by the facts, and an appeal to fairness. Even if you lose this time around, you can unsettle the undecideds and fortify your allies, and make it easier to make your point the nxt time around. Bottom line: don't write off anyone.

4. Stay on the attack. Harold Washington's opponents never gave him a rest. Sometimes it seemed like a tag-team. City Council was organized by his opponents, who outnumbered him 29-21. When the "29" slacked off slightly, the Reagan Justice Department got in their licks, staging a sting operation targeting the mayor personally. Then Republican governor Jim Thompson would go a few rounds. Harold was advised to fall back on a defensive strategy, but he knew he would never make a small target. He believed in counter-attack as the best defense; maybe that had something to do with his years as an amateur boxer.

5. Take the punches. Another lesson from his boxing days. It's not enough to be able to score your points. You also have to be able to stand up to the punishment if you're going to be a champion. Even though his strategy was to stay on the offensive, he taught me that the last one standing is not the one who's able to land the most punches, but the one who's able to withstand the most punches. You get extra points if you can make your opponents believe that those punches didn't hurt - and smile through the pain.

6. The power of humor. Harold Washington's good humor became his trademark. His wit was the teasing edge of a sharply honed intelligence. His deeper appreciation of life's ironies, and his enjoyment of the foibles of his fellow man, led him to find and follow the humor that threaded through even some of his most serious moments. What is humor, after all, but a playful fresh perspective? And of course, laughter is a universal language, and ridicule works where blunter instruments fail. During the 1983 campaign for mayor, an anonymous caller on a radio talk show asked whether, as mayor, he would install a system of vines as mass transit. The radio show host sputtered apologies but the mayor laughed and made the double-edged observation that he doubted Chicago was a city of Tarzans. Effortlessly, naturally, his good humor disarmed adversaries, relaxed negotiating partners, and lightened the load for himself and his staff.

7. You can depend on overkill. In the darkest hours, when your opponents overpower you so completely that defeat seems certain, remember the power of overkill. This refers to the apparently human tendency to take a good thing and go too far with it. Stay alert to the mistakes made by overconfident adversaries who get careless; or who overshoot their mark and alienate a bystander, thereby creating a new ally for you; or who simply offend public opinion with their swaggering and gloating. A seemingly miraculous rescue may result. Clinton experienced this often enough to be called the "Comeback Kid," but Harold Washington had already been there, a decade before.

8. Personality makes a difference. Regardless of the mass energy tumbling about, individual leadership is key. "The people" and "the movement" are rhetorical concepts we use to describe potentiality. But they are empty concepts until you put the faces -- the individual energies, the personalities -- into the picture. Not just anyone who happened to come around at the right time could bring people together and do what Harold Washington did (and the proof lies in what happened to his "movement" once he was no longer there). In a democracy, like it or not, people rally to leaders who possess at least the convincing semblance of style, personality, character -- the charismatic qualities.

9. Leadership isn't bossism. Harold Washington never believed a mayor should tell people what to do. He saw himself as the executive function in a system composed of neighborhood groups, community organizations, and other social institutions, along with the agencies of government. He was the one with the position and the political skills to help realize their dreams. But the whole system depended on the dreamers as well. Without individual commitment -- usually expressed through democratic activitism in some kind of community-level group -- the system would fall apart. Many of his supporters would have preferred dictatorial bossism instead of real leadership, but he wasn't interested in that, and let them know it.

10. The importance of formal communication. It's not enough to do good. You have to let people know about it, and use their feedback to make adjustments and corrections. That means you need the headlines in the morning paper, and lively coverage in the broadcast news -- but it also requires a cultivated system of communication in the other direction. Thus you take publicity and promotional efforts seriously, but you are just as serious about the town meetings and police district public relations and feedback from community organizations. Informal communication -- intelligence gathering -- doesn't do the job. Harold Washington, whose image radiated power, was disdainful of "image" politics and the packaging of personality. His communication efforts concentrated on defining issues and promoting policies to deal with them.

Harold Washington's horizons extended far beyond the city limits. As a congressman he helped to lead the national resistance to the "Reagan Revolution." As mayor, he developed local programs in a wider context. Affirmative action wasn't about patronage for black people, or even about simple fairness for minorities. It was about creating stable social conditions for all the other economic reforms. Ending patronage and eliminating political corruption wasn't about vengeance on his enemies. It was about ending waste and maximizing resources, taking Chicago out of the 19th century and getting it ready for the 21st. He believed that the mayors of America's great cities -- not the scattered state committeemen -- formed the natural core of the Democratic party. And he believed that they could do their best work only if they freed their city governance from the political insiders (both in office and in business), and brought civic groups and neighborhood organizations into the center of power.

Many of the lessons I learned from Harold Washington are elements of his continuing legacy in Chicago. And they each hold, to some degree, lessons for the civic challenges we face as a nation.

© 2002 Alton Miller
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