POLITICS: A Legend Passes

Terry Keeter, an original in the worlds of politics, media, and local cabaret, shifts his venue.



One morning about a month ago my home phone rang, and I picked it up to hear a familiar rasping voice begin: “It’s Keeter.”

That much was intelligible, but the rest of the message was muffled and broken up by the regular aspirating sounds of the ventilator to which, as I knew, Terry Keeter, a victim of pulmonary disease, had to attach in order to stay alive. I was able to make out that he had a hot news tip that he wanted to impart, so we agreed finally that I would drop by his Midtown address to say hello.

Once I got there and was admitted by one of his attentive nurses, the “news tip” turned out to be, as I had suspected, the same old, same old gossip about one politician doing another politician wrong that Keeter and I had discussed two or three times already — once via sentences he would chalk and underline on a portable blackboard, tapping the words he considered most urgent.

On that same occasion, I had asked Keeter his opinion of the work of several of his successors reporting political news at The Commercial Appeal, his home base for several decades, during most of which he was a local legend. He scratched out his answers, and, when he came to a certain female reporter (probably not the one you’re thinking about), he bore down hard and energetically with the chalk.

I looked to see. “Nice ass!” he’d written, underlining it twice. That was Keeter. When I told this to the reporter in question, who has since moved on to other work in another town, she was delighted. Keeter was old school and unregenerate, and people somehow cut him extra slack. He drank too much, smoked too much, cussed too much, and caroused too much, and there was no wonder that he’d developed a serious case of emphysema that already had him somewhat hobbled by late 1997.

That was when he contracted the pneumonia that almost killed him and left him permanently disabled, largely confined to his bedside or a wheelchair.

On this day a month ago, he was holding a ventilator cord up to a hole in his throat periodically to draw enough breath to make his next statement. The arrangement took a little getting used to, but after a while, Keeter and I were gabbing in earnest about old times and the past and present foibles of political folks in the news.

As I said in the obituary note I posted on the Flyer Web site last Friday: “Until he was sidelined by illness, Keeter, 66 at the time of his death, was a well-connected, well-informed reporter … who knew everyone in politics there was to know, as well as everything they did worth knowing, both public and private.”

I had learned of Keeter’s passing early Friday from Sylvia Holder, the elegant and delightful former jazz chanteuse who is the mother of state Supreme Court justice Janice Holder, Keeter’s friend and companion during his last good years and his steadfast rock of support during his declining ones. These are the kinds of associates, top-drawer by any estimate, who vouched for Keeter by example.

As the impresario of the annual Gridiron shows, which raised scholarship money for local journalism students, scathing satirist Keeter showed no mercy to members of the local political community — a habit that carried over to his private relationships.

Once he and I were sitting around in a poolside group at the tag end of one of the annual Republican women’s picnics, which drew a host of well-known local politicians. One of them, who later held a high elective office indeed (and whose identity I withhold here out of simple mercy) came over to bloviate. Keeter listened to a little of this and finally exploded: “You’re not full of shit, are you, ______?!!”

It has to be said that the politician in question was always dealt with fairly in print by Keeter. Maybe even generously.

The story I like to tell that best expresses what Terry Keeter was all about — sourpussed, salty, bawdy, agile-witted, and often hilarious — concerns another time when he and I were sitting around a table with a group of political women gathered at the home of the late Democratic eminence Bill Farris.

A minor earthquake had just occurred, and people were giving their matter-of-fact reminiscences of it when Keeter interrupted: “Hell, I was up at my cabin masturbating, and I was just about to get off when it started, and I looked up and said … ” — Keeter turned his eyes heavenward and fairly shouted the next words — “Was it good for You, too!’”

Only Keeter would have told such a story, only he could have got away with it, and, for damn sure, only he would have presumed to link himself in such a way to a cosmic circumstance.

I will not presume to speak for the Almighty, but, as for his tenure among us mere mortals, I can safely say, yes, Terry, it was good for us, too.

[i  Meanwhile, important things are brewing on the political scene. Here are some of them in capsule:

At least one local insider contends that a petition drive to force a recall election for beleaguered Memphis mayor Willie Herenton could go mainstream. The effort is so far being advocated mainly by local bloggers such as Mike Hollihan and Thaddeus Matthews.

Herenton raised eyebrows by being absent from last week’s Chamber of Commerce luncheon and from a subsequent gubernatorial joint announcement with local government officials by Governor Phil Bredesen. But Hizzoner was in good form at his own annual Christmas party later in the week at the Convention Center, where he reasserted his intention to seek another term. A potential opponent, Councilwoman Carol Chumney, had a party the same night.

Between the two of them, they had one attendee from the council — Scott McCormick, at the mayor’s bash.

A consensus is developing in political circles that enough doubt has been raised about local voter rolls — at a hearing here Monday and elsewhere — to make the state Senate’s decision in January about the contested state Senate District 29 special election a tossup. Republican Terry Roland is challenging the seating of Democrat Ophelia Ford, whose election-night margin was 13 votes.

Two possibilities, which overlap: The Senate (which has a one-vote Republican majority) might void the election, calling for a new one, and the Shelby County Commission might be asked to name an interim appointee.

Asked last month about the possible incidence of deceased voters’ names remaining on the rolls, Election Commission chairman Greg Duckett conceded to the Flyer: “If somebody died outside Shelby County, it’s entirely possible they’re still being carried.”

The holidays are a lull before an expected storm of candidate announcements for the 2006 election season. A likely one: two-term Memphis school board member Wanda Halbert, for Juvenile Court clerk.

On the eve of a decision to be made by the Election Commission and county commission about purchasing new voting machines, sentiment in Democratic ranks may lie with contender E, S & S; that among Republicans with Diebold.  

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