I remember reading a headline in The Washington Post a few years ago that sounds completely absurd today. I went back and did some research, thinking I must be mistaken, but there it was in the Aug. 18, 2003 edition of the Post:
Detroit Mayor Shines in Blackout.
And then it all came back to me, that one false moment of hope when the city that I called home for three years seemed to finally have the right man in charge.
Following the Northeast Blackout of 2003, which left major cities like New York, Baltimore and Detroit completely without power for several days, Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick was called a lot of things, and none of them bad. National media outlets like the Post and The New York Times were hailing Kilpatrick’s reputation as the “hip-hop mayor” while heavily hinting that he was a rising star in the Democratic Party with much bigger things on the horizon.
I know it was all dark and whatnot, but even so, we all should have known better.
Kilpatrick did handle the blackout well. Outsiders wondering whether Detroit would rip itself to shreds with looting and violence during the two nights without electricity were stunned to see the city handle itself so well. Crime was actually down for those two nights and looting was almost nonexistent.
Chris Rock said he modeled his character in “Head of State,” an average black guy who becomes president, after Kilpatrick. Rock was attracted to the same qualities in Kilpatrick that the rest of us admired: He was young, cool, outspoken, hands-on and committed to helping the little guy. Kilpatrick has always been those things, but we can agree today that that wasn’t good enough.
The mayor said all the right things in that brief burst of national spotlight during the blackout, but Detroiters had already seen enough to know better than to believe the hype. He was already embroiled in controversy surrounding raucous parties at his mansion. That controversy would deepen with the firing of police officers investigating mayoral wrongdoing, that infamous Lincoln Navigator and of course, the two things every good political scandal needs – sex and murder.
There’s an important lesson in all of this that is easily lost amongst the overzealous cries for Kilpatrick’s resignation and the mayor’s downright preposterous accusations of racism. In a presidential election cycle where the electorate appears poised for record turnout and involvement, this would be a good time for all of us to step back and consider the following statement: The qualities we like in a person aren’t always what makes a good leader.
You may have heard of people voting for President Bush just because he seemed like a guy they could see themselves having a beer with. I hope you haven’t had the misfortune of actually meeting such a person, but surely you’ve met people who thought Al Gore was too robotic, John Kerry too monotone, John Edwards too spiffy or Hillary Clinton too nails-on-a-chalkboard. None of those things matter, of course, and we’d freely admit that having a president with a cute haircut or an annoying voice would be the least of our country’s troubles.
And yet we still go after all the wrong things when electing our leaders. Why pick Kilpatrick over challengers like Gill Hill or Freeman Hendrix? Both of them were in the mold of Kilpatrick’s predecessor Dennis Archer – measured, smart and knowledgeable. Given the choice between knowledgeable and cool, though, voters pick cool every time.
Our American democracy has devolved to the point where we regard bothering to show up at the voting booth and checking a box as a monumental accomplishment. We even give out stickers for it. But how can we expect so much of our politicians (just being more competent than your opponent isn’t good enough anymore, as Gore, Kerry and Hendrix learned), while expecting so little of voters? Voters are the key in a democracy; they are the ones with the power to ensure that a man like Kilpatrick is never elected.
Democracy isn’t an action – it’s an idea that involves much more than checking a box. It’s the why of everything that voters must consider before making their choice, and yeah, that takes effort. But we’ve elected too many bad leaders to continue insisting that people simply go out and vote. We have to do more than vote; we have to take the time to understand the complete character, accomplishment and record of the candidates in an election.
If you can’t bear that responsibility, then please don’t vote.