It’s time for a new navigator

Mainly, I thought it was just so damn sad. Here we were, hit by the biggest blizzard and some of the coldest temperatures Detroit has suffered through in years, right during the auto show.

There were homeless people dying out there, I feared, and children whose homes didn’t have heat, and valiant tired workers trying to plow the streets.

And here was our mayor, with an awkwardly knotted tie, and a police chief who looked like she wanted to be anywhere else, doing a clumsy Saturday afternoon dancing-bear act on live teevee.

What they were discussing was not the weather, nor the various crises facing the city, but the fact that they had lied to the press and public about the Lincoln Navigator that had been leased for the mayor’s wife Carlita (for a modest $24,995 a year) and which the mayor and his various stooges repeatedly had denied vehemently had been meant for his wife.

Saturday, the mayor went on television and essentially admitted that he had been lying all along, though he also claimed bizarrely that he hadn’t lied.

He then denounced local journalists for lacking integrity, words which, when they come out of the mouth of a politician, are almost always a sign that some reporter has done a good job nailing the politician for something crooked.

While I watched, I thought about the superb Ken Burns documentary just aired on Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world.

After he won the title, an enraged, racist white America would send him challenger after challenger, all of whom he would demolish nearly without effort, after which he would complain, “Is that the best they can do?”

Does anyone really believe this flamboyant 34-year-old man-child is the best Detroit can do? What wasn’t clear to me — and may not even be clear to the mayor — is whether Kilpatrick has such supreme contempt for his constituents that he thinks he can get them to believe anything.

Possibly, he simply believes he can make almost anything be the truth if he just runs his mouth enough. Candor is not his middle name. What we got was complete stonewalling on everything (he never goes to nightclubs, no, not one time; the Washington cops are making it all up, etc. etc.)

The mayor, who is a huge ex-athlete, actually said he felt physically threatened because WXYZ-TV reporter Steve Wilson, a much smaller guy, was trying to ask him questions, and refused to apologize for one of his thug bodyguard’s smashing Wilson’s face into a wall in Washington, D.C., last week.

These things will be endlessly dissected in the press, but there are also two wider issues here that bear thinking about:

First of all — when did the mayor of Detroit become part of the British monarchy? Since when has he been on a par with the president of the United States? The mayor’s family was not elected to anything. Why should they automatically merit taxpayer-supported luxury cars and phalanxes of bodyguards?

Second — would we be better off if the police were separated from mayoral control? The way it works now, poor Ella Bully-Cummings is entirely a creature of the mayor, who could have fired his personally appointed police chief on the spot had she declined to participate in his gonzo press conference.

There are rare policemen who are willing to do their jobs whether the powerful like it or not. More than likely, the taxpayers will be out more millions of dollars when the city settles its case with one of those, Gary Brown, the deputy police chief Kwame fired nearly two years ago for doing his job, i.e. investigating reports of corruption in the administration. Detroit badly needs a police department with the independence needed to do its job.

Kwame Kilpatrick is probably not the worst mayor Detroit ever has had. There was Charles Bowles, elected in 1929 with support from the Ku Klux Klan, and who was recalled after barely seven months in office.

There was one Richard Reading, who was elected in 1937 and whose first act in office was to buy himself an outrageously expensive limousine. (Leasing was not a financing option at the time.) Later, when he was sent to prison after being convicted of ties to Detroit’s numbers racket, he said, “This is the greatest injustice since the crucifixion of Jesus Christ!”

To be fair, all Kwame did was whine a little bit that he was being picked on because he was a “young African-American mayor with an earring.”

None of this would matter very much, and in fact would qualify as high entertainment, were Kilpatrick the mayor of Palm Beach, or the national chairman of some large college fraternity. But he isn’t. He is the mayor of a city that is in crisis in every conceivable way — politically, socially and financially.

This is wartime — not overseas, but here. The polity is collapsing; the schools are disintegrating and the people are suffering; and the mayor, by his words as much as by his alleged actions, doesn’t appear to have a clue.

By the way, most of the broadcast press — or I should say, the media — does deserve a whipping for one part of this story. Though Channel 7 and Steve Wilson broke the Lincoln Navigator story, they didn’t show one second of the mayor’s press conference. They were showing a college basketball game instead. This will only surprise those who think the station is primarily in the news business. Their parent network is a subsidiary of the Mickey Mouse Co.

They are in the entertainment business. By the way, WDIV-TV, which makes much of the fact that it is the only station physically located in Detroit, didn’t show the mayor either.

The only station that did? The Fox affiliate, based in Southfield, whose parent corporation is owned by the infamous Australian Rupert Murdoch. What a country.


Transportation update: Meanwhile, back on the streets … last week, I reported that the mayor was considering ending bus service from midnight to 4 a.m. Actually, it is considerably worse than that. Under his cost-saving plan, starting Feb. 26, there would be no service from midnight to 5 a.m. on weekdays; none from midnight till 6 a.m. on Saturdays, and on Sunday, the buses would stop running at 8 p.m. What if you start work, as every baker does, in the wee hours of Monday morning? Perhaps you can borrow the Lincoln Navigator.


Postcards from the road: Oakland University Professor Shea Howell wrote a column in The Michigan Citizen last week that made me jealous. “Our public culture has little time for memory,” she wrote. “We do not remember why we went into Iraq. So we barely notice the recent admission that there were no weapons of mass destruction at all. … We need to remind ourselves that this war is being carried out in our name,” she added.

Meanwhile, reporters for Knight Ridder last week published a major new analysis of the war — the most honest one to date in the mainstream press.

Unless something “dramatic” changes, the newspaper chain concluded, “the United States is heading toward losing the war in Iraq.” We are “steadily losing ground” to the insurgency, it reported, and the facts suggest that “short of a newfound will by Iraqis … or a large escalation of U.S. troop strength, the United States won’t win the war.”

Allah akbar. Shades of Vietnam.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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