Living Down to Expectations
The swift rise and predicted fall of America’s hip-hop mayor.
Sept. 5, 2008–During his first term, his nicknames in the local media ran the gamut: “Big Diamond,” “thug,” “pimp,” “player,” “Kwame Soprano,” “Swami,” “his thugness,” “ghetto,” “gangsta,” “inept club crawler,” “hustler,” “Puffy Kilpatrick.” Often it was just plain ole Kwame—the reverent title of “Mayor,” “Mr. Mayor” or “Mr. Kilpatrick” chucked aside.
Back then, stereotypical characterizations like that made me cringe and embarrassed for my colleagues in the news media. Now, as Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick announced his resignation and heads to jail, all I can do is just shake my head. He is fulfilling a prophecy the media laid out for him long before the indictment, before the jail stint, before he sent enough sordid text messages to his married chief of staff to fill a bookcase full of Zane novels.
Black politicians of the world, especially the upcoming generation of leadership, please, please! Listen closely: Stop letting the media write your script! This was the message in the first chapter of my book, “Deconstructing Tyrone,” a profile of Kilpatrick that doubled as a cautionary media tale.
During my time as a newspaper reporter in Detroit, I watched the city crumble as we focused on the most banal and trivial topics. Kilpatrick’s wardrobe alone was enough to deliver a keynote address: There was the 1.5 carat diamond earring that for years flashed from his ear, which at the time was mentioned within the first 10 seconds of any news account of the then-wonder-boy mayor. He definitely oozed that Detroit flair, but drew the line at colored suits. “If I wore a red suit, it’d be on the front page of the papers,” he sarcastically explained once. Apparently that did not rule out purple ties, pink handkerchiefs, electric blue stripes or classic Detroit gators. He used to step out with his sons in matching black suits and gold ascots—his fraternity colors. An asterisk to his florid style was a mayoral fleet that included a black Cadillac Escalade.
In other words, he hand-delivered chalk to caricature artists.