Politics » Politics Feature

The Obama Era Begins

A promising start in Washington, but new discord down home.



This was my fourth presidential inauguration. I went to both of Bill Clinton's and the first one of George W. Bush's, and I well remember the approaches to an incompletely filled Washington Mall back in 2001 being lined by protesters whose hand-held placards were charging Bush with having stolen the election (or having it stolen for him). I remember, too, the gentleman striding alongside me, mirthlessly chuckling at the sign-bearers. "Just look at them!" he said, his voice a mixture of satisfaction and contempt.

The crowd in 2009 was partisan, too, but not entirely so. When Bush turned up on the multiple Jumbotrons, or especially when Dick Cheney did, looking unexpectedly Strangelovian in a wheelchair, there was considerable jeering. This prompted the diminutive young woman next to me to turn to the more matronly companion on her left and say, "That's offensive! He represents our country." She then insisted on standing up to applaud the outgoing vice president.

In Memphis, just as Cheney's successor Joe Biden was about to take the oath, my daughter Julia was watching on TV when an overhead camera (crane? airplane? zoom lens?) swooped over the teeming throng and for a thousand-one, thousand-two moment picked up what looked to her like her dear old dad, seeming (such is the distortion of the lens) not even to shiver in the 20-degree cold. She backed the video up and DVR'd the sequence.

Back home, I would see it, agree that the transitory image was indeed me, and then catch my breath at what the rest of that airborne shot revealed — a sea, quite literally, of millions stretching out behind me, all the way to the Lincoln Memorial. All the way back, in every sense of the term.

"The whole world is watching" had been a refrain of public political theater since the street disorders at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. Now the phrase came close to being literal. Even the tens of thousands of purple-ticket holders — including numerous Memphians — who were famously shut out from the Mall by a glitch in the arrangements, might at least tell themselves they were part of the breath, the ambient body heat of an occasion when that lean young man, who looked to be all races at once and whose bearing seemed always to be halfway between grave and light-hearted, raised his hand, and, all but indifferent to the weather, calmly took upon himself the burden — and the challenge — of a planet in crisis.

The tenor of what could be a new, more cooperative time was brought home to me — in more than one sense — the next day when, as House Appropriations Committee chairman David Obey (D-WI) was presiding over a session on President Barack Obama's stimulus plan proposals, Zach Wamp, the Chattanooga Republican and gubernatorial hopeful, asked to speak.

With what seemed a generous playfulness, Obey recognized "the potential senator from Tennessee." Wamp's colleagues, knowing better, corrected Obey, chorusing in unison, "Governor!"

Retiring member Wamp paid homage to the committee as his "extended family" and then made a spirited plea for $25 million in additional funds to assist in the cleanup and containment of the "awful, awful spill" of coal ash sludge in East Tennessee. At Wamp's invitation, Democrat Lincoln Davis, a new committee member and a potential gubernatorial opponent for Wamp in 2010, made his own appeal for the funds. Both congressmen expressed concern that additional federal aid was needed to ameliorate the pending financial burden on TVA rate-payers.

Obey to Wamp to Davis. Like Tinker to Evers to Chance, the vintage Chicago Cub double-play combination whose members had problems with each other privately but made graceful shows of comity in public.

Ah, but where other Tennesseans gathered ...

State representative Johnny Shaw had as good a time in Washington as anybody who attended last week's inauguration activities in Washington. And not all of his pleasure had to do with the elevation of Obama to the presidency. Much of it was lingering exultation at the previous week's legislative coup which saw maverick Republican Kent Williams receive his surprise victory as House speaker with the help of 49 Democratic votes.

Between bouts of dancing at the Wednesday night ball of the Tennessee State Society, Shaw commented on Williams' promise to divide committee chairmanships between the two parties (a promise which was in fact fulfilled at week's end). The Bolivar Democrat noted, "We got all the good ones!" He specified Finance, Judiciary, and Health and Human Resources, especially — which were destined to be chaired by holdover Democrats Craig Fitzhugh, Kent Coleman, and Joe Armstrong, respectively.

In particular, Shaw said, GOP-favored legislation dealing with tort reform and medical malpractice might be effectively blocked by the new committee constellation.

Telling and retelling the tale of how the House's Democratic complement was forged into a solid 49-member voting bloc during a 30-minute recess which preceded the nominations for speaker, Shaw confided that achieving that kind of solidarity had required some real effort and had, in some ways, been a close-run thing.

"We had two or three members who took some convincing, but we got that done," he said.

Though he may not have been one of the recalcitrant members mentioned by Shaw (he says he had no problems with Williams), G.A. Hardaway of Memphis acknowledged that he would probably not have voted for Jimmy Naifeh if the veteran Democratic speaker had been nominated by the caucus instead of the Elizabethton Republican.

"I'd have abstained," Hardaway said flatly concerning a potential floor vote between Naifeh and Republican majority leader and speaker nominee Jason Mumpower of Bristol. Had Naifeh been able to persuade a Republican to cross over and vote for him, Hardaway's abstention would presumably have resulted in a tie vote, leaving Naifeh, as the previous speaker, in control of the House.

Hardaway's problems with Naifeh derive from what the Memphis Democrat, an advocate of paternal rights, saw as the former speaker's lack of candor in dealing with Hardaway's desire to be named to the House Children and Family Affairs Committee — an appointment which Hardaway believes was snarled by pressure from women's-issue advocates — Sherri Jones, in particular. "He lied to me, and I told him so to his face," Hardaway says about Naifeh's initial assurances concerning committee membership, which turned into equivocations. (Hardaway finally won appointment from Speaker Williams to the Children and Family Affairs Committee.)

Hardaway wishes House Democratic leader Gary Odom of Nashville, the orchestrator of the speakership coup, had run for speaker himself, as Odom had indicated last year that he might (before the election turned Democrats into a minority). "I think he could have got Kent Williams to vote for him — and I certainly would have — with pleasure."

A conversation with Hardaway leaves one the impression that he and perhaps other dissident Democrats regard the outcome of the Tennessee House reorganization as the best-case scenario — forestalling a Mumpower takeover and forcing a transition out of the long-lasting Naifeh era. (See Viewpoint, p. 17.)

Purple-Ticket People Eaters

Hardaway, incidentally, was one of the aforementioned victims of the purple-ticket disaster on Inauguration Day. As were such Memphians as activists Desi Franklin and Adrienne Pakis-Gillen and county commissioner Steve Mulroy and his young son Quinn. The background was that successful applicants for first come-first-served tickets to the inauguration viewing areas had been assigned their tickets on the basis of a color coding (whereby blue tickets were close and up front, orange tickets were at a reasonable distance from the swearing-in ceremony, with some seating available, and purple tickets, among those of other colors, entitled bearers to a largish standing area on the Mall.

The problem was that the purple-ticket holders were shut out of the inauguration, even many who had been in line very early in the morning. Like the holders of other-colored tickets, these unfortunate ones were herded into serpentine lines that doubled back on themselves and were directed back and forth for hours, meanwhile being asked periodically to hold their tickets aloft.

Inexplicably, the purple-ticket people were met finally with a locked fence, with no access even to a Jumbotron. Those were the lucky ones; others were stranded for hours in a tunnel, unable even to get to nearby Union Station or some other venue to view the inauguration on a TV screen.

This breakdown in crowd control, like the relatively high number of Metro station escalators that turned out to be disabled during Inauguration week, may have been yet another signal of the strain placed on public services and infrastructure by a bad economy.

It's why the band strikes up "Hail to the Chief," Mr. President. Fix it if you can.

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