A Secret Good Place

THAT STEAMY SUMMER IN 1968, AT THE LAST DEMO- cratic National Convention held in Chicago, the city acquired the reputation of Munich Midwest, a place where a proto-fascist could sit with a beer out on his back lawn decorated with pink plastic flamingos after a day of beating up hippies and despising blacks. Everyone will recall the unctuous Walter Cronkite, a man with a face only a nation could love, interviewing an out-of-control Mayor Richard J. Daley, a man with a face that during that convention a whole nation came to loathe. From the chamber-of-commerce perspective, the '68 gathering was less than a brilliant public-relations ploy.

Now, 28 years later, much in the way of public relations is being attempted to rectify the memory of that horrendous summer. But it's not clear that any of the spinning is really needed. Just now, Chicago, where I have lived for more than half a century, seems a most agreeable place. Most people who live here aren't eager to be elsewhere. The city may even have become one of those secret good places, as Seattle may once have been but without all the overpriced coffee and pretentiousness about simple living that besmirch that city. Chicago must have one of the lowest pretension rates in the nation.

No proving this, of course, but I suspect that we in Chicago may also have a lower per capita rate of neurosis than either New York or Los Angeles. Neurotics don't seem to come off here. Nor does high living at the designer level. Along north Michigan Avenue a handful of rich women and their rather sluggish husbands have tried to live glitteratishly, but they have always seemed slightly absurd. Apart from that accorded to only boldfaced athletic reputations --Ditka, Rodman, the divine Michael--celebrity doesn't really come off in this town, either. Saul Bellow used to grumble that even after he won the Nobel Prize, people used to mistake him for a defense lawyer named Charlie Bellows.

Chicago is a city in which a person can be 30 pounds overweight and not feel that his or her entire life has been a tragic mistake. We no longer have the stockyards, but we're still a beef town, and for many the steakhouse is the restaurant of choice. In some ways the late John Belushi, Chicago born, had the ideal Chicago physique: short legs, large torso, a good bit of front footage hanging over the belt, a face suggesting a reasonable potential for pugnacity. The Daleys, pre et fils, walked--and in the case of fils walks still--the streets with physiques not too different, short, thick guys whom no one would mistake for Marcel Proust and whom no one sensible would pick a fight with.

Chicagoans' general views on politics are not complicated and can be stated fairly briefly: every politician is a thief. What makes pols mildly interesting is they wish to steal different things: money will do it for some; for others only power will suffice. The really dangerous politicians are those who want to steal a reputation for virtue for themselves. Increasingly, presidential elections seem to be about virtue. Bill Clinton and Bob Dole each tell us his way is the true path. Theirs is a debate, we are asked to believe, between the values of caring and sensitivity and yesterday's rugged ideals of hard work, self-sacrifice and independence. It's all most moving, unless you happen to be from Chicago and remember that we are listening to politicians here -- and so you attend with one eyebrow arched. And when they are done, you tap your pocket to see if your wallet is still there.

Still, we have a strong taste for corruption in Chicago, and have never been without our delicious little scandals for too long: aldermen lining their pockets, judges on the take and, in one notable incident in my youth, cops actually burglarizing homes. Such things confirm us in our comfortably low view of humankind.

Yet Chicago seems rather fortunate in its current mayor, Richard M. Daley. An outwardly softer man than his father--he is called Richie--he has made those of us who live in Chicago feel rather OK about the place. One of the first things he did was defuse the racial bad feeling that existed openly under his father and then, after that, under Harold Washington, the city's first black mayor, who was much resented by the old Daley men. Old crooks always hate new crooks, and with the element of race added the hatred quickly gets out of bounds. ""Council wars'' was the term journalists then used to describe what were less euphemistically race wars in the city council. Under Richie they are gone now, at least for now, and good riddance.

What isn't gone is the ghastliness of so many black neighborhoods on the South and especially the West sides of the city. In those places there are still ruins from the riots after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968. Crime in Chicago, as elsewhere, has long been part of city living. So, inevitably, is big-city inconvenience. Taxes could be lower. But if you want to talk about Utopia, I'm ordering another Bud.

Meanwhile, driving around Chicago, one always sees lots of new building going on. Almost overnight, once dreary neighborhoods can become tony, costly, in. The old strict ethnic lines on which neighborhoods were once formed are breaking up. Once upon a time, if you told me where you lived in Chicago I could tell you, with a fair degree of accuracy, your family income, religion, ethnicity and whether you ate in the dining room or the kitchen. No more. The biggest ethnic group in Chicago just now seems to be the young, that transient class.

One of the appealing things about the city is that it seems somehow to have got roughly the right mix between the young and the old, between the new and the ageless. There is proper respect for tradition in this city, and yet this doesn't preclude a hunger for innovation. A sports-mad town, Chicago is a fine site for the Democratic National Convention, a major event in the sport of national politics. The feeling in the city, once divided and supposedly haunted by its past, is: let 'er rip, let the games begin!