One of the relatively few Tennessee stories coming out of last week’s convention was, of course, the growing prominence of U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. What’s been so remarkable about this 30-year-old Memphis boy wonder isn’t simply that Al Gore offered him a prime-time speaking slot, but that he has been able to maintain close ties to his controversial family even while creating his own identity. Although his father, who held his seat before him (and who made an appearance at the convention), has been investigated for corruption, and his uncle, state Sen. John Ford, has been convicted of brandishing guns at people, these facts haven’t managed to hurt the younger Ford.
Standing at the podium, Ford looked like he’d been doing this sort of thing forever, with the exception of a few times when a pause would have allowed more of an opening for conventioneers to cheerthe anecdote about how, as a little boy campaigning for his father, he promised voters “better cookie prices” comes to mind. His speech, in fact, has drawn overwhelmingly positive reviews, although there was an element of disappointment in the mix: The networks blew him off completely, apparently because Bill Bradley didn’t want to let go of the mic. Not only did Ford get poor playPBS stuck with him, but it was just about the only onehe had to cut his speech significantly at the last minute. That was a disappointment for friends and family and others who have begun to regard him as a statewide candidate-in-training and who had looked forward to seeing him bask in the glow of national network face time.
Incidentally, possibly the best part of Ford’s speech was when he told conventioneers about addressing kindergarten graduations during his first bid for Congress at age 26. It was off the cuff and not included in his prepared text.
Tennessee speakers took it in relative stride, but convention planners didn’t exactly afford Gore’s people the utmost consideration. Mayor Bill Purcell, who spoke at a 2 p.m. time slot on the first day of the convention, wasn’t asked until the Friday before to make the address. And he didn’t know until the day of the speech what time he was to go on. Even so, for a three-minute speech to an empty convention hall about improving government, it was really pretty impressive.
Purcell didn’t whine about the confusion, cracking that Tennesseans are used to “just-in-time delivery,” but privately he and others seemed put off by the poor planning. Meanwhile, state House Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry, from Memphis, found out she would be nominating Al Gore after reading it in a newspaper. Former Sen. Jim Sasser also read that he was to be a speaker, only that turned out to be wrong.
Reporters could bitch about coming across a pot of gold, so it should come as no surprise that there was plenty of grousing from the City of Angels about having very little to report beyond the usual thumb-sucker stories on our fair politicians and the reams of uninspiring, word-processor generated quotes from party leaders (most of which included the phrase “the dawn of a new millennium”). That got a couple of us ink-stained wretches to talking one morning about one particularly strange cultural and journalistic phenomenon: Have you ever noticed that people are wary of using the word “Jew” to describe, well, a Jew? “It’s always ‘a Jewish person,’ or ‘someone of the Jewish faithí’ or ‘a Jewish community,’ ” one reporter noted.
You’d think that we’re way past the day and place when this straightforward word could be construed as disparaging. In fact, journalistsand Americans, for that matterseem to have broken some ice in this area with Al Gore’s selection of Joe Lieberman as his vice presidential running mate. After all, “a Jewish person who is Orthodox” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue.
For what it’s worth, the reporters in on this conversationadmittedly, only two of ushave decided to put our feet down, all four of them. We decided that the same people who brought us “a system of thunderstorm activity,” as opposed to “thunderstorms”; “the Miami relatives of Elian Gonzalez,” as opposed to “Elian’s Miami relatives”; and “fatally injured,” as opposed to “killed,” are going to lose this fight.
“Jew” is simple, to the point, and fits well in a headline.
If the Knoxville News-Sentinel’s Tom Humphrey weren’t so cute and likeable, he might have gotten slapped upside the head in L.A. As he and Chattanooga Times & Free Press political writer John Commins were engaging Memphis Mayor Willie Herenton on the subject of Harold Ford Jr.’s political stair-climbing, Herenton afforded the reporters the usual political rhapsody of the day. “I think it was very significant and a great honor for Congressman Ford to be selected to give one of the keynote addresses,” he said robotically. “I believe Congressman Ford should have a bright and energetic future.”
Herenton’s longstanding feud with the elder Ford apparently has had little bearing on what he thinks of Junior. But just to make an otherwise predictable conversation interesting, Humphrey asked, “And his father?”
“His father?” Herenton repeated, sort of stuttering. “His father...” he said, pausing. By that time, Humphrey and others, Herenton included, broke into laughter. Good thingin addition to being 6 feet, 6 inches, Herenton is a former amateur boxing champion.
The Tennessean’s presence at the convention was far and away the most elaborate of the print outlets in Tennessee. The Gannett daily dispatched three reporters and two photographers to the gathering, all of whom seemed to take their assignment very seriously.
Tennessean bosses take note: Bonna, Tommy, Monica, Delores, and Sam did not, absolutely did not, screw around. While the other print troops casually conducted interviews over coffee, Tennessean staffers were, by a long shot, the most high-strung of the bunch. And disbelieving their media counterparts one night that an Irish bar was giving away beer, they were last seen in the hotel watering hole, which was selling Amstel Light for $6 a bottle. Oh well. They earned it.
Incidentally, if we know them like we think we do, Commercial Appeal political reporters are disappointed and embarrassed over the newspaper’s decision not to send a representative to the convention. The Memphis Flyer, the city’s weekly alternative, sent two reporters.
Where was Phil?
Reading something into everything, as political types tend to do, many conventioneers from the Tennessee delegation interpreted former Mayor Phil Bredesen’s absence in L.A. to mean that he’s not running for governor in 2002. Then again, Bredesen was never one to do what he was supposed to do. We’ve never spotted him wearing a UT baseball cap, eitherwhich is apparently what it takes to get elected to statewide office in Tennessee.
GOP U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, asked by the national Republican Party to travel to L.A. to do some political spinning, never made it out West. Strangely enough, it was a disappointment even to some of the Tennessee Democrats. Thompson spokesman Harvey Valentine says George W. Bush’s Friday appearance in Shelby County threw the plan out of whack. “They had scheduled him to be [in L.A.] Thursday, but Bush came on Friday, and we were there,” Valentine says. “We were trying to get [to L.A.], but there wouldn’t have been enough time.”
The Republican Party wasn’t exactly left in the lurch, however. New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman and former vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp were among the talking heads evening out coverage of the convention.
An Irby sighting
Sweating profusely at a special gathering of the Tennessee and Connecticut delegations at Warner Bros. Studios last week, some Tennesseans were surprised to see former Banner publisher Irby Simpkins emerge from a shuttle bus and make his way into the party area near where the The West Wing is filmed. Even Martin Sheen’s sudden appearance seemed less surprising.
Although Simpkins presided over a predictably conservative daily newspaper, apparently he was close to the late Albert Gore Sr. and wife Pauline. He traveled to Los Angeles and attended convention festivities at the personal invitation of the Gore family.
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