Now that Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick’s 28-year sentence is established fact, a local TV station’s documentary video of his rise and fall provides a fascinating look back, not simply at the man, but at the system. Kilpatrick’s career arc has a unnerving familiarity, first of all in the contrast between his public high mindedness and the reality of private crooked behavior.

The one is distilled by the scenes in which the young, burly mayor frankly promises the audience to lift them up. You can feel the hope; you can taste the expecation in response. It is in his touching remarks about the sanctity of his home, the celebration of the high moral character of his father; or in his pledges of the inviolability of his marriage. There is in those inspiring clips a glimpse of all we want him — and all we want ourselves — to be.

This stands in marked contrast to the later scenes when we watch Kilpatrick deny the tawdry crimes he was later to apologize for in the next video sequence.  It comes through in the on-camera complaints by black businessmen who heard Kwame’s supposedly noble father declare that he didn’t need them any more after taking their contributions since “now that we won we can get all the white money we want.”

Through this invidious parade of contrasts there appears not an iota of remorse; not the shadow of irony. Even as Kilpatrick is led from office he gamely says “you’re setting me up for a comeback”; he is still the king of the hill, still the prince of summer and sunlight, untouched by the shadow of anything he might have said or done.

Only occasionally does reality burn through, as when one of Kilpatrick’s bodyguards shoves a nosy newspaperman against a wall or when his pal Bobby Ferguson emerges from his office to menace, with fake solicitude, a news camera crew working outside.

But the Kilpatrick saga is familiar in yet another sense. It’s like a fictional mini-series. All the props are there: the lavish hotel stays, the cars, clothes, the mistress, even the stripper party at the mayor’s mansion complete with the mysterious demise of one of the dancers who witnessed the proceedings.

There’s even a philosophical look back by a journalist, like a kind of Nick Carraway, invoking hope as the excuse of his investigative blindness. “Like many Detroit journalists, I counted myself for some years among the seduced. I’m not sure I ever trusted Kilpatrick, but I know I wanted to.”

This was not for want of exposure to skeptics.

There was the retired Detroit cop who remembered encountering Kilpatrick and his pals when they were teenagers, and dismissed my theory that Kilpatrick had matured with the observation: “Once a punk, always a punk.”

There was the restaurateur who bristled every time Kilpatrick’s wife led her entourage into his establishment, partook regally of his hospitality, and left with no thought of paying the check, much less tipping the staff.

And there was the CEO whose wife refused to speak to him after he agreed to underwrite the eleventh-hour advertising blitz that allowed Kilpatrick to snatch his 2005 re-election from the jaws of a near-certain defeat. “How,” my friend’s spouse demanded, “could you be so stupid?”

Well, because, like the journalist said. “I wanted to”. The “I did it for Love” line is the most famous of Famous Last Words. That’s when the Audacity of Hope becomes the Blinkers of Crime.

These dramatic elements make the story of Kilpatrick’s fall less about one man than a parable about politics. This is evident in the reader comments to Kilpatrick’s 28-year sentence. ‘Why so harsh?’ they lament.  ’There are others — many others — out there’.  That is the general tenor. And they’d be factually correct.

Sure there are others. Most reform campaigns are a process of simply shoveling the s**t against the tide. To invert the angler’s lament, the Detroit Mayor is the one that didn’t get away. You should see the ones that did, the ones still in the pond.

Elmer Gantry, Jay Gatsby, Vito Corleone and Willie Stark are probably more representative of the human condition than Thomas Jefferson, Albert Einstein or Mother Theresa. I’m not sure that I’ve met an actual saint yet but I am pretty sure I know a fair number of grifters. The founders may have known this and in their wisdom designed a government for sinners.

They understood that human nature being what it was, the only way to limit the damage of bad government and prevent tyranny was to limit the scope of government itself and impose upon it a system of checks and balances. That and not allegiance to individual politicians and still less loyalty to the GOP or the Democrats, is the best guaranty, not of Good Government, but against Bad Government.

For man is a piece of work. Many are, anyway.

Perhaps we ought, unlike the Detroit journalist, seek not to believe, but on the contrary to disbelieve. We should force ourselves not to trust in anything other than statistical penchant of the common herd to follow its self interest. We can count on people to look out for Number One. Your mileage thereafter may vary.

Hope is a dangerous commodity when applied to government. There is in Hope a kind of temptation to avert our sight from reality, to believe in Unicorns, websites you can only reach by dialing a phone number or a world without nuclear weapons. There was once a time when we knew better than to trust people who promised to look after us. Long ago we knew we were fallen and remembered what the angel with the flaming sword once said about Adam, “once a punk, always a punk.”

That didn’t mean all was lost. But it definitely meant we had to go back by another way. Lincoln once said, ”you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.” To believe in that statistical promise is to trust somehow in the workings of God, even if we don’t believe He exists.


Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with you friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.

The War of the Words for $3.99, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity for $3.99, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea $0.99, how China is restarting history in the Pacific
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