101 Daley: On High Rank as a Disadvantage

Yesterday, Jenny and I took our sons to City Hall to meet and have their picture taken with Mayor Daley.  In little over a week, Richard M. Daley will hand over the reigns of city power to Rahm Emanuel, ending an era in Chicago.

Through the years, I haven’t written much about Mayor Daley, for the most part because Jenny remained in his employ in the 13 1/2 years after I left City Hall employment.  Montaigne would understand my silence:

There are few matters on which we can give an unbiased judgement because there are few in which we do not have a private interest some way or other.

My private interest has been to support this Mayor and keep the more colorful stories of government service to myself.  And now that he’s leaving office — with far less to gain from doing so — I’m going to remain loyal and silent.  Mayor Daley has earned this loyalty.

Yesterday, after the photos were snapped — and all three boys took their place in the Mayor’s seat (let the record show that Finn was most reluctant to leave) — the Mayor remarked “you have a nice family,” to which I responded that, since Jenny and I met working for him, the family is entirely due to him.  But I wonder if he doesn’t feel that about most families in his city … because he’s commanded Chicago throughout his tenure.

It’s hard to imagine what Richard M. Daley will do without the power of his office … but Montaigne argues that the ability to walk away is the greatest sign of internal strength:

In general high rank has one obvious advantage: it can lay itself aside whenever it wants to; it is virtually free to choose either condition. All forms of greatness are not brought low uniquely by a fall: some there are which allow you to stoop low without falling. It does seem to me that we set too high a value on it, as we also do on the determination of those whom we have seen or heard refusing it or resigning it at their own volition. In its essence the advantage of it is not so self-evident that it takes a miracle to reject it.

For all of the challenges of the job, Mayor Daley held until the very end that he has the best job in America.  One reason why he’s succeeded for so long is that he’s demanded the same level of professional passion from the people around him — he wants everyone in their discrete roles to believe that they too hold the best job in America.  After all, heavy wears the crown and many, Montaigne included, are not suited for it:

I have never found myself wishing for imperial or royal rank nor for the prominence of those high destinies where men command. My aims do not tend that way: I love myself too much for that. When I think of growing in constancy or wisdom or health or beauty, or even wealth, it is in a modest way, with a timid constricted growth appropriate to myself; but my imagination is oppressed by great renown or mighty authority.

Serving a leader, whether a mayor or a king, requires a certain mindset — knowledge of your middling rank.  Overstepping your authority, or worse circumventing authority, is the greatest sin.  Montaigne held positions like this throughout his professional career and seemed perfectly suited by nature to the jobs:

I want neither to be a wretched nobody arguing with doorkeepers nor one who causes crowds to part with awe as I pass through. By lot and also by taste I am accustomed to a middling rank. In the conduct of my life and of anything I have undertaken, I have shown that I have fled rather than sought means of stepping above the degree of fortune in which God has placed me at birth. Anything established by Nature is as just as it is pleasant.

These middling jobs, however, can also be extremely demanding.  Mayor Daley wants people who are passionate in these roles … so if your nature is either to reach higher or to get out of the pressure cooker, he’s not going to be sympathetic.  Montaigne understood that this is probably the only course a ruler can take, which is why he eventually retired to his estate:

I have a soul so lazy that I do not measure my fortune by its height: I measure it by its pleasantness.  But though I do not have all that great a mind, I do have one which is correspondingly open, one which orders me to dare to publish its weaknesses.

The emotional challenge of working within any system is accepting a level of domination.  Unless you are on top — and Montaigne has already made clear that he doesn’t like such lofty heights — then you have to accept a role within the bureaucracy, which is something that Montaigne couldn’t accept freely.  He even wishes for a certain “bargain” with power, where he’s freed from ruling if the rulers will just leave him alone:

I dislike all domination, by me or over me. Otanes, one of the Seven who had rightful claims to the throne of Persia, took a decision which I could well have taken myself. To his rivals he abandoned his rights to be elected or chosen by lot, on condition that he and his family could live in that empire free from all domination, and from all subordination except to those of the ancient laws, and should enjoy every freedom not prejudicial to those laws, since he found it intolerable both to give or to accept commands.

Words like these lend credence to the argument that Montaigne, not Etienne La Boetie, was the author of the infamous anarchists essay that Montaigne felt obliged to defend.  I’m not a Montaigne scholar, so I have no learned opinion on the matter … I would tend to think that Montaigne was merely sympathetic with his dear friend and had enough insider knowledge to be skeptical of all authority.

Despite this skepticism, Montaigne is unusually sympathetic to rulers and the challenges they face.  I’m in agreement with him here — despite the cliches about politicians, I find them for the most part to be likable, ethical people doing the best they can in a system they didn’t create:

The harshest and most difficult job in the world, in my judgment, is worthily to act the King.  I can excuse more shortcomings in kings than men commonly do, out of consideration for the horrifying weight of their office, which stuns me. It is difficult for such disproportionate power to act with a sense of proportion.

According to Montaigne, one of the worst things about being a ruler is that no one has the courage to speak or act truth to power … and this lack of challenge, while seemingly deferential, is actually disdainful and insulting:

The disadvantage of great rank (which I have taken as the subject of my remarks here since some event called it to my attention) is the following: nothing perhaps in the whole of our dealings with others is more pleasant than those assays which we make of each other as rivals for honor in physical sports and for esteem in those of the mind – and in which a sovereign can take no real part. It has often seemed true to me that the force of respect leads to our actually treating princes disdainfully and insultingly.

A confession: looking back on my days in government, I don’t think that I stood up for my beliefs as strongly as I should have when face to face with Governor Wilder and Mayor Daley.  It’s tough to stand your ground in the spotlight, but I now see that it’s the only way to serve them well.  Perhaps it’s why politicians should always seek the counsel of older aides and those who have known you long enough to stand up to you personally, if not to the office.

My final thoughts on Mayor Daley are these: there is not question that, on balance, he leaves behind a greater Chicago than the one he inherited.  Put aside the controversies and the stands on individual issues, Chicago has not suffered the decline of other American midwestern cities.  And for that, we all owe Richard M. Daley our gratitude.

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