On at least a half-dozen occasions, voters could have done worse than choosing Lamar Alexander. And usually they did.
The Republican senator came by the Flyer's office Tuesday for a chat. We don't get a lot of U.S. senators dropping in, and when we do it is because of our reputation for political coverage built and nurtured for 17 years by my colleague Jackson Baker.
This column is no hymn to Lamar Alexander, who barely knows me from Adam. I have followed and occasionally written about his career for nearly 30 years, usually from afar. It seems to me to illustrate the possibilities and limitations of being a political moderate with a great resume at a time when John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama are all trying to appeal to moderates and independent voters.
History will be kind to Lamar Alexander. In hindsight, has anyone ever looked better in comparison to the people he replaced and the people who replaced him? And in a week when the news was dominated by Eliot Spitzer, Dickie Scruggs, Bear Stearns, prostitutes, affairs, bribes, identity politics, bailouts, and charges of racism, has moderation and the straight-and-narrow path ever had more appeal?
Raised by school teachers in East Tennessee, Alexander, an Eagle Scout, graduated with high honors from Vanderbilt, where he was a Sigma Chi and known as a "milk drinker." Two of his fraternity brothers, John Gill and Hickman Ewing, became federal prosecutors. Alexander was editor of the Law Review at New York University and took a job in President Richard Nixon's White House.
In the wake of Watergate, he lost the 1974 Tennessee governor's race to Democrat Ray Blanton, who proceeded to make a mess of things and provide plenty of fodder for Gill and Ewing for the next 15 years. Wearing his famous checkered flannel shirt and walking across the state, Alexander beat Jake Butcher in the 1978 gubernatorial election and, in a dramatic palace coup, took office three days early in 1979 when it was feared that Blanton was about to issue wholesale pardons to state prisoners. Both Butcher and Blanton would later go to prison.
Meanwhile, "Lamar!" served eight years as governor, pushing incentives for Japanese car companies to come to Tennessee, calling for merit pay for teachers, and befriending, among others, Memphis City Schools superintendent Willie Herenton, Grahamwood Elementary School principal Margaret Taylor, and writers Alex Haley (author of Roots) and Peter Jenkins (author of A Walk Across America and other travel books).
I watched his campaign in East Tennessee in 1982. One night we were at a high school homecoming football game. It was cold and very wet. Alexander and the queen were alone in the rain at a far corner of the field while the marching band and master of ceremonies droned on and on. He never covered his head or left that girl's side.
He was no dilettante. After he left the governor's office, he took several months off, grew a beard, and moved with his family to Australia. Then he wrote a book about it.
He came home and was president of the University of Tennessee from 1988 to 1991. His successors included J. Wade Gilley, who resigned in 2001 over an affair with a subordinate, and John Shumaker, who resigned in 2003 over financial misspending.
Alexander was U.S. secretary of education from 1991 to 1993 and had the sense to leave the no-win job before such federal brainstorms as No Child Left Behind. Back in Tennessee, voters elected Republican Don Sundquist as governor in 1994. In 1996, Alexander ran for president, but he couldn't beat Pat Buchanan and Bob Dole in New Hampshire and lost the nomination to Dole, who lost to Bill Clinton.
Alexander won a Senate seat in 2002, beating conservative Ed Bryant in the primary and Democrat Bob Clement in the general. In 2005, he failed to become Republican whip by one vote, losing to Trent Lott, who later resigned.
Richard Nixon, Ray Blanton, Jake Butcher, Don Sundquist, Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan, Wade Gilley, John Shumaker, Trent Lott — are you detecting a pattern here? I am. We should all have such foils.
Lamar Alexander: piano player, milk drinker, Sigma Chi, straight arrow, family man, moderate, university president, presidential candidate, senator. Been there, done that. The modern presidency is probably closed to such people. I'm not sure that's good.
In the apt words of Shelby Farms consultant Alex Garvin, the idea is to turn an ordinary park into something extraordinary. The challenge is to make people care.
A lot of the things proposed in the new and improved Shelby Farms Park are already there: wide-open spaces, walking paths, roads for cruising, fishing, buffalo, canoeing, gardening, disc golf, dog-training, bike trails, picnic tables, small boats, a conference room. Or they've been tried: concerts, races, horseback riding, seasonal displays. Or you can do them better somewhere else: soccer, tennis, outdoor basketball, fishing. Or the developers of the riverfront and Mid-South Fairgrounds have similar ideas.
The do-nothing option is not bad. There are no money pits or eyesores in Shelby Farms — which is more than some critics are likely to say about the bolder parts of the three designs on display at the main library and at shelbyfarmspark.org.
So, from a supportive but jaded Memphian who remembers the openings of Mud Island, The Pyramid, Patriot Lake, Shelby Show Place Arena, and Agricenter International, here are a few suggestions you probably won't see anytime soon.
The Willingham Express. Named for former Shelby County commissioner John Willingham, who once talked for 56 straight hours about the missing MATA bus station at FedExForum's parking garage, this park shuttle totes visitors and their bikes for free. MATA provides the services of five of the 4,978 buses in its parking lot on North Watkins and closes the Madison Avenue trolley line and gives riders free cars instead.
The Welch Driving Range and Pitch-and-Putt. Named for developer Jackie Welch, who proposed selling off part of Shelby Farms along Germantown Parkway and putting in, among other things, a driving range to raise money to improve the rest of the park. The proposal received exactly one enthusiastic response — mine. I hereby donate 50 used golf balls to the cause.
White Boy's House of Games. Features in-line skating, skateboarding, BMX course, paddle tennis, and NASCAR worship to the musical accompaniment of Memphis party bands of the Sixties.
The Great Memphis Yard Sale and Swap Shop. The problem with high-end designers is that they are high-end designers. Their work would be improved by spending a few weekend afternoons visiting yard sales in Frayser, Whitehaven, Cordova, Midtown, and Germantown. If this recession keeps up, the bargains will be unbelievable.
Sierra Club Hug-a-Tree. Featuring an actual tree transplanted from Overton Park's Old Forest for the zoo expansion. Wrap your arms around this baby and you'll be green in no time. Add on to the one million new trees one designer has already proposed. A million is an abstraction; 1,000,001 is a real number.
Whac-A-Tree. Inspired by the popular game Whac-A-Mole, customers line up for a chance to take an ax or chainsaw to an actual tree, while a member of the Sierra Club hurls verbal abuse.
MPD Free Bike Exchange. This one's for everyone in Memphis who has ever had a bike stolen, which is to say everyone in Memphis. The bikes are free, and the supply is regularly supplemented by the Memphis Police Department's impound lot. The catch is that they are painted dorky colors and have big-booty seats and sissy handlebars.
Baby-Bass Pro Lake. Face it, The Pyramid is too hard to adapt. But Bass Pro polishes its tarnished image in Memphis by stocking new lakes and donating lures and worms to any fisherman under the age of 12 or over the age of 65.
Memphis Homebuilders Street-Soccer Complex. In honor of the Mexican laborers who built 98 percent of the homes in Shelby County in the last 15 years, this is no Mike Rose Fields. The fields are irregular size with patches of bare ground, uniforms and mothers are banned, and the official language is Spanish. If you can't speak it, you can't play. Best tacos in Memphis at the concession stand.
Design-On-A-Dime Gardens. One dime gets you and three of your friends land rights to a tenth of an acre garden plot. Free mulch, seeds, and use of tools. HGTV meets American Idol when park visitors pick the gardens of the year and winners get a free round-trip plane ticket to the famous garden of their choice.
Joey's Hard Luck Hardcourts. Named for Memphis Tiger Joey Dorsey, these outdoor courts have windscreens, lights, and decent nets. Tiger basketball players put on dunking contests and free-throw shooting clinics. Three out of 10 usually takes it.
Bloggers Paint-Ball Pit. Hosted by blogger Thaddeus Mathews, players are divided into teams according to which group they hate the most — blacks, whites, liberals, or Willie Herenton. No blood, no foul. Masks mandatory to assure anonymity.
United States attorney David Kustoff, who oversaw most of the Tennessee Waltz prosecutions, announced his resignation Tuesday, effective May 16th.
Kustoff, a Republican who was formerly active in Shelby County politics, became U.S. attorney for western Tennessee in March 2006. He plans to join his former law firm, Kustoff and Strickland, in partnership with Memphis City Council member Jim Strickland.
"Personally, the timing is right," Kustoff said in an interview. "Recently, I have had people across the community ask me if I would seek to be renominated after the presidential election. I came to the conclusion that I would not. I can leave on my own terms and go back and practice law."
Kustoff said he and his wife are expecting their second child in three or four weeks.
"There is nothing more to it than that," he said.
Kustoff did not try cases himself. However, he was frequently in front of news cameras at press conferences announcing indictments and convictions in big federal investigations.
United States attorneys are political appointees and often choose to leave office when a president from the other party is elected.
Kustoff said his resignation should not be interpreted as an indication that he thinks the Democrats are about to take the White House.
"I'm not going to prognosticate anything," he said. "Regardless of who is elected, it will be time for somebody else to serve as United States attorney."
In a city where murder occurs at the rate of about one every other day, the murders of six people, including two children, in a house at 722 Lester set a new standard for brutality.
Memphis police on Tuesday asked the news media and the community for help in solving one of the worst mass murders in Memphis history.
"There are people out there who have the information that we don't have," said Lieutenant Joe Scott.
Scott said the victims have not been positively identified, and police do not know if there was one killer or more than one, but they are "pretty confident" that the person left the house. The killings took place some time between Saturday evening and Monday at 6 p.m., when police were called to the house to check on the well-being of the occupants.
They found the bodies of two adult males, two adult females, and two male children. Three more children were alive but wounded, two of them critically. The children ranged in age from 18 months to 10 to 12 years. Scott would not say if the children who survived will be able to provide any information.
The house is a block north of Summer Avenue, just east of the railroad overpass. There is a motel two blocks away that is frequented by prostitutes. The crime scene was closed off with yellow tape Monday night as a steady rain fell on onlookers and television reporters.
"It's an area where there is some high traffic, so we're hopeful," Scott said.
Scott and detective and spokesperson Monique Martin apologized Tuesday for not being able to release any more information, but they said the investigation is at a sensitive stage. They would not confirm reports that some victims had been shot and some had been stabbed or shot and stabbed.
"We have not identified anyone positively," Scott said. "This is going to take some time. We need the community to help us. These are children who were brutally killed and injured."
There was no sign of a break-in. The last time anyone spoke to residents of the house was Saturday evening. Scott would not confirm reports of a ruckus and of neighbors reporting shooting near the house Saturday or Sunday.
"Every homicide is a tragedy," said Scott. "Children, that's our future. Let's not kill our children."
Two of the surviving children are in critical condition at Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center. The other child's condition has been upgraded to serious.
The murders are getting national attention and are likely to put more pressure on the Memphis City Council to approve Mayor Willie Herenton's request for 500 more police officers.
The "Lester Street Massacre," as television reports were calling it, follows the recent murder of police lieutenant Ed Vidulich at his home in Frayser and a nonfatal shooting at Mitchell High School last month.
Police and sheriff's deputies last month solved a series of home break-ins in the suburbs.
As Tuesday's news conference was ending, reporters asked Martin about a shooting Monday night of a woman at her home near University and Jackson Avenue.
Hundreds of assaults, shootings, and even most murders each week make little if any news, but the neighbors and friends of the victims get the scoop and spread the word.
The overall effect is certain to heighten perceptions that crime is out of control and Memphis is in a downward spiral.
Where did it happen?
Was it random?
Could it happen at my house and my kid's school?
Could I be the next victim?
How can I make myself and my family safer?
Six murders in one house defies the journalistic shorthand of double, triple, and quadruple homicide. Now it's mass murder. And every day, every week, it seems that life gets a little less pleasant in the City of Good Abode.