Talk about segues! On the defensive for a week as the prosecution presented its case against him, former state senator Roscoe Dixon managed late Monday to turn his extortion trial into a combination schmooze-fest/Meet-Your-Candidate rally, with his jury in federal court serving as a captive audience -- and maybe even, as it looked for all too brief a while, a captivated one.
Having made the decision to counter four straight days of damning testimony and FBI surveillance tapes by taking the stand in his own defense, Dixon spent the better part of an hour letting his lead attorney, Coleman Garrett, guide him through a sunny self-exposition that rivaled some inspirational tale by Horatio Alger. Smiling and at ease, Dixon traced his personal history from humble South Memphis origins through unexpected early success and service as a Vietnam-era Army officer to a career in the Tennessee General Assembly that he made sound downright distinguished.
Dixon had just got to the point of describing how a nose-to-the-grindstone legislator goes from 162 pounds to 240 by compulsive grazing at lobbyist receptions when presiding judge Jon McCalla decided that was a good time to call a halt to the day's proceedings.
By then, the accused former senator -- first among the major legislative figures to stand trial for their role in the Tennessee Waltz scandal -- had constructed a persona more accessible and infinitely less threatening than the Buddha-like Mr. Big of Corruption the government had portrayed. Moreover, in his husbandly fumbling for the right number of years he'd been married ("I'm fixing to get killed," he said -- or words to that effect) to his shucksy acknowledgments of setbacks in an upward career curve that still came off as impressive, Dixon succeeded in appearing more palpably human than had the witnesses against him.
Among these were the mousy blabbermouth Barry Myers, the smugly arrogant Tim Willis, the dutiful state officials and FBI operatives -- including faux "E-Cycle" executives Joe Carson and L.C. McNeil -- who came off as austerely bureaucratic versions of the flamboyant characters the two agents had impersonated in the videos and audios.
Dixon's recasting of himself as the hero of the play, not its villain, was a big-time presumption -- not to mention the longest kind of long-odds gamble. But its sincerity content at first matched up favorably with the preposterous assertions of noble motives professed from the stand by former acolyte Myers ("I'm his boy, his bagman" had been his self-description to McNeil) and consultant-gone-wrong Willis, pressed into service by the FBI (with a lucrative "personal services contract," no less!) after being nailed for scams in Mississippi and with the Juvenile Court clerk's office in Memphis.
Both Myers and Willis said they were testifying in order to "do the right thing," not to curry favor with the authorities. Right.
Still, compared to his de facto role model, former congressman Harold Ford Sr., whose focused and persuasive testimony from the stand was the decisive weapon in Ford's 1993 acquittal on federal bank-fraud charges, Dixon, who began to falter on Tuesday, was up against it. And in 1993 there were no telltale videos, grainy or otherwise, linking the former Memphis congressman to any of the felonies he was accused of.
Parenthesis: For many years, Dixon was to Ford as Myers was to Dixon. In fact, Dixon's place in a Ford-centered network juxtaposed to the rival network of Memphis mayor Willie Herenton is a theme not yet fully activated -- but capable of becoming so in the rest of this trial and in trials to come.
Maybe there is method to the maddening aimlessness of Garrett's cross-examinations, but, with the exception of his providing Dixon a long leash to describe himself on Monday, Garrett had done little more than give prosecutor Tim DiScenza a peptically challenged look and cause the remarkably patient Judge McCalla to keep saying "Sustained."
Garrett fared better on Tuesday -- but only because he ended up sounding like a cross-examiner as he tried to steer a manifestly confused Dixon back to what seemed to be a prearranged line of testimony.
The Play's the Thing: Reportedly, there was, during the supposed witch-hunt days of the McCarthyite '50s, a certain cachet that went with being targeted as a security risk -- or, at the very least, with being the subject of rumors attesting to one's having maybe been part of a once modish political current.
It had nothing to do with left, right, communism, capitalism, Republican, Democrat -- any of those things. In fact, to the degree that there really was a subversive movement (and there was), the subpoena envy of the time was entirely an affliction of the innocent and the wannabes. The political career (and much of the published product) of Norman Mailer -- a literary leftist, if there ever was one -- cannot be understood without realizing this.
To judge by the number of names that were dropped in the first several days of the Roscoe Dixon extortion trial, something like this malady is about to afflict the political and civic spheres of Greater Memphis, maybe even of Tennessee at large.
Most of those who have figured so far -- in testimony, in transcripts, in surveillance videotapes and audiotapes -- are not there with any taint of criminal culpability, actual or hypothetical.
But scores of other names of currently active public figures have been tossed around: the Harold Fords (Jr. and Sr.), Mike Kernell, Sidney Chism, Jay Bailey, Ron Redwing, J.W. Gibson, Dick Lodge, Wanda Halbert, Paul Stanley, Curtis Person, A C Wharton, Bill Gibbons, Steve Cohen, Joe Kent, Jim Kyle, Jackie Welch, Ron Belz, Karl Schledwitz.
The list goes on and on: civil servants of various kinds -- city, county, state -- and everyday activists like Jerry Hall, G.A. Hardaway, John Freeman (even the latter's mother, Lois Freeman, in connection with her being in the hospital with an illness). Freeman's longtime running mate, David Upton, has to be wondering -- with some disappointed covetousness, no doubt -- when his name will turn up via tape or testimony on this Who's Who list.
This is especially so, considering that, under relentless siege by DiScenza during a blistering cross-examination on Tuesday, Dixon tried desperately to maintain that an apparent videotaped command that Myers "take care of" money dropped by Willis on a table referred not to a payoff from Willis' "E-Cycle" employers but to a political mission involving Ford-man Freeman, whose name had received incidental mention earlier.
Note: The series of profiles of 9th District candidates, begun last week, will continue -- presumably next week -- after the de facto interruption occasioned by Dixon trial coverage.
The rest of the political world keeps spinning. Among the recent highlights: The "truce of conservatives" between Republican senatorial candidates Ed Bryant and Van Hilleary, who agreed some weeks back to coordinate their fire on GOP rival Bob Corker, a relative moderate, broke down somewhat this week.
In a formal press release, Bryant insisted -- as he was wont to do before the entente -- that Hilleary get out of the race and clear the way for his own one-on-one against Corker. Bryant also had a teleconference from the Texas-Mexico border on the subject of immigration. He may have been one-upped somewhat by the cash-heavy Corker, who had a TV ad running all week showing himself at the border.
On the gubernatorial front, Democratic incumbent Phil Bredesen is devoting this week to a campaign fly-around and was scheduled to be in Memphis on Thursday. His likely Republican opponent, state senator Jim Bryson of Franklin, was in town late last week for an impressive debut appearance before local Republicans at the Crescent Club.
Seventh District Republican congresswoman Marsha Blackburn was in Memphis last week for a "Town Meeting" at Owen Brennan's restaurant, sponsored by the National Federation of Independent Business. (Blackburn had just won an online poll as "The Hottest Woman in Politics," conducted by politics1.com and professed to be "embarrassed" about it. Another contender in the poll was 9th District Democratic congressional candidate Nikki Tinker.) -- JB