IRS scandal a reminder of how I learned about The Chicago Way

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Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass says to the man he thinks will be the scapegoat for Obama in recent controversies, "Watch your back."

The Internal Revenue Service scandal now devouring the Obama administration — the outrageous use of the federal taxing authority to target tea party and other conservatives — certainly makes for meaty partisan politics.

But this scandal is about more than partisanship. It's bigger than whether the Republicans win or the Democrats lose.

It's even bigger than President Barack Obama. Yes, bigger than Obama.

It is opening American eyes to the fundamental relationship between free people and those who govern them. This one is about the Republic and whether we can keep it.

And it started me thinking of years ago, of my father and my uncle in Chicago and how government muscle really works.

Because if you want to understand The Chicago Way of things in Washington these days, with the guys from Chicago in charge of the White House and the federal leviathan, there's one place you start:

You start in Chicago.

My father and uncle ran a small business, a supermarket on the South Side. Uncle George worked in the front, my father in the butcher shop in the back. My uncle had been a teacher. My father had plowed his fields with a mule.

They were immigrants who came here from Greece with nothing in their pockets but a determination to work, and the belief that here, in America, no other power could roll in with tanks and put their boots on the necks of their children.

My father and uncle, like the rest of the family, valued education and books and free political debate. And so at large extended family Sundays, we'd all sit around the dinner table, many uncles and aunts and cousins, young and old.

There were conservatives and socialists, Roosevelt Democrats and Reagan Republicans and a few bewildered, equivocal moderates in between, everyone squabbling, laughing, telling stories.

No matter whose house we were visiting, the TV was never turned on after dinner. Instead, we'd have coffee and fruit and dessert and argument. We had different views, we loved each other, and even strangers who showed up were expected to join in, to debate education, the presidency, social issues, the war, drugs, bluejeans, long hair, baseball, everything.

Uncle Alex was the uncle who told us young people how best to make our points. He ran a snack shop in the Bridgeport neighborhood — the legendary home of Chicago mayors and Democratic machine bosses.

"Don't wait for a ticket," he'd say, and puff on his cigar, always in a white shirt and tie, on those family Sundays. So we'd just jump in when we could, like the rest.

One Sunday, I must have been 12 or 13, I decided to ask what I thought was an intelligent question that was something like this:

We talk politics every Sunday, we fight about this and that, so why aren't you politically active outside?

Why don't you get involved in politics?

There was an immediate silence. The older cousins looked away. The aunts and uncles stared at me in horror, as if I'd just announced I was selling heroin after school.

You could hear them breathing. No one spoke. I could feel myself blushing.

Someone quickly changed the subject to some safe old story. It could have been the one about how our grandfather named the family mule — a white, big-headed animal — after President Truman. My sin seemed forgotten.

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