News & Politics

Barrett: The Politics On Display At Bill Tatum’s Funeral

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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.             

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