Taking a novel approach toward Harold Washington's reign

Tribune file photo
Mayor Harold Washington confers with Alton Miller during a City Council meeting in 1986. "Most of what went on in Chicago was unbelievable," Miller says.

By H. Gregory Meyer
Tribune staff reporter

September 24, 2004

As they did two decades ago, Alton Miller's sunglasses still ride restlessly on the crown of his head while daily thoughts of Harold Washington fill his mind.

Miller was the late mayor's press secretary for the final thousand days of his tenure, the urbane spin doctor who witnessed and announced to the city Washington's fatal heart attack in 1987. He worked in a time he considers as strange as fiction -- so unbelievable, Miller says, that he's now turning Washington's life into a work of fiction itself.

By January, Miller says he intends to have transformed a heap of 3-by-5-inch note cards into a 300-page manuscript called "Chicago Power & Light," a novel featuring a Washington double as protagonist.

If it ever finds a publisher, the roman a clef could become a must-read for the city's political and media set, as many of its characters closely track the actors in the "Council Wars" and other mid-1980s melodramas.

There are "the Frankies," Aldermen Frankie Van Slyke and Francis O'Connor, archenemies of the mayor in whom an astute observer might detect resemblance to the real-life "Eddies" -- former Ald. Edward R. Vrdolyak and current Ald. Edward Burke.

There's Samantha Nast, author of a newspaper column called "Nasties," who publishes excerpts from a leaked tape of the mayor in private conversation. (Columnist Michael Sneed, then at the Tribune, broke the story excerpting such a tape on Miller's second day on the job.)

And there's the mayor himself, a black former football hero named Bailey T. "Bull" Jefferson, locked in a three-month battle with an intransigent City Council. He is assisted by Jerry Valentine, an emotionally confused press secretary with a drinking problem who Miller insists is not his doppelganger.

Tribune photo by Chuck Berman
Alton Miller is writing a novel – "Chicago Power & Light" – that will feature a Mayor Harold Washington double as protagonist.
"Most of what actually went on in Chicago was unbelievable. And so I'll have to be careful that I don't make my fiction as unbelievable as reality was," he said with a weary laugh. "Reality can be unbelievable, and we accept it. When fiction is unbelievable we call it bad writing."

The years following the election of the city's first black mayor have been chronicled as non-fiction in such books as Gary Rivlin's "Fire on the Prairie" and, indeed, in Miller's own 1989 memoir, "Harold Washington: The Mayor, the Man." They were combative times with a racial subplot that resulted in deadlock between Washington and the City Council.

But Miller, who is completing the novel as a requirement toward a master's degree in creative writing at Vermont's Goddard College, said elements of Washington's life defy strict historical treatment. They range from what Miller considers Washington's rejection of "bossism" to his romantic difficulties.

He said the novel is not a cheap shot at old enemies in the media and the City Council, even if many of them don't come off so well in the draft. He expects he'll have to lawyer over a disclaimer if the tale ever hits bookstores.

His graduate adviser, novelist Jeanne Mackin, said the PR man has great potential as a fiction writer.

'True insider'

"He really knows whereof he speaks, and writes about it in such convincing detail. He writes as a true insider," she said.

Vrdolyak, an attorney and now a Republican, said, "Mayor Washington is deceased. He was a good man, and I have nothing further. If anyone wants to write a book, they can do whatever they wish. Doesn't mean it's right, but they can write whatever they want to write."

"Those times were a hundred years ago," Vrdolyak added.

Miller said he's inspired by such historical fiction as Robert Penn Warren's 1946 "All the King's Men," a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel based on the career of Louisiana Gov. Huey Long. Contemporary readers may instead think of "Primary Colors," Joe Klein's 1998 novel about President Bill Clinton.

Stylistically, Miller said, "On a good day, I would like to be writing like Martin Amis."

A snippet he shared with a reporter sets up an electrifying scene inside an arena much like the UIC Pavilion.

"There was no path in the crowd," Miller writes in the excerpted draft. "The Mayor's security had to budge gently through the solid mass of humanity -- very large women in bright dresses and patterned scarves, a thousand different floral scents, dizzying in their profusion; men in sporty jackets, ties of orange and brown against dull-yellow and peach-colored shirts; Loop executives in their pinstripes, and Lakefront activists in linen and jeans and Dockers; men and women wearing the uniforms or just caps or jackets of bus drivers, postal workers, security guards, cleaning women, janitors. A thousand plastic cameras snapped their shutters, the flash bulbs whacking their retinas randomly, taking pictures of the faithful who maneuvered alongside the Mayor as he made his slow, joyful progress."

Visual inspiration

In his eighth-floor office overlooking Grant Park, Miller has been typing the novel beneath a black-and-white photograph in which Washington is giving an A-OK sign with a raised right hand. Miller, aviator glasses atop his head, stands behind him.

The title of the novel is a play on a fictional electric utility called Chicago Power & Light. A pugnacious Jefferson battles the company (headquartered in the Chicago Board of Trade Building) over a new power contract.

But the title also symbolizes Miller's ongoing admiration for a mayor who spent most of his years in office battling political enemies and a skeptical press.

"How can I communicate this concept of enlightened power, if you will," Miller said. "That is how the title Chicago Power & Light suggested itself."

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