A Tale of Two Cities

Leadership is one of the more overused words in the political lexicon. Nonetheless it is a crucial ingredient of political success, and when it is missing, the consequences can be devastating.

That was the case in New York in 1991--and in Los Angeles in 1992. For what is so utterly striking about the special state report issued Tuesday about New York City's Crown Heights disturbances is how similar the breakdown there was to the collapse of city government here in April and May of 1992.

The Crown Heights report, ordered by Gov. Mario Cuomo, blamed leadership failures most harshly on then-Police Commissioner Lee P. Brown and also on New York City Mayor David N. Dinkins. It concluded they failed to react fast enough after the disturbances began.

Sound eerily familiar?

The Crown Heights unrest started over a series of black-Jewish clashes that were ugly and unpredictable but that should have been more quickly contained. Instead, the trouble escalated into a four-day riot in Brooklyn.

That basic conclusion was true too of the L.A. riots last year. What started as a violent reaction to the not-guilty verdicts in the state trial of the four police officers who beat Rodney G. King erupted into three days of looting, arson and rampage.

The Cuomo commission report draws a picture of a mayor slow to get involved and of a police chief who was out of touch. In part that's what the Webster Commission found in its investigation of why the reaction to the King trial got so out of hand that it evolved into the worst urban U.S. riot of the 20th Century. That panel was also severely critical of an urban police chief--then Daryl F. Gates--and also laid some blame at the feet of a mayor--then Tom Bradley.

It is probably not just a coincidence that in America's two leading cities such instances of bungling at the top should surface within such a short time of each other. Urban governments everywhere are struggling with increasing crime, homelessness and ethnic tension, all during a period of severe economic downturn and reduced budgets.

Even so, if there is one overarching conclusion of the Webster and Cuomo reports, it probably is that in a crisis there is simply no substitute for alert and effective leadership at the top. New York City didn't get it in 1991. And Los Angeles didn't get it in 1992.

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