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Published: Friday, 9/5/2008

Even at the end, Kilpatrick put his interests before city

DETROIT - When news broke that a plea deal had finally been reached and that Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick would resign, I found myself wishing the city had a Gerald Ford in the wings.

Thirty-four years ago, after two years in which the country had undergone the same kind of tension Detroit has for eight months, President Ford - the only man from Michigan ever to sit in the Oval Office - took the oath and immediately addressed the nation:

"My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over. Our Constitution works; our great Republic is a government of laws and not of men," he told a nation, words we'd been longing to hear.

American needed Watergate to be over then, every bit as much as Detroit and Michigan needed to be done with Kilpatrick, a corrupt, self-indulgent disgrace whose antics have paralyzed the city.

Yet there was a curious difference.

Back then, there was a lot of talk about what was best for the nation - even from Richard Nixon himself. Nobody even bothered to pretend Kwame Kilpatrick had the best interests of the city at heart.

Nobody even seemed very outraged that he did not.

Indeed, even the analysts and commentators ignored the notion that public service ought to be more about serving the public than oneself. Perhaps they thought it quaint.

Once, on a talk show, I brought up the nutty idea that if the mayor - any mayor - thought his presence was doing more harm than good, he ought to leave. Another journalist looked at me blankly.

"But if he did that, he would lose his only bargaining chip," he said. I'm sure the mayor saw it precisely the same way.

To be sure, there are a lot of uncanny similarities between Richard Nixon and Kwame Kilpatrick. The mayor finally quit when it was clear the governor was going to remove him anyway, which would have greatly increased his chances of doing years of hard time instead of the four months in jail he'll serve.

Nixon left office when it became clear that he was about to be impeached by the House and convicted by the U.S. Senate, and unceremoniously removed as president.

So he pulled the ripcord and saved his pension. Nixon was not a very appealing figure. He was neurotic and self-serving, a rare sort of politician who actually disliked people.

Yet he had a sense of - or at least paid lip service to - something else: The idea that there was something larger than himself, the sense that the country was more important than he was. When he told the nation he was leaving, he actually said he was doing so for the good of the country. He admitted America would be better off without him in the White House.

"To continue to fight for my personal vindication would almost totally absorb the time and attention of both the president and the Congress in a period when our entire focus should be on the great issues of peace abroad and prosperity without inflation at home."

Naturally, he was also leaving because he knew he couldn't survive. But there was still an idea of something bigger than himself.

Whatever else the Founding Fathers thought, fought, or argued about, they agreed you weren't supposed to seek high office - or any office - to make yourself rich and famous.

Nor did they think you ought to cling to any office like a barnacle even after it was manifestly clear that you weren't doing your constituents anything but harm.

When King George III learned that George Washington planned to go back to his farm after his armies won the War of Independence, he was astonished. "If he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world!" he said.

Washington did indeed do that - and did it again when his two terms were up. Maybe, just maybe, that gave King George a glimpse of what he had been up against, and why the Americans had won.

My guess is that King George wouldn't have been the least surprised by the behavior of Kwame Kilpatrick.

Now for the good news: For one thing, the disgraced mayor is gone. For another, he is being replaced by a man who seems to have integrity, intelligence, and a sense of balance: Ken Cockrel, Jr., the former head of city council. He will have his work cut out for him.

Detroit is a desperately poor city, largely through no fault of its own. Those outstate and in the suburbs who mutter that the corruption of the Kilpatrick administration was a function of the fact that the city is almost wholly African-American are fools.

American cities have had corrupt bosses and mayors since the dawn of time. Most of the worst - Boss Tweed, Tom Pendergast, Jimmy Walker, Detroit's own Richard Reading - have been white.

Detroit has a number of responsible leaders, including Freman Hendrix and Nicholas Hood, who would likely be excellent mayors.

For Michigan to become fully competitive again will require a revived and bustling major city, and everyone in the state, wherever they live, has a stake in what happens in Detroit.



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