David Dinkins: Leading New York Is The 'Greatest Job There Is'

David Dinkins served as New York City's first African-American mayor. But his rise through the political ranks came with hard-learned lessons. Host Michel Martin speaks with former Mayor Dinkins about his book, A Mayor's Life: Governing New York's Gorgeous Mosaic. This segment initially aired September 2, 2013 on Tell Me More.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. It is Columbus Day. For some, a holiday. For others, a day to celebrate Italian-American heritage. Officially, it's the day the nation acknowledges Christopher Columbus as the first European whose arrival in the Americas was recorded. So later, we'll talk about something that was originally written to honor Christopher Columbus. That something is the Pledge of Allegiance. And we'll talk about other facts you might not know about the pledge. And we'll ask if it still means something to the millions of American students who recite it every school day.

But we want to start our program today with another first. David Dinkins made history as the first black mayor of New York City. He won the office in 1989 during a tumultuous time. Race relations were fractured, the economy was struggling and many neighborhoods were in the grip of a crack epidemic. He talks about all of this in his new book "A Mayor's Life: Governing New York's Gorgeous Mosaic." And we spoke with Mayor Dinkins recently, and I started our conversation by asking why he waited more than 20 years after he left office to write the book.

DAVID DINKINS: Well, others have written of me and I thought it was high time that I told it my way.

MARTIN: You say in the book that you were actually reluctant at first to run - I mean, you loved being Manhattan borough president. You had ran three times for the job before you got it. You actually loved the job. So why did you finally decide?

DINKINS: Well, I always try to be careful for this not to sound like I was drafted, because that's not quite the case. But some friends of mine - political folk and others - insisted that I should run. We had supported Ed Koch - by we I mean Percy Ellis Sutton, one of my mentors, a great man. And he and others of us supported Ed Koch in a runoff in 1977 against Mario Cuomo, and Koch succeeded. He was a very liberal progressive mayor in those days. But Ed seemed to move to the right. So by the time it got to be his third term, he was not very popular and we were displeased. And so I ran and we won.

MARTIN: A lot of people remember Ed Koch as being this kind of avuncular figure. You know, his famous catch phrase - how am I doing. But he was also a very polarizing figure. And many people believe that he'd kind of gotten to a place of being particularly abrasive and confrontational with minorities. So that was, you know, part of the story. When you won the mayor's race in 1989, you thanked your supporters - and paraphrasing here - you thanked them for voting their hopes and not their fears. How long do you think that that lasted?

DINKINS: Well, it lasted, I suppose, as long as one could hope, initially. But we did have problems. I suppose foremost among them was Crown Heights. It's a community that contains many Orthodox Jews and some Caribbean blacks. And there had been difficult times. And it came, an occasion, when the traditional motorcade to the Rebbe's burial site - the last car in that motorcade fell behind. And in an attempt to catch up, he lost control and hopped a curb and struck two little black children. Gavin Cato was killed, his cousin severely injured. And following that, rumors spread that the ambulances had come and taken away the white driver and left the black children to die.

Now that was not true, but that's the word that spread. And as a result of that, a divinity student from Australia named Yankel Rosenbaum was stabbed and later died. So anyway, that resulted in a little mini riot, as it were. And the New York City police, who are the best in the world at controlling riot situations, did not do a sufficiently good job on that occasion. And it wasn't until after a couple of days that I said, whatever the hell you're doing, it ain't working. And I insisted that they do better and that they were able to quell things. But in the meantime, it was said by some that I, or others in our administration, had given orders for the police to not stop the blacks from attacking Jews. That just wasn't true. It's a lie. It never happened that way. But we had to suffer - and it was particularly harmful to me because I considered myself a friend of the Jewish community and the state of Israel. I can cite many instances where I had shown that concern prior to this occasion before I took office.

MARTIN: And all that goodwill evaporated with this.

DINKINS: Didn't mean a thing.

MARTIN: You write about that quite a bit in the book. You write about Crown Heights extensively. But it's interesting. You point out three things that people tease you about - one is you are very careful about your grammar. As you say, you love the King's English, you love tennis and you don't mind dressing up.

DINKINS: No.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Do you think that the reason these particular interests of yours - preferences - particularly for, you know, careful diction, perfect grammar and so forth - is it because you're African-American, you think people just don't believe that you should carry yourself in that way?

DINKINS: Well, no. It's really because of Alice Jackson Houston, who taught freshman English at Howard University. And she wouldn't tolerate grammatical errors. And she was insistent that we speak correctly. And I learned from her. As a matter of fact, a few years ago - I teach at Columbia University - I had one of my students Google her. I said, I wonder how she is or where she is. And it developed that she had died in 2001 or 2002, but she had a son who is a judge in the Washington, D.C. area.

And I got him on the phone and these were not his words, but it was sort of like - well, why are you calling me? And I said, I just - I just want you to know what your mother did for me. And in every office that I have had where we had speechwriters and whatnot, I could envision little three-by-five cards that would say, don't you dare ever say between he and I, or other such - but we learned that from Alice Jackson Houston.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with the former mayor of New York City, David Dinkins. He's just written a new memoir. It's called "A Mayor's Life." With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently as mayor?

DINKINS: Oh, absolutely. I'm sure that - as we say - God's not finished with me yet. So I'm by no means perfect, and I'm confident that we made many mistakes. Certainly, I would have insisted sooner in Crown Heights that the police did a better job. I would not have tolerated that as long as I did. We once had a Korean boycott situation, and I was criticized there for not walking across the picket line and destroying the effort that some blacks had to ill-treat this Korean merchant. I finally did, but I wish I had done it sooner.

MARTIN: Why do you think you didn't?

DINKINS: Because I had faith in our staff that had a similar problem that they solved in a matter of a couple of days. But there were those who didn't want that particular one solved. And so they did all they could to defeat us.

MARTIN: That is kind of the through line of the criticism of your administration, by those who criticize it, that they say that you're a very well-meaning man. You certainly care about the city, you certainly love the city. But the through line for your critics is that you just took too long to respond to these kinds of toxic situations. What's your take on that?

DINKINS: Well, I would say that in some instances, they're probably right, but in a whole lot of other instances, they're wrong. And some of those same people never seemed to notice how crime decreased on our watch, how homelessness, which today in 2013, we have more homeless in New York than we have ever had since we started keeping records, but it decreased during our time. So I'm confident that when people look back - I won't say a hundred years from today, but maybe 20, 30 years - they might say, oh, gee, you know, those guys did a pretty good job.

I like New York. I think it's - with all due respect to those of you who live elsewhere - I think it's the greatest town in the world. And being mayor of New York is the greatest job there is, save the one that President Obama has.

MARTIN: Is there any wisdom that you would want to pass on to people listening to our conversation who, perhaps, aspire to the kind of career that you had, particularly African-American politicians or public figures who are following in your footsteps or would like to?

DINKINS: Well, I'll tell you what I say to young people who come to me seeking advice about - they'll say such things as, I want to get into politics, what should I do? Where do I start? And I'll tell them all that if - you need to be appropriately motivated. If you want to be mayor or some other high office because you want to see your name in lights, that's an improper motivation. If you want to be mayor or whatever because you want to serve people and make the lives of others better, then you will succeed if it's in you.

MARTIN: David Dinkins is the former mayor of New York City. His new book is "A Mayor's Life: Governing New York's Gorgeous Mosaic." And he joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Mr. Mayor, thank you for speaking with us.

DINKINS: Thank you.

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