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Gold earring, tin ear


We’ve now passed through the last membrane of reality into the world of Marxian surrealism, not that of Karl, but of Groucho, Chico and Harpo — and sometimes Zeppo. Dalí would have loved it in Detroit.

In the fog of leisure on Sunday mornings, I’m apt to take my politics in small doses, or not at all. But last Sunday I had Carol Cain’s WWJ-TV talk show, Michigan Matters, on in the background while sipping coffee and working crosswords. Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick filled the screen. I started to listen a little bit.

Carol, a fine journalist, kept a straight face throughout the interview. Even when the mayor used the phrase “the legend of Kwame Kilpatrick,” in what I took to be a reference to stories of his personal misbehavior, and even when he blamed God for the situation he now finds himself in — putatively running a city that’s facing a train headlight at the end of the tunnel. It’s God’s fault, he said, because “he made me a smart young man” who got himself elected.

I didn’t learn until later in the day that Time magazine, after studying the 29 mayors of cities with populations of 500,000-plus to find the best five, was about to hit the stands with a story ranking Kwame Kilpatrick as one of the three worst in that group — legend, God-given brilliance and all.

The reaction that spun like a dervish out of Kilpatrick’s office was predictable. Time’s story was based on rumor, innuendo, blah and blah. It was a reference, in part, to Time’s use of the red Navigator scandal as a case in point, a situation in which the mayor fessed up after first blaming rumor, innuendo, blah and blah.

It’s a small one in the catalog of scandal, ineptitude, misfeasance, failed leadership and unethical behavior racked up by Kwame and Kompany in just three years. But it’s the perfect example of what Governing Magazine executive editor Alan Ehrenhalt referred to in the Time piece as Kilpatrick’s “tin ear for symbolism.” Even after the public trough is dry, he still manages to find taxpayer money to benefit himself, his kin, his thuggish high school cronies and his embarrassingly public hard-partying lifestyle.

I’d cite the extent of the horrendous budget deficit the city is dying under, but I’ve yet to hear the same number from any two people in positions to know. Last week Kilpatrick presented what spokesman Howard Hughey called “one of the most prudent city budgets in recent Detroit history.” But what the mayor laid out last week as a series of done deals to fix the budget were quickly disavowed and given no hope of success by those who would have to go along with the plans — if they had yet heard of them at all.

But there’s a kicker to the story, one that beautifully demonstrates the “tin ear for symbolism” not only filtering the messages that flow into the legendary Kwame Kilpatrick’s heaven-blessed brain, but those of his subordinates and whatever is sloshing around in their skulls.

At the end of the same Sunday show, panelist L. Brooks Patterson spoke of an Oakland County program to get dirt-cheap prescription drugs to low-income people inside and outside his county. Panelist Denise Ilitch decried the petty, ugly, inbred politics that forced Detroit Public Schools Superintendent Kenneth Burnley out of his job, despite what she saw as sincere, innovative attempts by Burnley to rectify an impossible situation.

And last to speak was panelist Derrick Miller, Kilpatrick’s handpicked chief administrative officer, a key player in the struggle to forestall the death of a once-great city.

He asked for understanding, and for people to shed their prejudices — against hip hop.

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