Parsers' Holiday

Local members of both parties do some artful dancing around difficult issues.



If ever there is a tournament for the parsing championship of the Western world, members of the two local parties will surely have to be considered as candidates for top honors.

Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, Republican Senate candidate Lamar Alexander, Circuit Court Judge George Brown, and other participants at Monday night's "Young Professionals" reception for Alexander and Herenton at the Plaza Club did their best to avoid direct mention of political "endorsement." Brown, who ended up introducing former Governor Alexander, who once appointed him to the state Supreme Court, noted for the record that as a sitting judge he could not participate in an "endorsement."

It called to mind former President Bill Clinton's quibbles, during the Monica Lewinsky flap, about what "the meaning of 'is' is." What the affair Monday night was was an endorsement, even if the speakers, Herenton included, preferred to use the word "coalition" to describe the co-billing and active involvement of Memphis' African-American Democratic mayor in an event arranged, subsidized, catered, etc., etc. by the Alexander campaign and designed explicitly to promote the former governor's campaign.

Almost as interesting, from the standpoint of special protocol, was an event of the previous day -- the formal opening of Democratic headquarters at Poplar Plaza on Sunday. Normally, these rallies feature a panoply of local party leaders, all of whom recite, with proper hosannas, the full roster of party candidates.

Bob Corney, the state Democratic coordinator, arrived on the scene with the intent of overseeing some such format, but local Democrats quickly informed him that another structure, already prepared, would have to be observed. This one mandated that single speakers confine their remarks of appreciation to the particular candidates they were introducing.

Thus, Shelby County mayor A C Wharton introduced Nashville congressman Bob Clement, the Democratic Senate nominee, and omitted mention of anyone else. Clement was followed on the dais by Herenton, who similarly restricted his remarks to the subject of gubernatorial nominee Phil Bredesen, whom he introduced and whom, unlike Clement, the mayor is actually prepared to support.

Herenton conspicuously huddled with both former 9th District congressman Harold Ford Sr. and current congressman Harold Ford Jr., in an effort to present the appearance of unity.

State Rep. Kathryn Bowers, who has an open quarrel with local party chairperson Gale Jones Carson and other members of the Herenton camp, observed privately that "a big shovel" might be needed to clear the crowded, stifling room of "B.S."

Not to be outspun, incidentally, was Clement, who, in the face of Herenton's cozying up to Lamar and of polls showing him as much as 18 percent behind Alexander, successfully lobbied local and national media to report that, while President George W. Bush was coming to Nashville Tuesday on Alexander's behalf (to be followed by his father, former President George H. W. Bush, due in Memphis on Wednesday), he, Clement, would be flying back to Washington with President Bush aboard Air Force One.

And Democrat Bredesen noted in a press release that he, as Nashville's mayor, had presided over the school which the president planned to visit on Tuesday.

* Whether by coincidence or through some pattern or synchronicity, the destinies of former Shelby County mayor Jim Rout and his son, beleaguered Young Republican chairman Rick Rout, seemed uncannily intertwined as each encountered a milestone of sorts last week.

First, as the Flyer first reported last Thursday, the senior Rout was named by Jack Morris, the founder and owner of Jack Morris Auto Glass Company, to head his company as president starting this week.

Then, on Thursday night, the younger Rout was given something less than a vote of confidence as his colleagues on the Shelby County Republican steering committee voted by an 18 to 8 margin to ask him to resign from the committee -- the reason being a series of indiscreet e-mails by YR president Rout, all of which had to do with Rout's reluctance (shared with his father but made more public) to support the candidacy of the GOP's county mayor nominee in the August 1st election, George Flinn.

The first e-mail, written shortly before the election to the 11 YR board members, seemed to stress Rout's commitment to elect "95 percent" of the GOP ticket and contained his promise to solicit the appearance at the next YR meeting of the presumed (and, as it turned out, actual) winner of the mayoral race, Democrat Wharton.

Although Rick Rout has since attempted to explain that e-mail as a "joke" based on a poll showing Wharton to have a commanding lead, his remarks at the time, both to the Flyer in an interview and to the YR board member suspected of leaking his first e-mail, emphasized his belief that Flinn, a radiologist/businessman and political novice, was "unfit" to serve as mayor, at least partly because of alleged insults during the campaign to Rout's father, the then mayor. (Some observers, notably including Flinn, who tried in vain to cozy up to the senior Rout, the titular head of Shelby County Republicans -- see the insults as more apparent than real, to say the least.)

Clearly, a majority of the steering-committee members disbelieved young Rout's explanation for his statements and declined to accept his somewhat hedged apology for the errant e-mails. As the discussion on motion to seek his resignation ensued, a game Rick Rout, standing in the back of the meeting area at the GOP's Victory 2002 headquarters, pointedly looked at his watch and said, "I'm missing Big Brother." That, of course, is the "reality" TV show on which a contestant is periodically voted out of a group house, and, no, Rout wasn't missing it. He was just living another version of it.

The bringer of the motion at Thursday night's steering-committee meeting was newly installed county commissioner John Willingham, one of several hardcore conservative populists to have achieved party prominence in the last year or two.

The intraparty revolt symbolized by Willingham's advent is in part a reaction to what the conservatives believe is the Rout administration's lack of party purity and willingness to back public spending projects -- notably, the new NBA arena -- without properly sounding public opinion.

Ironically enough, another young Republican and steering-committee member, businessman Kemp Conrad, who was considered by the conservative insurgents to be a kindred spirit on the Rick Rout issue and, indeed, has been one of young Rout's rivals for the coming party chairmanship election, has fallen under suspicion himself among the more purist of Republicans.

Conrad's sin? Having a prominent role in the snaring of Memphis mayor Herenton as a participant in Monday night's "Young Professionals" reception and as a de facto collaborator in Alexander's Senate campaign.

That Herenton is an African American may or may not be germane to the critics; that he is a Democrat is a red flag to them.

Luckily for Conrad -- and perhaps for his party -- most Republicans understand that his outreach efforts tend in the direction of party-building, not of disloyalty.

Perhaps the Routs, father and son, should be similarly pardoned, but right now the family sun seems to be setting, as far as many of the faithful are concerned, in the same direction as that of lame-duck Governor Don Sundquist, another misunderstood (or misguided, as the more critical see it) deviant from the party line, and it is another part of the synchronicity -- or coincidence -- that Jack Morris, he of the auto glass company, was finance chairman of the mayoral effort of A C Wharton.

It is rumored in some circles that Jim Rout shot for higher than he got to begin the post-mayoral part of his life, and Rick Rout's chances of being elected party chairman, arguably possible six months ago, are remote now and wholly subordinate to the simple task of hanging on as a card-carrying Republican, amenable to the party rank and file.

The Routs of Shelby County are an attractive extended family with a great deal of grace and public spirit and an admirable sense of loyalty to each other. But their days of hegemony -- nay, prominence; nay, acceptance -- among Shelby County Republicans may have passed away cleanly with the calendar date of the last countywide election.

This may or may not be fair, but, as students of love and war -- and politics -- have long understood, fairness may not be the point of it all.

In any case, Jim Rout seems at peace with himself and with what he is doing, and the same can be said of son Rick, who, for the record, had this to say of the GOP steering committee's request that he resign: "Thanks, but no thanks."

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