CHICAGO — Gary Rivlin, author of the Harold Washington book "Fire on the Prairie," was last in Chicago four years ago for events marking the 25th anniversary of Washington's inauguration as mayor. Rivlin made a point to stop by an official exhibit on the mayor at the Harold Washington Library.
"I hated it," Rivlin said. "I really felt it was what they're doing to Martin Luther King. His opposition to the Vietnam War, all that stuff that's more political, all wiped away, and he's essentially just a credit to his race. None of it's wrong. Harold Washington was inspirational.
"But he wasn't just the first black mayor," Rivlin added by phone from his home in New York City. "He was three things at once — the first black mayor, a true anti-Machine reformer and a politician to the left of liberal."
First published 20 years ago, "Fire on the Prairie" was Rivlin's first book, his attempt to correct the Washington record, which he felt was muddled by the mainstream media. It grew out of a series of articles he'd done for the Chicago Reader. It's now out in a new edition from Temple University Press to mark the 25th anniversary of Washington's death.
"As a pure political history of the period, it's usually considered the principal book," said Dick Simpson, former alderman and now professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
The new edition, too, grew out of that trip to Chicago four years ago, when Rivlin returned to the book to prepare for some speaking engagements.
"I read it kind of covering one eye," he said, "kind of reading your younger self. It was better than I thought," he added, but at the same time it seemed overly verbose and wordy for someone who'd gone on to hone his craft at The New York Times.
Invited to do a new edition for Temple, he pared the original text by almost a quarter. "To me, it's one of the ultimate compliments to a writer. 'That was tightly written,'" Rivlin said, adding, "It's spare. You told the story, but you didn't waste words.
"It's the same story," Rivlin said of the new edition. "It's a much slimmer volume, but I don't think I sacrificed anything."
The book is updated with an introduction by DePaul University professor Larry Bennett that draws parallels between Washington and President Barack Obama, who cited Washington's influence in his book "Dreams From My Father."
"I don't think he learned from the master, so much as he was inspired by what mainstream politics could be in people's lives," Rivlin said. Both also have faced similar political opposition, an attempt to "undermine him at every turn and cast him as incompetent."
"Washington was able to show that an African-American could be elected despite being a minority in the population," Simpson said. "He was followed by Carol Moseley Braun, who proved that at the Senate level, and then Barack Obama, who won his U.S. Senate seat following the same sort of pattern, which is to mobilize the African-American community without alienating the white community entirely."
Washington's abiding influence, Rivlin said, is in the emphasis on neighborhoods in economic development and political activity. School councils, Rivlin said, were a Washington idea later implemented by Mayor Daley.
"He was radical in some ways within the context of local politics," Rivlin said. "All that's missing," he added, from most accounts of his legacy.
"One thing I think Washington prided himself in was his openness," Rivlin said. "They didn't have the term back then, but his approach to policy was crowd-sourcing. Get everybody in a room ... and he wants to hear them all talk on the issue. And somehow he's figuring out things based on a very broad conversation. That's not Rahm Emanuel. Rahm Emanuel is like, 'let's get three or four smart guys in a room and we'll figure it out.'"
Washington, however, would have admired Emanuel's flair for winning elections, Rivlin said, even if it's not quite the alliance of progressives, African-Americans and Latinos Washington ran on. "He put together this extraordinary coalition," Rivlin said. "It was never so obvious what a master coalition-builder he was until he died and it all fell apart."
"The Latino population chose to work with Daley," Simpson said. "And the African-American population split, so it was no longer possible to keep the entire coalition together."