Politics » Politics Feature

The Weight-Maker

Political veteran John Freeman embarks on his most ambitious campaign yet.



To his friends, John Freeman, a well-known veteran of the local political universe, has always been the good-natured, overweight guy you could count on for two things. One was he would be late for any situation or engagement. Always, obsessively, predictably so — in a world-class way. So much so that one friend gave him a nickname: The Wait-Maker.

Say you were walking with him down a corridor of Madison Square Garden at the 1992 Democratic convention (the first Clinton one, with a big speech about to happen), and Freeman would ask you to wait outside while he went into a restroom. Thirty minutes later (maybe it just seemed like 30 minutes), he would emerge sheepishly with the explanation that he'd fallen asleep inside a stall.

Consent for him to be the driver for a group headed, on a tight deadline, to Nashville to catch a Southwest Airlines flight to Washington for an inaugural ceremony, and he would be sure to turn up at your door 45 minutes too late to make the plane. Had trouble finding a belt or something.

But to the same friends, as well as to the several local politicians who have counted on his services in their election campaigns and in office — like congressmen Harold Ford Sr. and Harold Ford Jr. and his current boss, Shelby County mayor A C Wharton — Freeman has always been the all-purpose, self-effacing factotum who gets things done, all kinds of things, whatever kinds of things. Yard-sign distribution, hard-to-get tickets for sold-out events, the advance work for a complicated itinerary, the logistics and the special pleading and the grunt work to enable a mass Christmas-basket giveaway, the lowdown on a Byzantine back-room situation. Again: whatever.

Problems, such as they were, had to do with whenever. Ah, yes, ever the Wait-Maker. But even there, Freeman could pull things off — usually just in the proverbial nick of time. In fact, the aforesaid convention speech wasn't missed, and, to the amazement of Freeman's inauguration-bound passengers, the usual three-hour drive to Nashville was unnaturally compressed and got done in record time, thanks to a daredevil but controlled piece of NASCAR driving. Nobody missed the plane — an implausible result right up there with Tiny Tim Did Not Die.

But now, John Freeman has a truly daunting task. Having started a month or so back at the forbidding weight of 340 pounds, and with ghastly physical infirmities he never even dreamed of, Freeman is on deadline to lose 80-odd pounds within a six-month time frame and to emerge from that time-capsule cocoon not only svelter but sharper and sounder in every way.

It's part of something that Memphis Health and Fitness Sports Magazine, the free tabloid which is sponsoring it, calls "Makeover Memphis." The 43-year-old Freeman, in tandem with 60-year-old former beauty queen Deborah Van Eaton, has been selected for an experiment in radical transformation — just like one of those do-overs that voyeuristic channel surfers can catch on cable or satellite TV.

In Freeman's case, that means, among other things, dance lessons, dental implants (he had eight teeth yanked at a single sitting — ouch!), plastic surgery, and testosterone therapy.

Not to talk out of school or anything, but in its January cover story on the makeover, the magazine said that Freeman's testosterone levels tested out as the lowest ever seen by the local participating physicians, a circumstance that prompted Freeman himself to say, "That explains some things. It's a wonder I ever was able to get out of bed." (Hmmmmm. What about, er, uh ... ? "I held my own," Freeman said succinctly, anticipating the obvious nosy question.)

Beyond all the concentrated attention invested in him by supervising specialists, Freeman is responsible for some sweat equity of his own, of course. Intensive daily workouts at two different local gyms, including a stationary-bike regimen that is the equivalent of a 19-mile ride at full speed, and serious dietary discipline (800 calories of carefully rationed and balanced foods on a recent day).

Can it be done? Can the Wait-Maker be transformed into ... well, the Weight-Maker? Might the good-natured, even kindly political operative develop a lean and mean side as well? And how about it? While they're at it, could John Freeman's bionic overseers even incorporate in him a new talent for promptness?

The sports magazine promises monthly reports right up to the July 1st end-date for the makeover. And we, too, will be looking.

• In his lifetime of political prominence, 9th District congressman Steve Cohen has been lucky in his network of friends — ranging from the late state senator James White, who in acquiring a judgeship three decades back backed Cohen as a long-term successor, to ever-loyal mega-developer and political maven Henry Turley, to former lieutenant governor John Wilder, to the late music legend Warren Zevon, to the venerable Detroit congressman John Conyers, on whose Judiciary Committee the freshman Democrat now serves (with apologies to all those left out of the list).

Cohen has also been fortunate, from time to time, in the nature of his enemies.

Not to downgrade the Rev. LaSimba Gray, who has his accomplishments, but Gray's espousal of color-line politics in the 9th District and his all-out assault on federal hate-crimes legislation have not exactly made him an exemplary advocate for an alternative to Cohen.

Gray, however, has been sagacity itself compared to Cohen's latest foe — one George Brooks, a minister in Murfreesboro, way off in Middle Tennessee, who recently authored and distributed a flyer bearing the incendiary slogan "Steve Cohen and the Jews Hate Jesus."

Not only is that message slanderous concerning the Jewish faith, it also belies the actual predilections of the congressman himself. In the course of a lengthy interview in 2001 for a profile in Memphis magazine, Cohen demonstrated both a familiarity with and a fondness for the ministry of Jesus and noted that, in his upbringing, he and his family had participated in Christmas observances even while keeping to the tenets of Judaism.

The nature of these onslaughts against Cohen had surely created problems for the congressman's only declared election opponent, Nikki Tinker, who, insofar as she has campaigned at all this year, has kept the same distance from issues as such that she did during her first try for the office in 2006. Generally speaking, too, she has kept a distance from reporters and was not heard from during last year's locally generated controversy over hate crimes. It may have been unfair to impute her solidarity with views like Gray's, but her silence made it possible for many to do so.

Nor did Tinker come front and center during the immediate outcry over Brooks' flyer, though a campaign spokesman made statements to The Commercial Appeal that amounted to a disavowal of the minister's slurs. Ultimately Tinker herself, interviewed on camera by WMC-TV's Kontji Anthony, said this: "I would not stand for any attacks on the Jewish faith or any other faith for that matter, and I just want to make sure everybody knows that Nikki Tinker doesn't play those types of politics."

One can empathize with Tinker. Assuming the absence of common cause between herself and such other declared adversaries of Cohen as those cited above (and, failing evidence to the contrary, she is entitled to the benefit of the doubt), the axiom that best applies to her case is: With friends like that, who needs enemies?

And, unlike the case in 2006, when she was but one of a dozen or so active competitors for the congressional seat, Tinker is one-on-one with the incumbent now, and she should know that the pressure for her to be explicit on contentious issues is likely to mount and mount progressively.

• This weekend will see 9th District Democrats convening at Airways Middle School to select delegates to this year's national party convention in Denver. According to the state party's formula, roughly consistent with Super Tuesday's primary results, Barack Obama will get four delegates and Hillary Clinton two, apportioned equally by gender.

Delegates from Tennessee's 7th District will be selected at Decaturville and those from the 8th District at Trenton.

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