June 20 • 03:32 PM

Ego, ambition and thrill of risk

April 09, 2008
My son Christopher, the Washington lawyer, describes Detroit as a third world nation. My own personal description, in light of the Kilpatrick scandal, is a lot less charitable. As far as I am concerned Detroit is no better than a third rate banana republic so long as the present mayor continues in office.

Kilpatrick and his cronies have made the city the laughingstock of the region and done nothing for Detroit except be a source of embarrassment for a city that has more than its share of problems.

When the text message scandal was uncovered by The Detroit Free Press it wasn't long before people began to call for the mayor's resignation. Unlike former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who at least had the class to resign from office once it was revealed that he had sought the services of a high priced call girl, Mayor Kilpatrick offered a public apology and announced that he intended to continue in office under the dubious assumption that he was irreplaceable.

Instead of offering his resignation, the mayor, at the end of his State of the City address, threw a public hissy fit in which he played the race card and blamed everybody but himself for his troubles. After the escapades of his first term of office the so called "hip-hop Mayor," somehow managed to convince Detroiters to reelect him to office on the promise that he would grow up. After two fairly productive years the mayor forgot his promise and found himself knee-deep in the text message scandal.

In the meantime the Detroit City Council hired a lawyer to help with its investigation of the mayor's actions, which cost Detroit taxpayers $8.4 million dollars. Only a few of them called for Kilpatrick's ouster.

It was during this time that the council made one of its dumbest decisions when they voted to withhold certain federal funds to charities, like Focus Hope, unless 51 percent of the board members were Detroit city residents.

Councilmember Barbara-Rose Collins defended the decision on the grounds that outsiders on the boards endorsed, in her words, "a slave-master mentality." Such a statement is outrageous and almost leads me to believe the City of Detroit is not ready for self-government.

The final outcome of the Kilpatrick scandal has yet to be written but perhaps it serves to remind us of the old adage that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But, does it have to? The obvious answer to the question is no it doesn't. There are many public officials that have not abused their office or the power they've been granted.

I think part of the answer to the dilemma of the abuse of power has to do with ego. Somehow very ambitious and intelligent men and women are egotistical enough to assume they are not corrupt and are somehow above the rules ordinary men and women are subject to. Just ask Bill Clinton.

Power is seductive! Unless you have a pretty good moral compass it is all too easy to slip over the line from use to abuse and find all kinds of rationalization for your decisions.

The rush some politicians like former Governor Spitzer or President Clinton experienced living on the edge is a dangerous combination. Ego mixed with ambition plus the thrill of the risk becomes the formula by which those who hold power can easily crash and burn, usually at the expense of those around them be they family, friends, colleagues or the general public.

I remember interviewing John Dean, who was Richard Nixon's White House lawyer during the Watergate scandal, and he told me, "I really know of doing no illegal act before I got myself enmeshed in the cover up…I can't point to the time in which I crossed that line and entered into a criminal conspiracy yet I know why I did it.

"I got very enamored with this new-found power in the inner circles of the White House. Because I had been there," he continued. "I had a fancy title and the like I was still at the fringe of the inner circle and suddenly I was right in the middle of it and it was pretty heady stuff…I got blinded by that ambition and made some very bad mistakes."

There are lessons to be learned from those who abuse power and one can only hope Detroit's Mayor will discover those which apply to him. The public trust is fragile and it is all too easy for those who hold it to sacrifice it in the name of ambition.

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