Rebecca Janowitz serves as a special assistant for legal affairs on the Cook County Justice Advisory Council and has served on Kenwood Academy and Ray School’s local school councils. She is the author of the 2010 book, “Culture of Opportunity: Obama’s Chicago – The People, Politics and Ideas of Hyde Park.”
What do you see as the significance of Washington and Obama?
You know, one thing that’s interesting is this whole business about [being] trapped by a symbolic role. And Harold Washington was never able to achieve a lot of his agenda for Chicago. He had a vision of Chicago where resources would be allocated fairly between different communities – which has never happened – and during his time in office the big push that he wanted to see in that direction didn’t happen.
He was the first Black mayor of Chicago, with an important symbolic achievement – and by that I don’t mean to minimize it. It was symbolic of Black politics entering into the mainstream. And it was important that he was the mayor of Chicago, because Chicago had been such an important city for Blacks politically. Blacks were so politically important in Chicago. So when I say symbolic, I don’t mean trivial. Sometimes when people say symbolic they mean trivial.
And of course, Obama is the first Black president of United States – a symbol with enormous meaning to so many people – not able to achieve, I think, the agenda that we had hoped to see him achieve in his first term in office. And I think many of us were just astonished to see the issues that so much in this last election turned on, seeming so out of sync with this great push forward that we saw with his election. So it seems to me there’s a lot of interesting comparisons to be made there.
…Obama is younger and healthier, starting on his second term, than Harold Washington was when he got his, and we hope to see very different results in this next term. We hope to see the progressive agenda move further forward.
And in both cases I think you also have to say, because Americans have so much trouble with race and acknowledging the continuing role that race plays in our lives – I’m very sensitive to this myself right now because I work on the question of reducing the population in Cook County jail, and so much law enforcement and what happens in law enforcement and in criminal justice turns on race – and in both when Harold Washington became mayor and even more when Barack Obama became president, a disturbing number of people said “look, the racial question is over – a black man can be mayor of Chicago, a black man can be president.” And that’s amazing and that’s wonderful, and there’s a great deal more left to do. So some of the symbolism cuts the wrong direction, in both cases.
Do you see both men as representative of Hyde Park and, if so, in what ways?
Well, I was thinking that you might ask me that question (laughs). So I have to tell you, they were both really good customers of the Seminary Co-op bookstore. And that’s important. Many, many politicians talk about “the last book I read” or “what’s on my nightstand right now.” And I never in my life heard this from either of them … because they were both real leaders who read a great deal, they were both very good customers of the bookstore. It’s been a Hyde Park tradition. It’s the way Hyde Parkers live. And I don’t know if you’re talking to more people than me about Washington, but one person that certainly knows him quite well was Jack Cella, the manager over at the Seminary Co-op, who remembers him vividly.
… And of course they were very different … Obama was much more of a Hyde Parker in the sense that he wrote, and he published what he wrote … Harold Washington was not; he was circumspect about himself. You can’t imagine him ever writing such a revealing book about himself as Obama wrote – and once Obama became a national figure of course he’s never going to write such a revealing book again. But Harold Washington never wrote like that, never talked about himself [in] those terms publicly.
They were both very well educated, which of course reflects Hyde Park, they went to notable universities, and they were involved, I would argue, in taking existing political opportunities and pushing it further … Harold Washington very much wanted to be part of the Chicago political scene but wanted to move beyond what machine politics offered, and I think you can see throughout his life that Obama was not interested in machine politics, that he wanted to move beyond that. So they were interested in the opportunity that Hyde Park politics presented to make these alliances across racial lines.
And they were both served in their political careers by some of the same Hyde Parkers. Lois and Alan Dobry did a lot for Harold Washington. When Harold Washington became mayor, Alan Dobry was the only white committeeman who supported him in the city. And Alan and Lois Dobry then did a lot of hard work for Barack Obama when he ran against Alice Palmer. So the same Hyde Parkers, Barbara Flynn Currie, Toni Preckwinkle, and a host of other people from Hyde Park who had worked on behalf of Harold Washington then later did a lot to help Barack Obama.
Do you see similarities in their politics and political careers?
No, not really. In their politics, yes, in their political careers, no. I mean, Harold Washington served for years in the state legislature and he toiled away, hampered, deeply hampered, in terms of his independence, by the Chicago political machine. He had to win his independence from that machine over many, many, many years … He had a long, hard slog. Barack Obama had luck … If you put Alan Keyes as the opponent of the intellectual, young, black candidate in a movie, everyone would say, “well, it’s not believable, because who would run such an idiot against someone like that?” You couldn’t get past a committee meeting with a suggestion like that. No, their political careers [are] very, very different. Very different indeed.
And I’ve been thinking a lot about family relationships in politics … of course Washington was so affected by what happened to his father politically in Chicago. And we have some very troubled father-son relationships right now in Chicago politics (laughs) … Barack came in completely differently … I think in terms of their politics being the same, obviously they’re both progressive Democrats, both, you know, inclined to be interested in ideas beyond immediately what’s going on.
Some of the people forget about Harold Washington that he was really good at talking to people from very, very diverse backgrounds. There’s a video on YouTube someplace of him talking about Polish Constitution Day, and he knew about Polish Constitution Day, and when he’s talking you get a sense that he’s talking from something that he’s read or understood or a conversation he had from someone, not from some words on a card that a staffer handed him before he started … And of course, it’s hard to think about another president or national figure we’ve had who was so immersed growing up in other cultures as Barack Obama was, and what an impressive thing that is and how useful it is in the world today.
And that’s the kind of perspective that Hyde Parkers are good at. We have our narrowness and our insularity and our occasional weirdness (laughs). But a lot of us have many times because of academic work, traveled to immerse ourselves in other cultures, are interested in that kind of perspective. I always say that Barack Obama’s mother would have made a wonderful Hyde Parker.
Do you see similarities in their life stories?
… No, not really. I don’t see much similarity in their life [stories]. Not in terms of their family backgrounds. But I suppose they both wound up doing very well at elite law schools at a time when it wasn’t completely clear what the next stage was going to be. I mean, when Harold Washington got to a law school, he went to a very, very good law school, but there were no opportunities for him when he graduated. And then when Obama graduates from Harvard, as the first [Black] editor of the Harvard Law Review, [there are] an enormous number of possibilities, but perhaps not a clear path still about what would be the best choice there. So they certainly had that experience of being among the first in that situation …
… One of the things that’s interesting about Barack Obama is that he never served in the military. But many prominent Black politicians before him did. And so there are many, many, important differences in their personal backgrounds and in their life experience.
You mention in your book how both men had an intellectual demeanor and maintained in some ways an outsider status in politics. Do you attribute this to their time in Hyde Park?
No, I think they were both headed in that direction before they came to Hyde Park, but it certainly nourished it.
Do you think Obama will be seen as following in the footsteps of Harold Washington or an heir to his legacy?
Whatever he does, he’ll be seen as an heir of [Washington’s] legacy by the people who want to see a clear, straightforward progression in Black history in America. You’ve got your first Black mayor in Chicago, you have your first Black president. It will be seen as a progression. What the reality is … I don’t know at this point. I don’t know how that will turn out. You know, we’ll see. But I think, because he said it himself many times, Obama was certainly inspired by Washington. What the consequences of that inspiration are [going to] be, in total, we don’t know yet.
Interview and transcription by Jeffrey Bishku-Aykul