Living Down to Expectations

The swift rise and predicted fall of America's hip-hop mayor.

Getty Images
Getty Images

During his first term, his nicknames in the local media ran the gamut: “Big Diamond,” “thug,” “pimp,” “player,” “Kwame Soprano,” “Swami,” “his thugness,” “ghetto,” “gangsta,” “inept club crawler,” “hustler,” “Puffy Kilpatrick.” Often it was just plain ole Kwame—the reverent title of “Mayor,” “Mr. Mayor” or “Mr. Kilpatrick” chucked aside.

Back then, stereotypical characterizations like that made me cringe and embarrassed for my colleagues in the news media. Now, as Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick announced his resignation and heads to jail, all I can do is just shake my head. He is fulfilling a prophecy the media laid out for him long before the indictment, before the jail stint, before he sent enough sordid text messages to his married chief of staff to fill a bookcase full of Zane novels.

Black politicians of the world, especially the upcoming generation of leadership, please, please! Listen closely: Stop letting the media write your script! This was the message in the first chapter of my book, “Deconstructing Tyrone,” a profile of Kilpatrick that doubled as a cautionary media tale.

During my time as a newspaper reporter in Detroit, I watched the city crumble as we focused on the most banal and trivial topics. Kilpatrick’s wardrobe alone was enough to deliver a keynote address: There was the 1.5 carat diamond earring that for years flashed from his ear, which at the time was mentioned within the first 10 seconds of any news account of the then-wonder-boy mayor. He definitely oozed that Detroit flair, but drew the line at colored suits. “If I wore a red suit, it’d be on the front page of the papers,” he sarcastically explained once. Apparently that did not rule out purple ties, pink handkerchiefs, electric blue stripes or classic Detroit gators. He used to step out with his sons in matching black suits and gold ascots—his fraternity colors. An asterisk to his florid style was a mayoral fleet that included a black Cadillac Escalade.

In other words, he hand-delivered chalk to caricature artists. Chris Rock has said he partly used Mayor Kilpatrick as a model for his role as the first black president in the movie “Head of State.” But in the short stint that I covered him a few years ago for The Detroit News, while reporting on the Detroit City Council, I came to see other images: A father of three, former schoolteacher married to his college sweetheart. I found a self-described “citizen of the world” who loved to quote the Bible. A lawyer. A man of privilege who refused to turn his back on his hometown.

But Kilpatrick and I were both members of the post-civil rights generation, so I didn’t make too much of his hip-hop style. Our relationship over the short time I covered him was good-humored, given our antagonistic roles. (“You eat pork?” he once asked incredulously during a breakfast interview, skinning his face as though I’d slaughtered the pig with my bare hands. This, after he ordered enough food for two starving people.)

Politicians are bound to have tension with the media performing a watchdog role. But many black politicians don’t seem to understand that part of their job is media relations. After being elected to positions of power, black politicians often reflexively assume a beleaguered stance, which is understandable, given the historical representations of blacks in the media. But many of them seem to forget that the whole point of electing black leaders is for them not to be helpless actors, but to wield power and influence, yes, even with the media.

Contrast the Kilpatrick train wreck with Sen. Barack Obama’s handling of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright controversy. Obama saw the ball was going in the wrong direction in the ridiculous debate over Wright. Instead of whining in Philadelphia, Obama took the opportunity to stop the ball, turn it around and deliver a landmark address on race. Unfortunately, this kind of approach has been more the exception than the rule. As a whole, black politicians are surprisingly naïve and often willfully ignorant of the way media works. And they either don’t care or don’t realize that their ethical gaffes play right into the media’s hands.