Musing on the One Clear Meaning Of It All — Herenton v. Cohen is On!

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So the shaggy dog story goes on. No indictment now, but… who knows, maybe later. Maybe next year with a new Grand Jury, maybe even — at inexplicable last — with a new U.S. Attorney. (What’s Obama waiting on? The results of the 2010 midterm election?)

Next year… Except, hold on, next year is when the race for the 9th District congressional seat is scheduled. Let’s face it: It’s always been an iffy thing. Anybody seen any Herenton-for-Congress paraphernalia? Gone to one of the Doc’s fundraisers? Seen any evidence of any kind that he’s been campaigning for anything at all —- except to stay out of the Graybar Hotel?

Yet the shaggy-dog aspect of this saga is what probably insures there will be a race between Willie Herenton and Steve Cohen. Had there been an indictment, the seriousness of that outcome would have blown away the ex-mayor’s pretensions to a congressional campaign like the diversionary balloon it was.

And had the endless, year-upon-year-upon-year stretched-out-to-the-crack-of-doom Groundhog-day threat of federal prosecution for Herenton been ended for good, that, too, would have made running for Congress an irrelevancy. The man would finally have relaxed in the relish of his soiled but now duty-free and unencumbered laurels, taken it easy and looked after his business interests for real.

It is only this end-of-chapter but not end-of-story circumstance that we are left with that makes a showdown between challenger Herenton and incumbent Cohen inevitable. The reluctance of the prosecution team and Grand Jury either to proceed with an open-and-shut conflict-of-interest case or to walk away from it altogether means that Herenton can do his sigh of relief but not hold that breath.

He will now be obliged to arm himself for what could be one last — and perhaps more animated — thrust at his freedom from the feds. Wht better hedge against new threats of prosecution than to arouse his old inner-city base with the cry of the martyr? What more potent medicine can he stew up to confound his legal adversaries than the elixir of the righteous victim?

White Memphis — only a fraction of the city, with an even smaller fraction in the confines of the 9th congressional district — is myopic in the way it sees Herenton. Yes, a goodly number of African Americans are down on the man, too — as much for his disingenuousness and his being yesterday’s newspaper as for any other reason. But come at him in any way that looks like a racial conflict or a vendetta, and Willie Herenton will start to look more like Nelson Mandela and to a larger constituency than anyone ever thought possible.

Cohen, who — let me say it — deserves to win reelection on the merits of the case, will not provoke Herenton or the former mayor’s potential base in this manner. But there may be surrogates or provocateurs who will in the many, many months that remain before votes are cast in the Democratic primary in August.

To be sure, Herenton has forfeited — or the long attrition he’s endured has undermined — any prospect of his raising real money. His campaign could only rise mighty in jihad-like circumstances — through the kind of populist whirlwind that could also blow deliberative reason plumb out of a jury pool. And shake the resolve of the man’s would-be prosecutors for good.

It is now unmistakably in Herenton’s interest to make the congressional race. And Cohen’s lot once more to prove (and maybe the congressman wants to prove) that he -- a sports nut who really does think in metaphors like this -- can face up to yet another vaunted Alabama team and rout it, too, in the same manner as before.

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