Indubitably, reviewers and many readers of the David N. Dinkins’ memoir “A Mayor’s Life: Governing New York’s Gorgeous Mosaic,” written with Peter Knobler, will be drawn to those major incidents in his political life: Gotham’s first Black mayor; the Crown Heights riots; the Sonny Carson imbroglio; the Korean grocery store boycott; and his loss to Rudy Giuliani in 1993.
But to seek out his discussion singularly on these moments is to miss a remarkable success story, one that he relates with an interest of setting the record straight while taking the blame for some of his missteps. Scattered throughout the telling of this productive odyssey are a number of humorous anecdotes, and many of them will be familiar to anyone who has been in his company or listened closely to his public speeches.
There is the ditch-digging story or the one about the postal clerk who tossed mail into slots for delivery with the accuracy and proficiency of a Harlem Globetrotter and later confessed he would do even better once he learned to read. But Dinkins’ coup de grace is his ditty about the man whose claim to fame was his survival of the Johnstown flood, and he carried this mark of distinction all the way to heaven and was prepared to spread it all over God’s kingdom until an angel warned him that Noah was in the audience.
Aside from the periodic laughter is Dinkins’s rise to the pinnacle of political power in Manhattan, and as he recounts this passage to Gracie Mansion, there is the bonus of learning about the political history of Harlem. From J. Raymond Jones, “The Harlem Fox,” to the late Bill Lynch, who was instrumental in Dinkins’ mayoral victory, Dinkins recounts the major movers and shakers. Obviously, there are his three lifelong buddies, the putative “Gang of Four”—Rep. Charles Rangel, attorney Basil Paterson and the late and incomparable Percy Sutton.
For someone who had been coaxed into politics by his father-in-law, Danny Burrows, Dinkins took to the realm as though it was his natural habitat, a calling that became evident as he moved ineluctably from assemblyman to deputy mayor, city clerk, borough of Manhattan president and finally to be the city’s leader in 1989. The journey was not without its pitfalls, including an income tax problem that almost put an end to his promising career. Not having filed his income tax returns in three years forced him to relinquish his appointment as deputy mayor under Mayor Abe Beame. “I went from penthouse to outhouse, from sugar to s—t, in a New York minute,” he lamented.
Essentially a pragmatist, Dinkins’ impulse has always been diplomatic—how to reconcile New York’s often maddening diversity—and this quest of peaceful resolution often came at the expense of being labeled too cautious, too indecisive. But even in the most troubling time of his tenure, the Crown Heights riots in Brooklyn, Dinkins recalls it with empathy for all sides and all victims.
“Of course I wish it never happened,” he writes. “But I never did, nor will I start now, blame anyone else for what occurred on my watch. Most importantly, of greater moment than any discussion of police tactics or racial and religious politics, I want to honor the lives of Gavin Cato and Yankel Rosenbaum, two young people who died needlessly and far too soon. Their deaths were the true tragedy of Crown Heights.”
Balancing episodes and the city’s social, economic and political dramatic shifts often pushed Dinkins to the limits of his calm demeanor and his racial allegiance. Moreover, being the first Black mayor of New York City can be compared to President Barack Obama’s dilemma in the White House, where the question of race can be like a strait jacket. When Dinkins says, “I want to be heard as a man, not as a Black man,” that should not be taken as a denial of race but a penchant for correct grammar, something instilled by his early teachers. “I grew up listening to Winston Churchill, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Douglas MacArthur. These were the speakers whom I admired. It matters to me that my grammar be correct.”
In absorbing the language of these great leaders, Dinkins may have also been unconsciously swayed by their politics and philosophy, but that would be to ignore his own sense of decency, his own way of dealing with conflict and a way around the negative and finding a positive outcome. For example, while a student in law school and working at his father-in-law’s liquor store in Harlem, Dinkins discovered a negotiating tactic that would be the hallmark of his future deliberations. Rather than have a customer leave the store disappointed that the brand of alcohol they sought was not available, he presented the buyer with two attractive alternatives.
“And instead of being a person who said no,” he writes, “I became someone with the good sense and goodwill to present two satisfactory solutions. This technique works in other endeavors as well, the law and politics among them. Options are beautiful.”
Rather than attempting to summarize or paraphrase another poignant anecdote from Dinkins, here’s another one that is typical of his wonderful wit and humor. “My bride has tolerated me all these years and been at my side through thick and thin,” he notes toward the end of the nearly 400-page memoir. “We celebrated our 60th wedding anniversary on Aug. 30, 2013. I say to Davey [his son], ‘Your mother makes good children.’ He tells me, ‘Well, Dad, you’re half right,’ but he never says which half!”