WALTER RUSSELL MEAD
May 5, 2012 - THE AMERICAN INTEREST
Few readers will be surprised to learn that decades of incompetence and entrenched corruption in Detroit’s government have not only helped wreck the city; firms linked to former Democratic mayor Kwame Kilpatrick also looted the pension fund.
The latest scandal, which leaves even hardened observers of the abysmal Democratic machine that has run the city into the ground bemused, involves a real estate firm which gave the felonious mayor massages, golf outings, trips in chartered jets and other perks as this enemy of the people went about his hypocritical business of pretending to care about the poor while robbing them blind. The firm, apparently run by a sleazy low class crook named by the reprehensible Kilpatrick to be the Treasurer of what was left of Detroit’s finances, used Detroit pension funds to buy a couple of California strip malls. Title to the properties was never transferred to the pension funds, and they seem to be out $3.1 million.
Kilpatrick’s partner in slime is his ex-college frat brother Jeffrey Beasley, who is accused of taking bribes and kickbacks as he made bad investments that cost pension funds $84 million. Overall, a Detroit Free Press investigation estimates that corrupt and incompetent trustees appointed by Democratic officials over many years in Detroit are responsible for almost half a billion dollars in investments gone wrong.
I honestly don’t know why there is so little national outrage about this despicable crew and the terrible damage they have done. The ultimate victims of the crime are Detroit’s poor and the middle class and lower middle class, mostly African-American municipal workers who may face serious financial losses in old age.
The 41 year old Kwame Kilpatrick may well be the worst and most destructive American of his generation; his two terms as Mayor of Detroit are among the most sordid and stomach churning episodes in the storied history of American municipal corruption. Now under federal indictment for, essentially, running Detroit City Hall as a criminal enterprise, Kilpatrick reportedly turned down a plea bargain that included a 15 year prison term. Insiders say that since the maximum time for the charges he faces was 18 years, the offer from the prosecutors indicates strong confidence in their case. Indicted with him was his father; it’s nice to think that father and son will have some quality time in the can.
We must all hope for mercy in this world and the next and VM doesn’t exactly wish the worst on these people, but if between the civil penalties, fines and lawsuits from those they have wronged Kilpatrick and company are picked so clean that they have to depend on their prison earnings for snack money in jail, helping them out won’t be at the top of our charitable giving list. And one thing Michigan legislators should check is whether the state has a nice harsh pension forfeiture law.
These judgments are always subjective, but it seems to me that there is not nearly enough national publicity about and outrage over the crimes of Kwame Kilpatrick. If a white or Asian Republican pol had looted fire and police pension funds, blighted the lives of a generation of minority kids and helped do more damage to a great American city than Hurricane Katrina, I don’t think this would be primarily a local news story. I would expect that the scandal would grip the nation, and there would be wall to wall national media coverage.
As there should be.
As it is, an eerie silence envelopes the subject. Outside the Michigan area, only the most dedicated news hounds and political junkies follow this story.
Three factors seem to be at work. One is quite simply financial; falling newsroom budgets in the MSM mean that it is harder for national papers and legacy networks to cover the country.
The second factor is more disturbing: there is a pervasive national sense of ennui and despair about urban areas in which African Americans are the majority. ‘We’ expect decline, decay and corruption in these places, so the Kilpatrick story strikes many editors and journalists as just another ‘dog bites man’ story: not news. Cory Booker is news; Kwame Kilpatrick isn’t.
That ennui and despair intensify when the subject is Detroit. Frankly, while the genteel world hates the thought of being racist, in reality there is a widespread belief in even the most liberal and well educated portions of the white upper middle class that nothing much better can happen in Detroit. I don’t believe that, and this is one of the reasons the city’s decline makes me angry as well as sad. Lax law enforcement and oversight from federal and state authorities allowed a climate of unrestrained corruption to grow up in Detroit over many years.
Putting a lot more people in jail much earlier in their careers, and instilling a healthy fear of the law in Detroit’s political class would have slowed the decline at least, and might well have created openings for better politicians to emerge. The failure of Detroit’s political class must also be seen as a dramatic failure of national and state law enforcement. The horses had been out of this stable for a long time before the authorities showed up with padlocks in hand. One hopes that the Department of Justice will move aggressively to target big city machines for investigation before more Detroits pop up. Similarly, state governors might want to suggest to their attorneys general that corruption bears watching. Michigan taxpayers are going to be stuck with huge bills as the state struggles to cope with the consequences of misrule in Detroit; smart governors might not want to wait until their cities collapse.
Finally, there is a disconnect between important local news and our national news culture today. The New York Times does a lousy job covering New York city and New York State; in the rarefied world of Times readers, local news is dull. Many of our national news editors and writers see themselves as cosmopolitan citizens of the world, interested in much more exciting and important things than the grubby realities of local and municipal life.
In this, the journalists faithfully reflect the thinking of many members of the genteel upper middle class; it is a kind of weird Platonic vision of reality in which the ‘lower’, grubby levels of politics and national life count for less than the ‘higher’, ‘nobler’ levels. Call it the gentrification of news; before Ivy Leaguers filled the newsrooms, American papers focused on the nuts and bolts of life. Now, they are much too highfalutin and hoity-toity for crime and city hall reporters to be the cocks of the walk.
Thus, even as interest in and reporting on the economic and social meltdown of so many once prosperous American cities and states ebbs, the ‘aristocracy’ of the press corps intensifies its endless and endlessly overdone coverage of the national election cycle. Very little that is said or done in either the Romney or Obama campaigns right now has much to do with what voters will be thinking about and voting on six months from now. But that doesn’t stop the legacy press from obsessing about it while ignoring far more consequential developments taking place on every side.
Detroit doesn’t matter all that much to the New York Times and many of its readers for the same reasons that Albany, Queens, Buffalo and Schenectady don’t matter. The new American elite wants to live and think as if it has transcended all that dreary provincial mess and lives on high in a world of Big Ideas and Global Issues. Mrs. Jellyby is much more interested in visionary programs to uplift the inhabitants of Borrio-Boola-Gha than on making sure her own children are well dressed and well cared for.
(At the American Interest we are trying to change this pattern. Go here to read a review of some recent books on Detroit by John G. Rodwan that appears in our May/June print issue.)
There is something profoundly wrong with an American political culture that accepts chronic misgovernment in major cities as OK. It is not OK; the people who do these things may call themselves liberal Democrats and wear the mantle of defenders of the poor, but over and over their actions place them among the most cold blooded enemies and oppressors of the weak.
American cities have been festering pits of graft and bad governance since at least the early 19th century, but there is a difference between the “honest graft” of Tammany Hall and the nihilistic destruction practiced by some of today’s urban machines. Today’s situation, in which some city machines are so dysfunctional that the parasite is literally killing the host (and not just in Detroit), is new and, again, the most vulnerable in our society suffer the worst consequences. Minority children are the greatest ultimate victims of this loathsome corruption: they attend horrible schools and grow up in decaying, unsafe urban landscapes where there is no growth, no jobs and no opportunity for the young.
How is it anything but racist not to care about that — and not to burn with the desire to put the scabrous thugs who misgovern our cities and waste our social funds in prison where they belong?