I have a thing about calling people "doctor."
By that, I mean medical doctors. My knee surgeon is Dr. Morris. My dentist is Dr. Wills. I've known both of them quite awhile, but when I see them, it's still doctor or doc, not Tom or Gordon, not that either of them would mind. As a rule, anyone who can put me under anesthesia and ease my pain deserves a professional title in my book.
Others will have to do with Mr. or Mrs. I'm at an advanced age and low station where I don't have to flatter anyone. That includes my squash partners, who have doctorates in political science and physics and are professors at Rhodes. It includes Mayor Willie Herenton, who has a doctorate in education and is "Doc" to close friends but is fine with "Mayor" from the rest of us. And it includes former Memphis City Schools superintendent Carol Johnson, another education doctor, whom I resisted interviewing partly because everyone made a fuss about calling her Dr. Johnson.
So it's partly me, but Memphis has a case of "doctoritis." Nothing too serious, but the disease tends to flare up when unchecked during election campaigns and most often afflicts political candidates and consultants seeking to inflate their stature.
The new doctor in the house this summer is Sharon Webb, a political newcomer one year ago who is now a member of the school board and Charter Commission and a candidate for mayor. She also submitted her name for interim superintendent but didn't make the cut. Make that her name and her title, Dr. Sharon Webb.
Webb is not a medical doctor like her colleague on the school board, Jeff Warren, is. She is not a doctor of education like Carol Johnson, Willie Herenton, or Robert Schiller, one of the two finalists for the interim superintendent job, are.
She has a dual doctorate in Religious Arts in Christian Education and Religious Arts in Theology from Jacksonville Theological Seminary, a Bible school that charges $50 per credit for a bachelor's, master's, or doctorate and currently delivers its services online. She earned a bachelor of science in Organizational Management from Crichton College in 2000, three years after her second doctorate. Jacksonville Theological Seminary, as it discloses on its Web site, is not accredited by any agency or association recognized by the U.S. Department of Education. But its "graduates" are free to claim the same honorary title as Ph.D. and M.D. from Vanderbilt and the University of Tennessee school of medicine.
They can claim it, but reporters, colleagues, and voters don't have to go along. Unfortunately, some of them do. The Commercial Appeal, the political action group New Path, and the MCS Web site refer to "Dr. Sharon Webb" without examining her credentials.
Doctoritis is less of an indulgence than the divine calling claimed by both Webb and the mayoral incumbent. It is akin to grade inflation and watered-down standardized tests. But it's a bad example for people who make policy, hire superintendents, and influence 115,000 students who get report cards and fill out applications for no-nonsense jobs and competitive colleges. If Webb, who is founder and pastor of Life Changing Word Ministries, wants an honorary title, then what's the matter with pastor or reverend? "I don't think it is a reach," Webb said of her doctorate.
Webb said she took four years of course work at Christ the Rock Metropolitan Church in Memphis, including five Jacksonville Seminary courses on cassette tapes for each degree, as well as additional classes, one of which she designed and taught. "I worked very, very hard," she said. "They didn't give me anything. I earned it."
There is scant evidence that higher education correlates with political success anyway. Dick Hackett, who was mayor for nine years before losing to Willie Herenton, didn't have a college degree. The issue of their comparative education never came up. Herman Morris and Carol Chumney, who are also running for mayor, are both lawyers, but neither uses a courtesy title. Jane Walters, a standout high school principal from Memphis who became state commissioner of education, was just plain Jane.
The worst case of doctoritis I ever saw was several years ago. A Memphis city councilman, Talib Muhammad, claimed a doctorate that my employer at the time steadfastly refused to recognize in print. The editor and the councilman were each adamant. Finally, Muhammad solved the problem by legally changing his name to Doctor.
Northwest Airlines willing, when this column appears I will be about as far away from Memphis as you can get and still be in the U.S.A.
Unalakleet, Alaska, is 400 miles northwest of Anchorage on the Bering Sea at the edge of the Arctic Circle. I am told the sun shines 22 hours a day this time of year. I am told that by my son Jack, who is a fishing guide at Unalakleet River Lodge and my benefactor for this trip. He promises to watch out for grizzlies while backtrolling and putting me on some monster salmon, grayling, and Dolly Vardens.
Honestly, this is a waste of high-grade talent and expensive tackle on a rank amateur. I don't know a Dolly Varden from Dolly Parton. My fatherly knowledge of hunting and fishing consisted of "pull the thingee and it goes bang" and "if you can't tie good knots, tie lots of them."
When Jack was growing up, summer was all about baseball. We spent our evenings in the living room with Greg Maddux, Fred McGriff, and the Atlanta Braves. Summer weekends meant tournaments, car pools, "it's our turn to bring the drinks," and "will we ever beat Germantown?" (No.) This lasted about 10 years, from coach-pitch to kid-pitch to high school.
Then suddenly it was over. Really over. For 95 percent of baseball players, the game ends before they even reach their physical prime. Tennis players, swimmers, and runners can compete and get better well into middle age. Basketball players can get a game at the gym until their knees give out. For most baseball players, though, high school is the end of the road. Try rounding up 18 guys next weekend for a pickup game. You might as well put your glove and spikes on eBay.
Jack got a last trip around the bases. He tried out at the University of Tennessee, threw 87 miles per hour once he got one close enough to the plate for the gun to measure it, and impressed Coach Rod Delmonico enough to make the team. In the spring of 2003, he pitched three innings in three games at Knoxville, Baton Rouge, and Johnson City and sat on the bench for what must have seemed like about three years. My wife and I would pick up the broadcasts of the games on the Internet, our hopes rising and falling with every blowout. One year of that was enough for us and for Jack, too. He quit the team.
He would throw no more strikes. Instead, he would strike out alone like Thoreau (Henry) and Theroux (Paul) for the woods and distant places. End was beginning.
Fly rod replaced baseball glove. Time spent in the weight room and on the bench became time spent fishing the French Broad, the Hiwassee, the Cumberland, and streams in the Smokies. Then he traded his fly rod for a passport.
In a year and a half, he hiked the Gower Peninsula in Wales, played rugby in Swansea, rode the Heart of Wales railway at midnight, made the last bus to Cardiff and the Snowdon Sherpa to Snowdonia. He fished the Wye, got loaded on Guinness in Galway, and watched punters on the Thames. In Argentina, he drove a rented Fiat 1,700 kilometers to Tierra del Fuego, saw Che Guevara's motorized bicycle and Butch Cassidy's hideout, picked Malbec grapes for $15 a day, watched the evidence of global warming on the glaciers near the Strait of Magellan, smuggled a puppy from Chile, taught English, learned Spanish, froze in the howling wind of the Glaciers National Park, and fished the Limay, Chimehuin, Malleo, Arrayanes, and Rivadavia. He came home for six days last month then took off for Alaska.
"I'm learning a lot about outboard motors, salmon runs, waterfowl, the Eskimos, and the Arctic. I'm having fun, eating well, and staying healthy," he wrote.
Four years after Jack threw his last curve ball, I can see things in a different light. There is a huge gulf between good and great athletes. Once in a while a few of Jack's contemporaries make the sports page. Paul Maholm from Germantown High pitched against Roger Clemens when "The Rocket" made his return to New York. Matt Cain from Houston High was the losing pitcher against Maddux a few weeks ago. Luke Hochevar from U.T. was one of the first picks in the draft last year. I hope they make the Hall of Fame. And Rod Delmonico got fired. Serves you right, Coach. And thanks.
Mayor Herenton filed his reelection papers Tuesday. He could still drop out, and more candidates can get in the race until July 19th. But assuming that he doesn't and even if they do, here's why I think he will win.
Winner Take All. Even if the polls are right and at least two-thirds of the voters don't like him, Herenton only needs one more vote than the second-place finisher. Mathematically, he could win with 32 percent of the vote, like Steve Cohen did last year in the congressional Democratic primary. A Herenton hater who lives outside the city or stays home on Election Day doesn't hurt him. The more challengers he has, the better he does. I don't see a 2007 version of the 1991 convention that chose Herenton as the consensus black candidate. Polls that show Herenton losing in a head-to-head race with so-and-so are misleading because he probably won't be running against one person.
The Numbers. Democrats from Harold Ford to Bill Clinton to Herenton win elections in Memphis by rolling up huge margins in scores of black precincts. Clinton actually won every vote in some precincts in 1996. If Herenton gets 80 or 90 percent of the vote in several precincts, he can beat a challenger whose best showing is 50 or 60 percent. Where are Herman Morris or Carol Chumney going to win 80 percent?
The Record and the Rhetoric. The mayor's recent rhetoric about racial solidarity was a nice try, but his record doesn't live down to it. He's been a supporter of optional schools, downtown development, and occasional Republican political candidates. He has appointed way too many white division directors and police directors. As a black racist, he simply doesn't cut it. Absent a consensus candidate and public repudiation by key business leaders, he'll hold his own in East Memphis.
Snakes. As Herenton knew they would, members of the media took the bait and are acting like Nick Clark and Richard Fields are the ones running for mayor, not the four-term incumbent. Clark and Fields are not running for anything. Fields is an attorney. Clark is a businessman and member of the MLGW board. They don't work for the city of Memphis. They don't make a single appointment to a public board or government job. They can't award a single no-bid contract. But Herenton, who has done all those things hundreds of times for 16 years, called them snakes and the chase was on. The mayor's hint that unnamed snakes are still out there was so much more useful than confronting them head-on — as Fields, whatever you may think of him, did with Herenton in a three-hour meeting in March when he suggested he look for another line of work. How old-fashioned! The way to slur someone these days, as everyone knows, is anonymously.
Machine Politics. Taking a page from Boss Crump's book, Herenton has appointed or assisted scores of friends and even some former rivals to city jobs. People like former school board member Sara Lewis, former City Council members Janet Hooks and Tajuan Stout Mitchell, and former mayoral spokeswoman Gale Jones Carson know how to campaign and win elections. Ordinary incumbency is an advantage, but 16 years of control over power, access, contracts, and jobs is an overwhelming advantage.
The City Charter reads: "No full-time employee shall engage in political activity, directly concerned with city government or any candidate for political office thereunder."
That means no political phone calls, e-mails, letters, or strategy meetings on city time. But the ban is a paper tiger, more toothless than an ethics ordinance. "Uncovering" politics in a government office would be like finding mud in the Mississippi River.
Money. The mayor has more than $500,000 in his campaign fund even if he did only raise $1,650 in the first reporting period this year. By August, if he makes a few phone calls, he should have more than all his challengers put together. Chumney, at last report, had under $30,000. But Herenton managed to turn even that to his advantage by accusing the media of giving her free publicity.
Crime and MLGW. There is no simple solution to crime, and the latest numbers are running Herenton's way. What do you propose to do differently if you're Herman Morris or Carol Chumney or even, say, FBI special agent My Harrison? On MLGW and Memphis Networx, Morris was running the show for seven years, and there is plenty of blame to go around.