It could have been different. Before the accusations, before the scandal, before the apologies, there were the makings of a good mayor and a good man.
Kwame Kilpatrick was born into a powerful Michigan political family. His mother, Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick, a good friend of our show, spent years as a Michigan legislator and from there went on to become the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus. His dad was trained as a lawyer.
On paper, Kwame Kilpatrick had a great foundation — a political science degree from historically black college Florida A&M, where he was also captain of the football team,
and a law degree from the Detroit College of Law. He taught school in the city of Detroit, coached basketball, became a state representative and finally mayor at age 31 — the youngest person ever to be elected that position.
I certainly knew his name long before I knew the name Barack Obama. And if you’d told me 10 years ago that in 2008, we would elect a young black man for president, my guess would have been Kwame Kilpatrick.
So, what happened?
When he came on the show this morning, I had to bring up the wrong that he’d done, but I was determined to not let that be the focus of the interview. As the father of two young men, I had to find out what would make someone like him travel down the right road for most of life then suddenly take a wrong turn.
I asked him that question, and he simply said that his gifts and anointing took him to a place his character couldn’t keep him. His role as the mayor overshadowed everything else in his life, and there was no balance. But the good news he proclaimed was that he learned from his mistakes. He’s now turned himself in the right direction and is moving forward with his life. He’s reconnected with his wife and family, and it’s all good. But it could have been great.
The sad truth is that we don’t always get second chances. You can admit your mistakes all you want, but it doesn’t always work out the way you would like it to.
On our show, the former mayor was humble, apologetic and articulate. That isn’t enough. Some of you offered a few words of support, but the majority said he was still lying – that he should have thought about the family he claims to care so much about BEFORE he cheated on his wife and that he deserves any of the bad things that come his way.
I’m not here to pass judgment or to sing his praises. I just hope that the true message got through.
Tomorrow, I will do another commencement speech, and each time I tell the graduates the story of Sugar Ray Robinson, the greatest boxer of all time (Uh … Muhammad Ali says it, too.). Recently, Floyd Mayweather has made that claim about himself, but it isn’t true. You can name it, claim it and believe it all you want, but that doesn’t make you great. What makes you great is not how you start, but how you finish. And for Kwame, Mayweather, recent college graduates, whoever, you have to finish strong. Sugar Ray Robinson didn’t just win matches. He knocked his opponents out so that in the end, there would be no questions.
And yes, I’m about to play the race card, so roll your eyes if you need to. When you’re black, you don’t have time to dance around whether it’s with another boxer, a political opponent, a job or life itself. You’ve got to come with your A-game and knock it out.
Kwame Kilpatrick was groomed for greatness, but he admittedly took his eyes off the prize. When you do that, you can still win sometimes, but you can’t win big.
I don’t care how many white politicians have done as much wrong as Kwame has done or worse; don’t even send me those comments. If we want to be great and stay great, we can’t do it by making mistakes others have made and hoping that we get a pass for it. Why would you want to emulate something that you know is wrong? If you started out with honesty and integrity, that’s how you must end — not looking over at the judge hoping to get a ruling in your favor, but standing tall knowing the truth and knowing your character.
Kwame could have had a knockout, but instead his fate is completely out of his hands. Not a good look. And certainly not a look of greatness.