Tomlin's rule

Jul 9, 2008 at 12:00 am

"No matter how cynical you get, you can't keep up."— Lily Tomlin, native Detroiter

You can't make this stuff up. You just can't. Sometimes I tell students that they shouldn't become journalists if they really want to be novelists. That's because three years of reporting will ruin your ability to invent plots; the real world is far more bizarre than anything even a science fiction writer on psilocybin could conjure up.

Nobody could have made up the scandal that forever doomed President Clinton's legacy to a series of smutty jokes. (A literary novelist would've had him having a grand passion for a brilliant and beautiful woman diplomat, say, or at least an anchorwoman.)

I saw a stunned Rob Reiner on Election Night 2000 saying that "if you tried to write this, they'd throw you out of the studio." After all, you need an element of the sublime to accompany the ridiculous. Except, that is, in the case of Detroit.

OK, so, just imagine this. Say you were teaching a creative writing class a month ago, and you told the students, start with this:

The mayor of the impoverished, nearly all-black city of Detroit is caught in an enormous scandal where it seems he had policemen fired and improperly wasted millions to cover up an affair. He is now under a massive felony indictment, but refuses to resign. City Council is trying to get rid of him, but they are a bizarre and divided lot, with at least one member seriously unhinged.

Economic progress in the city, its leadership paralyzed, is grinding to a halt. The national economy is slowing and the state's economy is in much worse shape, thanks to a dying auto industry. And all this is happening in a year in which — for the first time in history — a black man will be the Democratic Party's nominee for president of the United States, in a closely fought election.

There are fears that the Detroit follies will stir up deep-seated racist doubts across Michigan — maybe even nationwide — about whether we should take a chance on an African-American leader.

All right, class: You have a month. Your assignment is to write a short story about what happens next. Naturally, I'll bet you could come up with a lot of possibilities.

But what grade do you give the kid who writes this:

"Everything took another sudden twist just before the Fourth of July, when it was suddenly revealed that the FBI was investigating massive City Council corruption over a sludge-disposal contract."

In real life, watch for that grade to be some major journalism prize. Saint Lily was right as always, mama: You just can't keep up.

When the dust settles, however, this is really enormously sad. Yes, we must now properly note that, indeed, in America everyone is innocent unless and until proven guilty. In fact, as of Monday morning, nobody had even been charged in Sludgegate. But what we've heard is appalling: Officials (not necessarily council members) caught on videotape accepting bribes. Hasty departures from both Synagro Technologies, the Houston-based waste-disposal firm, and from City Council staff. Indictments seem certain.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the investigators were amazed by how cheaply some public officials could be bought. What is worst of all is that so much of the rest of this community thinks this is how African-Americans do business. Stephen Henderson, the Detroit Free Press's thoughtful deputy editorial page editor and columnist, put it best. What's going on now, he sadly observed, provides most excellent fodder for racists.

"With 'friends' like most of the current crop of elected officials in Detroit, black folks don't need white enemies," he wrote. They certainly don't.

Nor, in the year in which a young, black U.S. senator has inspired the nation and astounded the world, does America need the spectacle of the corrupt political and governing class of Detroit. Some are now suggesting that Gov. Jennifer Granholm use her power to remove them all from office. Two weeks ago, I would have thought that insane. Now, I am not sure that's a bad idea.

But we need to talk more about what's really wrong here, which is not race, but poverty and lack of education. The money and the business interests and the professional communities have largely left, and that is why Detroit has the kind of politicians it does. You don't see this behavior in middle-class Southfield, which has a solid black majority, do you? I have seen this kind of thing on a smaller scale in mostly white enclaves in backward parts of Tennessee and West Virginia.

Want to fix Detroit? Want to give us all a fighting chance to survive and build something new that can succeed? Here's how: Combine Wayne County and the city of Detroit into a single administrative unit.

They'll whine in Canton, but they'll get over it.

That's right. Metropolitan government has worked in Nashville, and Miami, and Indianapolis, and would work here — if we gave it an honest try. The Legislature has the power to do it, and should.

In any event, if our state doesn't do this, in a few years the Legislature will be stuck with running the city anyway, when it reaches permanent economic collapse. Everyone knows that with leaders like Monica Conyers, Kwame Kilpatrick, and the takers of sludge bribes, it will, and soon.

Fixing Detroit — saving Detroit — would be something that would give Gov. Jennifer Granholm a place in history, if she pushed hard for this and got it done. Look, she can't run for re-election. There won't be any vacancies in the U.S. Senate soon. Why not, then, go for greatness?

Reform Government Later: Our state's Democratic Party leadership can be clever, on the rare occasions when they aren't firing into their own feet. Currently, they're paying canvassers trying to get signatures for a vast constitutional amendment called the "Reform Government Now!" plan.

What it would do, if it got on the ballot and passed, would rewrite vast, unrelated parts of the state constitution. Some of it would be very good — like establishing a non-partisan redistricting commission. Some parts are bad, like cutting judicial salaries.

By the way, this is not officially a Democratic Party initiative. (The group's treasurer is a retired high school band director who is said to be a Republican.)

But it really is, and here's the tip-off: It would eliminate the jobs of two Republican Michigan Supreme Court justices. What that means, of course, is that our supremes will likely rule it off the ballot if it does get enough signatures. That would be likely to anger voters, and maybe make them mad at the Republicans.

Which is what I suspect the Dems really want. The state constitution does need reforming, all right, but in an open, complete and honest way, through a constitutional convention. We'll have a chance in 2010 to call such a convention; more on this soon.

Jack Lessenberry opines weekly for Metro Times. Contact him at [email protected]