#784: The Chicago Way

May 1st, 2017

The film “The Untouchables” (1987) has a line that has become a catchphrase for the city: “The Chicago Way.”

“He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue! That’s the Chicago Way!” yells the Scotsman playing the Irishman using the same accent he used to play a Russian submarine captain.

In context, the quote is a good explanation why not to get in a knife fight with Sean Connery, but it has been adopted as conventional wisdom advising that it’s savvy in this town to give scumbag politicians a free pass and a shrug.

Since I decided to turn my background in journalism toward political walking tours, I’ve heard about “the Chicago Way” a lot. I’ve heard it from the tourists I’ve guided through the museum of corruption that is the Loop. I’ve heard about it when interviewed on TV and radio. I’ve heard about it when chatting at parties and someone asks “And what do you do?”

The question, or some variation, tends to follow: “Oh. Well, is a little corruption that bad? After all, it’s the Chicago Way.”

It’s a well-meaning question always, but based on the assumption that a bit of graft greases the wheels of bureaucracy and does no more. The people who ask about the Chicago Way or “a little corruption” see it as a free cup of coffee on the play to keep the cops near your restaurant. A $50 bill palmed to the city inspector so your family business can stay open. Getting your guys some work by being very generous with the campaign donations. Kicking your buddy who’s had a rough go of things a city job even though, yeah, he’s not great at it. What’s wrong with that?

Here’s my response: Has “a little corruption” ever stayed little?

Has it ever stopped with one greased palm or one bloodied knuckle? Will a city inspector take $50 at one corner bar and not put his hand out at the next? Will his friends see the inspector’s tidy bank balance and not want $50s of their own? Then $100s? Will the guy who does the wiring not want in on the action? Or the one checking out the taxes? Or the cop keeping the place safe? Will the cop silent about his partner’s kickback not apply that skill when his partner gets rough with a suspect? When in human history has opening the door a crack led to anything other than it being thrust wide by everyone else who wants in the room?

“A little corruption” becomes a big bit fast. And if you resurrect and query any disgraced politician of yore, from the bribe-takers to extortionists to the murderers, dollars to doughnuts they’ll say whatever they did was just the Chicago Way.

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