What, then, can we make of the latest Detroit school disaster? For inspiration, lets turn to art, namely the worst country song I ever heard, back when I was booking flights for Patsy Cline. Though I mercifully cant recall the title, it tells of a lady who finds a badly injured snake and nurses it back to health. After the varmint recovers, she cuddles her darling reptile whereupon it sinks its fangs into her breast.
"Why! I saved your life," she screams as she dies.
"Aw, shut up, woman!" it hisses. "You knew I was a snake when you took me in."
Thoughts to that effect may have occurred to Detroiters last week, especially Dennis Archer and his deputy, Freman Hendrix, aka reform school board chairman.
Just in case youve been totally consumed by the Iowa caucuses, here is a brief recap: Last year the Legislature took all power away from the elected school board and gave it to the mayor (or so it was represented to us at the time).
The mayor was then to appoint a "reform board" to find an all-powerful CEO to run the schools. Detroiters were none too happy about being disenfranchised, but accepted it reluctantly because the schools were squalid, and six of the seven members of the new board would be named by the mayor, not the loathed governor.
After a brief skirmish, David Adamany was picked as the short-term school czar, with the idea that a new, long-term one would be selected soon.
Adamany began bulldozing wreckage, and the reform board narrowed the choice to two candidates. Neither greatly impressed me. Tulsa Superintendent John Thompson seemed a bit too conventional, and this district has been mincing conventional administrators for years.
Jerome Harris, former superintendent in Atlanta, was more interesting.
He has a track record of coming into a district, kicking major butt, raising test scores and performance, but then alienating people until he is, at last, fired.
However, five members of the mayors reform board wanted Thompson (a sixth abstained) and the issue looked settled. That is, until Mark Murray, Englers sole appointee, vetoed the choice by voting for Harris.
Few citizens realized he could do that. Suddenly, it was blindingly clear that the governor now had a form of control over Detroits schools; if he cant dictate who runs them, he, or his surrogate, can at least veto anyone he doesnt want.
Months ago, when one of the Archer appointees threatened to block Adamanys selection as the temporary CEO, Engler immediately had the Legislature change the law to allow that selection to be made with one dissenting vote.
But not now. "If you get in bed with the devil," Detroit Councilman Ken Cockrel Jr. told me, "youre going to feel the fire." What was politically interesting is that there wasnt even any effort to cover the tracks. Murray said he never talked to Engler, which may be so. A good lieutenant knows his captains mind.
Clearly, he also had to know how that vote would play locally.
And didnt care. Where the "reform board" goes next is unknown, but it is clear that if Adamany drops dead anytime soon theyll have to hook him to machines and keep him running the schools. Where will they find someone? There are not a lot of exciting candidates anywhere, and other major cities also are looking.
Detroit is not apt to be many applicants first choice, especially given what has just happened. Who would want to put themselves through that?
Yet if anyone thinks the power-tripping governor needs to be brought down a peg, there is a quick and easy way. Next month the Republicans have a primary as crucial to John Englers future as it is to George Bushs.
Engler has attached himself to Bush minors presidential bid more securely than a starving leech to a fat swimmer. Engler needs a new meal ticket, and is hoping President Dubya is it. Accordingly, he needs to deliver a big primary win to his man in Michigan on Feb. 22. While the Texas governor and presidential son is the heavy favorite, Republicans, like Democrats, have something like a two-man race.
The media wasted all last year asking Bush about cocaine (he didnt answer, and nobody cared). This year, they finally posed a few real questions, and even some Republicans noticed uneasily that while the shrub was slicker and smoother, he seemed just as shallow as his dads foster son, Danny Quayle.
That left an opening for Arizona U.S. Sen. John McCain, someone who looks like a president, with credentials to match (tortured Vietnam POW, etc.).
Though deeply conservative, he has been with the good guys on campaign finance reform and big tobacco. He also parts company with the usual know-nothings on bilingual education and immigration. McCain didnt campaign in Iowa; hes betting on a win in New Hampshire Feb. 1. If that happens, Michigan could be his make-or-break state.
Which gives Detroiters a golden opportunity to vote in the Republican primary for McCain. This costs nothing. Democrats dont have a race that day, and you can vote in the GOP primary and then at a Democratic caucus March 11.
Think of it; if John Engler cannot deliver his home state, his job prospects may be dim indeed.
"Mark my words," Geoffrey Fieger used to say. "Englerll end up selling hotdogs at Lugnuts Stadium." Maybe not, but you got to like the image, mustard stains and all.