The timing couldn’t be better for Chicago Tribune reporter Ray Long’s “The House That Madigan Built.” Michael Madigan’s five-decade run in the Illinois House of Representatives, mostly as the powerful House speaker, came to an inglorious end last year, after the “velvet hammer” became “Public Official A” in a federal bribery investigation. Federal prosecutors indicted Madigan on racketeering charges early this month, alleging bribery and extortion schemes.
Long’s often humorous, always colorful biography is divided into five parts—like a Shakespeare play—showing Madigan’s rise and fall. This suits its subject, who, along with his mentor Richard J. Daley, is the closest the region ever got to having a king. Intelligent, secretive, focused and relentlessly hard-working, Madigan was for decades the most powerful man in the state, with an iron grip on the Democratic party. He controlled jobs and intimidated opponents. He got his own way with a surprise tax hike (staggering then-Governor Jim Thompson), redrew the state’s political maps, and steered the House to impeaching Rod Blagojevich.
Like a Shakespearian king, Madigan was brought down by his own hubris and changing times. But even cynical readers may be surprised to find themselves admiring him—for all his faults, Madigan was a master at the game, the Michael Jordan of state politics. After covering Madigan and Illinois government for more than forty years for the Chicago Tribune, the Associated Press, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Peoria Journal-Star and the Alton Telegraph, Long is uniquely suited to tell this story.
Long doesn’t bother with fluffy biographical material—we don’t hear tales of Madigan’s childhood, or musings about his feelings and personal life. Instead, Long focuses on what Madigan is known for—Illinois politics—and how he built and used his power. Rather than present an exhaustive catalogue of Madigan’s achievements, Long wisely divided up the book into self-contained stories that show Madigan’s style.
One chapter, for example, shows how Madigan was able to keep the White Sox in Chicago. Team owners Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn were threatening to move the Sox to St. Petersburg, and Florida officials had offered potentially tens of millions of public dollars. Illinois needed to approve a new stadium plan before midnight on June 30, 1988, or the city would lose the South Side team. Madigan worked the room, trying to sew up votes before the deadline. Needing more time, House Democrats stopped the clock to gather enough votes to keep the Sox. “By my watch, it was 11:59,” Madigan said, though everyone else’s watch read 12:03. As Long puts it, “The House of Madigan had made time stand still.”
Instead of a dull this-then-that history, “The House that Madigan Built” reads like stories told at the Billy Goat Tavern at midnight, by the most knowledgeable guy in the room. Smart, funny and even-handed, “The House That Madigan Built” is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Illinois politics, alongside Mike Royko’s “Boss” and Elizabeth Taylor and Adam Cohen’s “American Pharoah.”
“The House that Madigan Built: The Record Run of Illinois’ Velvet Hammer”
By Ray Long
University of Illinois Press, 304 pages
Mary Wisniewski is a Chicago writer and author of “Algren: A Life.”