Barrett: The Politics On Display At Bill Tatum's Funeral
Funerals can be about politics, especially when the deceased is as influential as Bill Tatum was. The longtime owner of the Amsterdam News drew a crowd of hundreds at Riverside Church last Friday, and most of the speakers were politicians, including the minister who presided, Rev. Al Sharpton.
None of the pols was as eloquent as Elinor Tatum, Bill's daughter, who has been editing the only citywide black paper for a decade already, and will now assume total control of it. All of Bill Tatum's warmth shone through Elinor, who spoke of his one-to-one humanity, including with her three godchildren. She said he adopted them as if they were his own. The highlight of the morning was her declaration that she "finally had a boyfriend" that her invalid father never tried "to run down with his wheelchair."
But what was really strange was that the African American candidate for mayor and second-highest-ranking city official, Bill Thompson, was not asked to speak.
He was in the church and had gone to the wake the night before, but he was left off the family-arranged program, which offered a dozen speakers. It is certainly understandable that the family welcomed Mayor Bloomberg to the podium, but the omission of Thompson in a church packed with the city's black elite -- at least its Manhattan elite -- sent its own message.
Though Thompson recently remarried and moved into Harlem, he and his family are Brooklyn through and through. Had Harlem had its own candidate for mayor -- much less one of Thompson's current title -- there is no chance he would have been forgotten. Charlie Rangel, David Dinkins and David Paterson -- all Harlem royalty -- spoke. But no elected official from Southeast Queens or Central Brooklyn, the real capitols of the city's African African community, was included.
Rangel acknowledged Harlem's City Councilwoman Inez Dickens during his speech, another painful reminder for Thompson of his outcast status uptown. She cast her vote last year for the Bloomberg bill that extended term limits, though she was one of the few members actually hurt by it (she was widely mentioned as a possible new council speaker if all the term-limited councilmembers didn't get an extension and had to step down). She was willing to damage Thompson's chances of becoming mayor -- by allowing Bloomberg to run -- reportedly because of her strong ties to Speaker Christine Quinn. It wasn't lost on anyone, however, that Harlem's Paterson backed the extension, which made sure he wouldn't have to face Bloomberg as a potential gubernatorial candidate.
Bloomberg delivered an awkward eulogy, stretching to find a rationale to refer to two of the top blacks in an administration that has far fewer than even Rudy Giuliani's. He attributed a line from song to an aide who suggested he quote it -- namely Larry Scott Blackmon, the deputy commissioner of the Department of Small Business Services (imagine bending that low to find a black aide you can claim as your own). Then he mentioned in a tangent to a tangent that Elinor sits on the board of the Urban League, which he proudly declared is "chaired by deputy mayor Dennis Walcott."
Even more embarrassing, Bloomberg brought up the election of Barack Obama, celebrating the pride Tatum felt at that historic moment. Of course, Bloomberg won't even tell us who he voted for, a pretty strong indication that he didn't vote for Obama (since the president carried nearly 80 percent of the city vote, I think we can presume that if Bloomberg voted for him, he'd tell us). News stories have indicated that the mayor may have actually suggested to the Republican leaders he's wooing that he voted for John McCain -- just a few days before he invoked Obama at Tatum's farewell.
The other awkward moment was Sharpton's. In an opening sermon (if it's possible to call a Sharpton speech a sermon), he said death was "not a period, but a comma." It sounded like his own piece of wisdom. Then Dinkins quoted from a Martin Luther King speech that used precisely the same words.