News » Cover Feature

Riding Shotgun with John Ford

Jackson Baker gets a lift from Nashville to Memphis -- and lives to write about it.



It is last Thursday, we are halfway to Memphis, and John Ford, sitting jaunty at the wheel of his Mercedes sports coupe, is musing on the giant billboard alongside I-40 that has just told us the Tennessee lottery's current Powerball jackpot is at $63 million. "I get nervous when it gets to be more than that," Ford says, and he falls to planning what he would do if he should get lucky and actually win such a booty. Doing his arithmetic out loud, Ford calculates that with taxes and other instant deductions, a claimant would end up with about half that amount, some $30-odd million. Still a right smart allowance -- especially for a man who has just entered his 60s, facing an uncertain future.

"I'd probably get a foundation set up," Ford says. "Save four or five million over time, and you could give away money to folks. That way you could take care of your family. With the rest of it, you could buy things, live your life the way you want to live it with what you have left."

Ford, who plays the lottery consistently, keeps working on such a happy scenario. "The first thing I'd do is move out of Memphis," he says. As is well known, he has children to worry about -- several of them, more than he'd care to enumerate just now -- and he knows the perils that a well-publicized sudden prosperity could bring to himself, or anyone, for that matter, in his rather well-known extended family.

"If I won, it'd be everywhere," Ford says, "but if Joe Blow won, nobody would ever see him, and it would be over with. One day he moves way out, and nobody knows who he is." It is true that Ford's predicament would differ seriously from such an Everyman. Ford, a state senator for the last 30 years, is, after all, the most famous legislator in Tennessee, the one name everybody knows. Even Jay Leno, the national wag in Los Angeles, joked on The Tonight Show in January about the state senator's child-support hearings -- the ones that revealed multiple households and (less of a joking matter ultimately) the IRS filings that would expose his earnings to scrutiny and himself to jeopardy.

In the four months since those child-support hearings became public, Ford has become editorial fodder for virtually every newspaper in the state and many elsewhere, a poster boy for charges of legislative boondoggling and potential conflict of interest, and the subject of a reputed federal investigation into his financial ties with corporations doing business with the state. He has also been the catalyst for the most sweeping ethics bill in Tennessee history, one that has passed both chambers of the legislature in the last two weeks.

Ford himself had joined the other 32 Tennessee senators in voting for the bill in a well-publicized Monday-night session last week that saw him make a gallant last stand of sorts, challenging the bill's Senate sponsor, Roy Herron of Dresden, over arcane issues of interpretation -- notably including the question, important to Ford, of whether the bill said anything about "influence-peddling" per se. As Ford would say, on this ride home from Nashville: "There's conflict of interest, and there's illegal." And the difference -- to him, anyhow -- was not a matter of hair-splitting.

"Those crazy-assed rules and everything? Shit! I won't be able to make a living," he avers. And then suddenly: "Goddamn! Look behind me. A big-ass truck, right on my ass!"

LET ME STIPULATE RIGHT HERE that I like John Ford, and make of that what you will. For all his public notoriety during his three decades in the state Senate and in a term as Memphis city councilman before that, for all of the current storms attending his name, for all his sporadically outlandish behavior, for all his confrontations with a prying media, and, yes, for all his suspect dealings, Ford has a reputation among his peers as a go-to guy, as a stout supporter of The Med and a pillar for the mental-health community, as a dependable vote for programs of benefit to society's economic bottom-dwellers, as a legislative strategist for FedEx and other locally based concerns, as, in fact, an all-purpose facilitator.

Ford likes to tell of being present some years ago at the dedication of a bridge site being named for former Govenor Ned Ray McWherter. Ford says John Wilder, the state's venerable lieutenant governor, turned to him and confided, in tribute to Ford's yeoman efforts on behalf of such projects, "John, this bridge ought to be named for you."

Memphian John Farris, whose law firm handles lobbying matters for the city of Memphis, was an attendee at state House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh's Coon Supper last week and worried out loud about Ford's current predicament. Farris maintained, as the senator himself would, and as various legislative supporters had (most in private conversations, though a handful dared venture their comments in public debate), that pending implementation of the new legislation's restrictions on consulting arrangements and its far stricter disclosure requirements, Ford's relationships and activities had remained within the letter of the law. The point is moot, of course, and subject to drastic revision as the real world takes its unpredictable turns.

Meanwhile, it is of some consolation to Ford that he has friends and allies in both parties. In the aftermath of last week's Senate vote, the senator adjourned with some companions to an after-hours session in the bar of the Sheraton, just across Union Street from the Capitol and the air-conditioned underground mine of Legislative Plaza. Among those present for this cup of cheer were longtime Chattanooga senator Ward Crutchfield, former Democratic eminence John Jay Hooker, and Memphis legislators Joe Towns, Beverly Marrero, and Larry Turner. Though Turner did not speak during House debate on the ethics bill (Memphians John DeBerry and Larry Miller did, to great rhetorical effect), he and Towns, along with fellow Memphian Kathryn Bowers, recorded the only votes against the bill.

After that House session two weeks ago, Turner had vented himself this way: "We're paid $16,500 to come up here, and we're here six months out of every year. We cannot support families, send children to school, and do all the things we have to do on $16,500 a year. We have to allow people the room and the opportunity to make a living so they can support their families while they serve in the legislature. Otherwise, we'll become a legislature in which only the rich and the retired can serve. And that's not good." Turner, a Democratic representative from South Memphis, also objected to the new law-to-be's felony prescriptions for nondisclosure and what he and others regarded as loopholes for lawyers.

In the bar of the Sheraton, Ford was nodding his head sadly and saying, "I chickened out myself and voted for it." But he seemed at peace with himself and continued to maintain, against all reason and evidence, that the bill and the statewide pressure for its passage had nothing to do with him. Leaving the Senate chamber after that vote, he had made his way through a sea of media people and other onlookers and climbed aboard an already jammed elevator for passage down to the tunnel leading to Legislative Plaza.

"I'll hide you, John," jested state senator Charlotte Burks, climbing in after him. Burks was the Monterey Democrat who succeeded her husband, the widely beloved Tommy Burks, after his 1998 murder by a deranged political opponent, Byron (Low Tax) Looper. "I don't need to be hid," Ford had responded placidly. "I have been saved by the grace."

FOR YES, VIRGINIA, there is a laid-back John Ford -- one who co-exists with the shotgun-wielding, profanity-spouting, skirt-chasing, glowering John Ford of legend. Oh, that one does exist, but so does the John Ford who could respond to an off-hand remark of mine about eating occasionally in McDonald's with a look of shock and, I swear to you, concern, as he said, "You eat in -- McDonald's!?" I thought he was about to offer me meal money. No, no, I protested: It was a matter of accommodating my daughters, that was all.

This also was the same John Ford who cautioned me to fasten my passenger-side seat belt as we settled into his Mercedes coupe last Thursday after the momentous legislative week had ended. I had told him the week before that I wanted to make that Nashville-to-Memphis run with him, even if it meant leaving my own Ford Explorer behind for a few days. To my surprise, he agreed the next week on the very Thursday morning, and I set out with him to ride shotgun on a voyage that, I suspected, might merge at any moment with the conventional image -- and perhaps the reality -- of John Ford the madcap driver.

I thought of all those people who used to sport those bumper stickers that read, "God is My Co-Pilot." Well, just now John Ford was mine. Or rather, I was his. God help both of us, I thought.

And not without cause. There were intermittent thunder showers all the way home, and the ride offered some NASCAR-like moments, as well as some that were more in keeping with the experience of a contemporary suburbanite (which, let us remember, Ford, with his two outer-county residences, happens to be). Like many of his conventional fellow citizens, the senator is a multi-tasker -- fielding calls on his cell phone while he programs his CD deck and adjusts the height of his hydraulic drink-holders (as the onetime owner of a Kia, which not only had no such holders but no place to affix any, I was impressed), all the while carrying on a stream of conversation.

Every now and then, the Mercedes would veer over to the margin of the left shoulder and encounter the narrow corrugated surface there which signals a driver to straighten out with its warning sound of rudda-rudda-rudda-rudda. This was no big deal, however. For the most part, Ford seemed to be that kind of driver who takes chances because his abilities permit him to. As for the famous speeding habit, which has had him clocked repeatedly by the highway patrol over the years, it is either more restrained than the myth of John Ford would have it or the man has simply slowed down a bit, like any other mortal on the cusp of Social Security.

"It's all exaggeration," Ford says about his driving reputation. "I don't drive any faster than anybody else." We were going 80 mph at the time, and, as he rightly observed, so was everybody else in our westward lanes. "I usually drive between 75 and 80," he continues. "If you go about 90, you'll be running into somebody and having to wait for them to clear, and that defeats the purpose."

Just after we cross the Tennessee River, at roughly the 134-mile mark, Ford notes somberly, "This is where I got into it with those truckers." That was the famous case that in 1991 saw the homeward-bound senator charged with -- and acquitted of -- firing a pistol at the truck-drivers who had hemmed him in with their 18-wheelers. "They said I climbed up out of the sundeck and shot at 'em," Ford says, challenging me to try to rise in like manner through the sundeck of his current vehicle. Point made: It appears difficult, if not impossible.

Ford notes the point (mile-marker 126, the Paris Landing exit) at which he had begun to notice the unfriendly convoy surrounding him and prepares me to note mile marker 104, where highway patrolmen doing routine duty had managed to break up the phalanx around Ford. As it happens, he is on the phone when we get there, talking to an unidentified female. (He had previously held business-like, comradely conversations with legislative colleagues Lois DeBerry and Kathryn Bowers.)

"Not really," Ford answers when I venture to ask if he had many women companions. "You've never seen me with a girlfriend, have you?" asks the man who is now supporting children in three households. "No, I don't have a lot of girlfriends, but I don't want that. That ain't nothing but trouble. You know what I mean?"

As for the children who came of his marriages and liaisons, Ford says, "If I had to do it over again, I wouldn't give anything for the kids that I have. I don't ever sit around thinking, I wish I didn't have all these kids."

As he describes himself, he is no longer the hell-raiser of the stories but an ordinary senior citizen. The night before, he says, he went back to his hotel room after the day's legislative session, watched TV, read the paper, and fell asleep about 8:30 p.m., missing that night's playoff game three between the hometown Grizzlies and the Phoenix Suns. "I woke up, and Conan was on," he says sheepishly.

"I spend my time reading. I don't do anything. I don't really know Nashville," Ford says, characterizing his time in the state capital as an almost unbroken work session. He compares himself ruefully to his celebrated nephew, Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr., the prospective U.S. Senate candidate who is an apple in the same media eye in which he himself is a mote. (While reciprocating Representative Ford's refusal to speak critically of him, Senator Ford does allow that he, like many other Democrats, is baffled by his nephew's increasingly conservative rhetoric and voting record.)

"When I was Harold Jr.'s age, shit, I could do anything, do all the partying," Ford says. "Not now." He intended to forgo joining the political flock that night at the annual Coon Supper held by state House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh in Covington. "Don't get me wrong. It's a good party, but I've got so many things to do. And I get so damn tired."

NOT THAT JOHN FORD has banked all his fires, you understand. Recalling the recent -- videotaped and widely seen -- incident in Nashville, when he threw inquiring WREG-TV reporter Andy Wise out of his office, Ford heats up somewhat. "They better not send him back to my office. If they do, they've got a lawsuit on their hands." Ford contends that Wise had interrupted his work and ignored his emphatic repetitions of "No Comment."

"I had grounds to use force, whatever force was necessary, whatever force became necessary. They use force," Ford says, leaving the pronoun somewhat indefinite. "If they become overbearing, you can do what you need to do. You come to my house that way, I'm going to shoot your ass. Pure and simple. 'I'm going to give you 10 seconds to get the hell out of here; 9-8-7 -- you're on your own -- 5, 4, 3, Bam!" And all the while Astrud Gilberto is singing sweetly on the CD deck.

A truck pulls in front of Ford, and he hits the brakes. Maybe a bit too hard, he concedes.

Out of nowhere, he wonders if I know what "perspicacious" means. I do, I say. I even know the noun form, "perspicacity." Ford seems properly impressed. He describes himself as a philosopher, a reader of Plato, Aristotle, and Schumpeter. "Schumpeter?" That turns out to be an esoteric economist of the 20th century.

Maybe Ford isn't just bragging about his philosophical bent. At one point, he estimates what the mile-marker is before we've yet come upon it. He turns out to be right. I tell him he probably knows all the leaves on this route he's been traveling for 30 years. "I don't know the leaves," he says, "but I know the trees. The leaves change every year."

Then comes a bombshell. He won't run for the Senate again next year, he tells me. "I've been there long enough. You never can tell. I might run for mayor. I might run for county commissioner. I don't know. I might even try to go to Washington." And he might just buckle down and focus his energies on N.J. Ford, the family funeral home.

At one point, Ford is narrowly missed by another vehicle changing lanes and offers me a package deal with himself at N.J. Ford. I profess mock gratitude, but I decline. In actual fact, he isn't a bad driver. Only once is there a truly scary moment, when, on the outskirts of Memphis, Ford shifts abruptly into the right lane and almost tail-ends a slow-moving driver pulling a trailer. "Whoa!" I say, by way of warning.

"I'm glad you saw him. He was waffling," Ford says, by way of explanation.

WHATEVER JOHN FORD ENDS UP doing -- or is allowed by his suddenly imperiled circumstances to end up doing -- he has more moral support, and perhaps more morality, than the ever-mounting news account would have one realize. One day last week, he had invited me up to his fastidiously kept room at the Sheraton in Nashville and showed me a letter he had received from a woman in Arlington.

Under a "National Day of Prayer" letterhead, the woman explains that she had wished to be urged to pray for someone of her own Republican Party but was commanded by the Lord to pray for John Ford. "He kept laying your name on my heart, and I kept telling him that we don't have anything in common. My selfishness kept me asking the Lord to pray for someone else, someone that I thought held my same values, and was a member of the party I belong to ... Senator Frist or President Bush or any other Republican was my plea, and my answer was always the same: Pray for Senator John Ford. ... The Lord pointed out to me through prayer that, if my life was under a microscope as yours is, that it wouldn't look too much different from any other sinner in this world. However, we are saved by grace."

The bottom line: John Ford got me home safe and sound. As for himself? Well, he could surely stand some of that divine intervention.

Cover Story by

Want to respond? Send us an email here.

Keep the Flyer Free!

Always independent, always free (never a paywall),
the Memphis Flyer is your source for the best in local news and information.

Now we want to expand and enhance our work.
That's why we're asking you to join us as a Frequent Flyer member.

You'll get membership perks (find out more about those here) and help us continue to deliver the independent journalism you've come to expect.

Add a comment