Mayor David Dinkins (left) gives a speech on race relations while Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch (right) waits to speak in this 1990 file photo. Photograph by Ed Molinari/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images
Mayor David Dinkins (left) gives a speech on race relations while Deputy Mayor Bill Lynch (right) waits to speak in this 1990 file photo. Photograph by Ed Molinari/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

I went to a memorial service this morning for political strategist Bill Lynch, who died last week at 72. I hadn't spoken to Lynch in years, but I knew I would feel like a skunk if I didn't go. Lynch was such a good man, and so good at politics, that his passing required formal recognition.

The majestic Riverside Church was packed. Wynton Marsalis did a fine New Orleans version of "Amazing Grace." Bill and Hillary Clinton spoke -- Hillary with decorum and competence; Bill with that ineffable something more. (He noted Lynch's eyes, which were hooded and sleepy, yet also intense. When they surveyed a scene, Clinton said, Lynch's eyes encompassed the whole. But when he was talking to you, and you alone, his eyes could bore a hole right through you.)

It was Al Sharpton, to my chagrin, who nailed the essence of Lynch's service. "He forced the bigness out of small people," Sharpton said. Sharpton wasn't being coy. He was consciously speaking of himself and no doubt of other activists -- some of whom were scurvier than Sharpton at his scurviest -- who had alternately been Lynch's allies and enemies over a long career.

Lynch's crowning achievement was steering the aircraft carrier David Dinkins through the narrow, mine-strewn channel of New York City's racial zeitgeist in 1989. (I was in charge of negative research for Dinkins's mayoral campaign.) Few made that final passage more challenging or Dinkins's tenure as the city's first black mayor more contentious, than racial ambulance-chasers like Sharpton.

I don't know anything about their relationship. But I suspect dealing with Sharpton and his ilk required large draughts from the seemingly inexhaustible well of Lynch's patience. He was a master of tolerance of every stripe and a genius at running out the clock. The Dinkins coalition was so fragile, and the hunger for affirmation of its various constituencies so intense, that Lynch juggled a thousand outsize demands and probably dropped them all at one time or another. Then he would circle back, buck up the disappointed, soothe the angry and keep moving forward, always toward the goal. Men with enormous responsibility -- and Lynch carried that historic, fraught campaign on his shoulders -- are rarely known for their patience. I still don't know how he managed it.

Bill Clinton said Lynch made politics "noble." I'm not sure that's right. Lynch, the son of a potato farmer, was too tied to the earth, too resolutely humble, for that. But, yes, Lynch did have a way of forcing bigness from people who were inclined to be small. New York is a bigger, better, more humane city because of him. Some of us who sat in the pews might be a little bigger, too.

(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)