One of the redeeming things about politics - the flip side of a rather tarnished coin, as it were - is the astonishing degree to which rehabilitations are conferred on former miscreants of one sort or another. This thought occurred to me twice this weekend - first, over in Jonesboro on Saturday, during a blue-chip rally for Barack Obama. The headliner was former president Bill Clinton, but up there on the outdoor stage was a virtual Hall of Fame of Arkansas politics - as Clinton observed, no fewer than five governors, past and present, several of whom have also served as senators or in other political posts of distinction.
Among those standing up there, wearing the characteristic perpetual chiseled grin that seems to be the only expression his face will register, was Jim Guy Tucker. For those with short memories, Tucker, a former congressman, attorney general, and gubernatorial candidate, was Arkansas's lieutenant governor when Clinton was elected president in 1992 and ascended to the governor's chair himself after Clinton was sworn in and took up residence in the White House.
Tucker, regarded as the state's Golden Boy until Clinton upstaged him, was elected governor in his own right in 1994 but shortly thereafter became a casualty of the ongoing Whitewater investigation that the Clintons, Bill and Hillary, at whom it was aimed, remained immune from. Tucker was convicted of fraud and received basically a probated sentence. He was forced out of office under threat of impeachment after he tried to back out of an agreement to yield the governorship to then Lt. Gov. Mike Huckabee.
Nor did Tucker's problems end there. An old liver problem flared up and almost killed him, and his life was saved by an emergency liver transplant.
So why is this man still smiling? Maybe because it only hurts when he laughs, or perhaps because he received both affection and deference from the other principals on the stage at Jonesboro - from Clinton and former governor/senator David Pryor, for example, both of whom he had aspired to unseat during their time of office-holding in Arkansas.
It could have seemed cynical, but instead it all came off as both natural and heartwarming. A bona fide prodigal's return, if you will.
Something of the same reception has been bestowed on Bret Thompson, a former Wonder Boy of inner-city politics who served briefly in the Tennessee House of Representatives and seemed destined for great things until he was convicted of fraud and theft from a law client and was disbarred. The irrepressible Thompson, almost impossible to dislike, ran afoul of the law again for practicing law without a license.
But he has re-emerged in recent years as a cheerleader and consultant for other politicians and as an energetic factotum for Shelby County Democratic causes. All the while publicly acknowledging his past derelictions and paying tribute to the Almighty for allowing his resurrection, Thompson stays busy and has organized several Get-Out-the-Vote campaigns and public rallies like the well-attended, successful one held Sunday on Elvis Presley.
As city court clerk Thomas Long noted from the dais, Thompson "hit politics with a bang," then encountered "a couple of bumps in the road." But there he was again Sunday, having somehow broken through to the other side, exuding equal measures of repentance and enthusiasm and having, for the most part, managed to regain the trust and good will of his peers. (For what it's worth, Thompson can sing, too - in the vein of Johnny Taylor - but he didn't do it Sunday. One step at a time.)
There was one more case at Sunday's Democratic rally on Elvis Presley of someone's being presented with a clean slate. This was Del Gill, currently CAO for General Sessions Clerk Otis Jackson, whose successful election campaign he managed earlier this year. Gill was one of several attendees who were presented with plaques and awards for this or that in service to the Democratic Party. And he earned a public tribute of sorts from 9th District U.S. Representative Steve Cohen (Thompson: "the best damn congressman in the state of Tennessee!"). Said Cohen, who was taking part in the awards process, to Gill: "You're on board now, right?"
Gill's broad grin signified that he was - though that state of affairs has to be regarded as conditional. No lawbreaker he, the sometimes precocious, sometimes annoying, always in-somebody's-face Gill has made a career of stirring dissension in the party ranks, or rather of attempting to. Either the gods or his own contentious nature have so far prevented him from organizing anything resembling a working coalition for any of the causes, often hair-splitting ones, he has tried to sponsor.
But there he was on Sunday, being hailed and brought on stage - or on board - like someone who belonged. There have been few such moments in the public career of Del Gill, who would be well advised not to screw it up.
(Later today: Did the Obama campaign walk off and leave Tennessee?)