In a piece for The New Yorker last year, Evan Osnos, who has been the magazine’s China correspondent since 2008, wrote about a leader who rose through the ranks of the political party that has dominated his city for the better part of the past century to assume a position of power once held by his father. But the story’s subject isn’t a Communist Party boss. He is Richard M. Daley,whose sixth term as the Democratic mayor of Chicago ends Monday. Osnos’ profile offers rare insight into the life of a man who is well known for his contentious relationship with the press. “The Daley Show” appeared in the magazine on March 8, 2010, before Daley announced that he did not intend to seek re-election.
Osnos has been familiar with Daley since he interned at the Chicago Tribune while he was an undergraduate at Harvard. “He struck me as a fairly unique American political figure,” the writer said. Around the time of Barack Obama’s historic election, Osnos, who came to The New Yorker from the Tribune’s Beijing bureau, pitched a story to the magazine‘s editors about the man who wields seemingly unchecked power in the new president’s political training grounds. The editors were very supportive of the idea. “They were interested in understanding, ‘Who was the guy who controlled the city that produced Obama?'” Osnos said.
To do the story, Osnos knew he would need to spend a lot of time with the mayor. Given Daley’s fiery attitude toward reporters this could have been an insurmountable obstacle. “For a New Yorker piece of this kind, you need to have a lot of access,” he said. “I wasn’t going to do the story unless I knew I was going to have access to Daley to interview him repeatedly.” He approached Jacquelyn Heard, the mayor’s press secretary, with the idea in early 2009. While the administration had the “usual level of concern” expected from any political operation, Osnos was guaranteed the time he needed with the mayor.
Before going into interviews for a story of this kind, Osnos feels it is necessary to do as much background research as possible. “I think that’s absolutely vital to having a productive interview,” he said. “You never manage to read everything, of course,” he said. In “The Daley Show,” contemporaneous scenes of Daley surveying the city from his town car and attending public events are interwoven with background details that reflect deep reservoirs of research material. In the story’s lead section, Osnos quotes The Wall Street Journal‘s description of Chicago as “Beirut on the Lake;” a former campaign consultant’s assertion that “Daley had a tendency to misstate the obvious, invent words never imagined by linguistic researchers, introduce irrelevant material, and demonstrate anger at seemingly uneventful moments;” and the legendary Chicago newspaper columnist Mike Royko’s quip that the mayor “had ‘all the charisma of a plate of corned beef and cabbage.'”
Armed with this kind of factual material, Osnos goes into interviews prepared make them productive conversations rather than allowing his subject to spout platitudes and political speak. This is especially important with someone like Daley. “He goes into a kind of autopilot when he’s doing interviews, and that’s kind of, from an interviewer’s perspective, a disaster,” Osnos said. Osnos’ research allows him to push interviews in new directions. “The only way I can have an interview that pushes my knowledge beyond what is already publicly available is know what is already publicly available,” he said.
For this story, Osnos conducted three formal sit-down interviews with Daley, each lasting about an hour to an hour and a half. While these sessions gave him time to check facts with the mayor and get his take on some of the myths surrounding his life and his 20-year tenure in City Hall, they weren’t as crucial to the final story as one might assume. “The interviews with him weren’t vital to the piece,” Osnos said. And they certainly didn’t produce a plethora of compelling quotes. “He’s in a constant struggle with his own tongue,” he said.
Although the interviews with Daley weren’t very productive, Osnos spent a lot of time interviewing other people for the story. Beginning in April 2009, he started interviewing people around Chicago about the mayor. In all, he interviewed about 50 people for the story, which he said is on the low end for a story of this kind. With a subject like Daley, about whom so much has been written, Osnos relies more heavily on his background research. For example, Osnos quotes “American Pharaoh,” Adam Cohen and Elizabeth Taylor’s 2000 biography of the mayor’s father, rather than quoting the authors from interviews. He has found that most of the useful material writers can contribute is contained in their work, although he’ll sometimes interview them if they can offer information that doesn’t appear in print, as he did with Taylor.
When it comes to selecting who to interview for a major profile, he tries to find people who can offer readers unique insight about the subject. Osnos could have talked with Bill Clinton for the story, for instance, but he didn’t feel the former president would be able to shed any new light on Daley’s character. He did talk to Al Gore, however, because the former vice president is more intimately familiar with the mayor’s environmental efforts. One noticeably absent source, given the framing of the story as an in-depth look at the man who runs the show in Obama’s hometown, is the president himself. Osnos knew, if he kept at it long enough, he might get a few minutes of the president’s time, but felt it wasn’t worth the effort to add “a little stardust” and not much detail to the story. Instead, he focused his attention on interviewing Daley’s family, schoolmates, political observers, staffers, former campaign workers and political opponents, among others. “In a story like this, it’s almost better to get the guy’s first-grade teacher than it is to get the president,” he said.
Osnos didn’t just spend time interviewing Daley. He also was granted access to follow the mayor about his daily business, which provided the contemporaneous action for the story. While observing a subject in action, Osnos is constantly recording on a digital audio recorder. “I think that’s especially important with (Daley) because he speaks in odd ways, so you have to capture his speech exactly how he said it,” he said. At the same time, he uses his written notes to capture physical details, gestures and facial expressions that don’t show up on the recordings. He then pairs the two to craft scenes with vivid physical detail and accurate dialogue.
This scene from early in the story is an example of this method at work:
Shortly after talking to (New York City Mayor Michael) Bloomberg, Daley was at a table with officials of the Department of Streets and Sanitation. … He flipped through a briefing packet, past sections on alley sweeping and street lights, and lingered on “Rodent Control.” “What about Dunkin’ Donuts?” he asked, referring to a recent case.
“Fly infestation,” the rodent-control boss said.
“Who is the head of Dunkin’ Donuts?” Daley demanded, his voice squeaking. “Why don‘t we send a letter to the president, and—who owns these?” he asked, of the local franchises. “Do we know who owns these? Absentee landlord?”
He scoured the pages before him and landed on another case—more flies, this time in a Starbucks at the airport. “Send a letter to Starbucks!” he said, poking the air with his half-glasses. “To the chairman of the board!”
If it weren’t for Osnos’ diligent recording and note taking, he wouldn’t have been able to capture the way Daley’s voice squeaked when he asked about the head of Dunkin’ Donuts or how he jabbed the air with his glasses when he gave the orders to send a letter to the head of Starbucks. Using only one method of observing the moment, Osnos would be able to paint only half the picture.
Osnos supplements his notes and recordings by taking photographs with a small digital camera. While riding in Daley’s town car on the way to a gun turn-in event, for example, he was able to take photos out the window of the car. “It allows you to get a level of detail you wouldn‘t be able to get just by writing things down in the moment,” he said.
After gathering as much detail as possible during the reporting, Osnos must decide how to shape the story from all his raw material. Before he starts writing, he and his research assistants transcribe all his audio recordings. He needs to have everything on the page so he knows what he has to work with, he said. After the transcripts are complete, he starts filling information into an extensive outline, which contains large chunks of the transcripts, observations from his notebooks and material from his background research. For this story, he worked from a 180-page outline, only small portions of which made it into the final version.
In deciding what goes into a story, Osnos applies a simple principle: “Every sentence in the story has to do work. It has to accomplish something. It has to take you from one place to another.” This often means scenes that may have seemed important during the reporting process end up on the cutting-room floor. Around Christmas, Osnos accompanied Daley on his annual trip to a hospital to visit the parents of seriously ill children. Because one of Daley’s own sons, who was born with spina bifida, died before his third birthday, this could have made for a compelling vignette – the kind Daley’s press people would have loved to see in the story, as Osnos observed. But it didn‘t work. “He wasn’t particularly expressive or comfortable,” Osnos said. “I don’t have a requirement to put anything in. That’s the prerogative of the writer: You choose the things that you think do the most work in the right direction.”
When he sits down to start writing, he typically starts somewhere in the middle of the story, often with a section of biographical detail he knows he has nailed down. He‘s found that starting from the beginning isn’t productive for him. “If you start with the lead, you’ll struggle and struggle with the nut graph, and, often, you’ll end up with no nut graph,” he said. During the writing process, he usually works from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m., although he said he isn’t very productive by the end of the day. He spent about four weeks writing this story.
Osnos writes in sections, then stitches the sections together and whittles them down until his story is the appropriate length. A section in this story about the allegations of police torture under the supervision of Detective John Birge, which began while Daley was Cook County state’s attorney, started out at about 3,000 words, but it is only about 700 words in the final version. He feels he needs to see all the related details and quotes next to each other before he can decide how they fit together. “There’s a weird sensation that comes with that because you don‘t want to cut anything,” he said. As he cuts material from the story, he places it in a secondary file, which he reviews to make sure he hasn’t eliminated anything crucial before turning the story over to his editors.
In writing about Daley for The New Yorker’s national audience, Osnos had to frame the story differently than he would have if he’d written it while working at the Tribune. A Chicago audience would be more concerned with the current troubles plaguing Daley’s administration, but most of the magazine’s readers “still think about the current Mayor Daley as the new guy,” he said. “The responsibility is to them is to give them the story that gives them a full portrait rather than just the breaking news.”
Although Osnos weaves contemporary scenes into the story, the bulk the narrative focuses on the historical, biographical detail of Daley’s emergence from this father’s long shadow to forge his own legacy, one that has erased several things his father left behind, such as high-rise housing projects. “For a lot of people, the father’s name, Richard J. Daley, is about as iconic as you can get,” Osnos said. To bring the story back to Daley’s relationship with his father and his father’s legacy, Osnos decided to end with a scene in which a high school student visiting City Hall asks the mayor how he got where he is today. “For a moment,” Osnos writes, “Daley looked stumped. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘my dad was the mayor from 1955 to 1976.'” The story shows the many ways in which the mayor has become his own man, but Osnos ends on a note that places his life in the larger context of the Daley dynasty.
Note: This was adapted from a piece I wrote for Professor Walt Harrington’s literary feature writing course at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in spring 2010.