Jimmy Carter, very much in the public eye, was president. Ted Kennedy was considered to be stalking him for the rights to be the Democratic nominee in 1980, and both of them, along with other party honchos, were on hand -- giving speeches, press conferences, what-have-you. Those of us who are sufficiently long of tooth recall legendary House speaker Tip O'Neill coming down an escalator at the old Ellis Auditorium in company with another Irish-American, one Pat Halloran, then of the Memphis City Council and ambitious to rise in Democratic ranks. Halloran, who had his right arm draped around ol' Tip's shoulder as the two descended, seemed almost to have gotten there.
Fade to the present: It's 2006, and Halloran is the impresario of The Orpheum, having forsaken one branch of American entertainment for another. Tip O'Neill is no longer with us, though Ted Kennedy and Jimmy Carter are still very much in the public eye.
What's most different about 2006 is that this time it's the national Republicans who will descend on our city for the biennial Southern Republican Leadership Conference at The Peabody. Though it's a notch or two below the 1978 affair, protocol-wise, the star quality of it will be much the same. That means 2008 presidential wannabes John McCain, Mitt Romney, Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, Tennessee's own Bill Frist, and (as they say) more more more. There'll be a straw vote poll for the record, and the big-time national media will be on hand to observe everything. And, among numerous congressional luminaries, House speaker Dennis Hastert will be around to do a reprise of the O'Neill part. After his fashion, of course.
And, face it, the fashions are different this time around. There is one similarity: The Republicans this year are beginning to reel from the same sort of developing malaise that would overtake the Democrats within months of their leaving Memphis. Even as we speak, President George W. Bush -- beset by the Dubai port crisis and, er, more more more -- is rapidly descending into the kind of reputational limbo that would overtake Carter. It is a time when the GOP dignitaries and cadres will surely have to do some rethinking out loud, and they'll be doing it as our guests.
Welcome, we say. And congratulations to Memphis' John Ryder for making sure they came here instead of elsewhere. We promise to pay close attention.