If the presidency of the United States weren't closed to captains of industry, the Republicans and Democrats would be calling upon the services of someone whose experience trumps all of the recent candidates, FedEx founder Fred Smith.
He has been speaking out quite a lot recently. There was a long interview in The Wall Street Journal last Saturday, a full-page Journal ad/manifesto on energy called "The Unshaken Pillar," signed by Smith and three other CEOs, interviews with Charlie Rose and The New York Times and, locally, with Mike Fleming and MBQ magazine.
Along with some wishful thinking by various Republicans, this fueled speculation that Smith might be John McCain's running mate or serve in his cabinet if McCain is elected. It reached the point that FedEx finally issued a formal statement that Smith is staying put and is not interested in public office.
He has his reasons. But you can't blame people for trying.
The issues are jobs, energy, national security, America at war, the global economy, health care, taxes, and leadership. Recall, if you can, what McCain and Obama and Palin and Biden said in the debates. The presidency, we've heard, is about judgment, not experience. But judgment should be forged by experience. Whether you agree with him or not — and some people don't, judging by the comments and blog posts on his most recent interview — Smith speaks from experience. When the campaign ends and the clean-up begins next year, his influence will be valuable to whichever party takes the White House and Congress.
Jobs? FedEx created 300,000 of them since 1973.
Energy? More planes and vehicles than most countries.
National security? Millions of sensitive shipments every day.
War? Smith served two tours in Vietnam with the Marines.
Global economy? FedEx has service to more than 200 countries.
Health care and benefits? See: Memphis Hub.
Taxes? Annual revenues of $38 billion.
Stock market slump? With 19.8 million shares of FedEx, Smith has lost, on paper, a cool billion since 2006, when the stock was at $115.
Political hardball? FedEx is among the annual leaders in PAC donations.
Joe Sixpack? The FedEx brand is on race cars in North Carolina, badminton players in Beijing, football in Washington, D.C., and basketball in Memphis.
Trial by fire? A platoon in Vietnam, airline deregulation, media adulation and criticism, corporate acquisitions, union votes, losing and replacing top talent, 9/11, dealing with every president since Jimmy Carter, and the logistics of overnight delivery in seriously bad weather, to name a few.
If this isn't job training for the presidency, then what is?
Our choice next week is between a politician six years removed from the Illinois Senate and a 72-year-old senator whose running mate could not advance to the second round of Jeopardy. Maybe you think McCain is running eight years too late or Obama eight years too early, but with McCain/Palin, Obama/Biden, Kerry/Edwards, or Bush/Cheney, we're not getting our best leaders on the ballot or on the field.
The indignities, privacy invasions, and duration of the campaign have limited the modern presidency to the most driven members of the political class. As a reporter, I sometimes thought it would be easier to pin Smith to a wrestling mat than to get him to pose for a photograph. After having his picture taken for MBQ, he asked that we consider not using it on the cover. Since its founding, FedEx, fully aware of the needs of the media to personalize complicated stories, has emphasized the team, not the top.
I once asked Smith if he could run General Motors. (He said yes.) This was after Michael Moore's 1989 movie, Roger and Me, about GM CEO Roger Smith came out. The industrial titan was showing cracks, but it was still a titan. Now the question seems funny. I was looking backward, not forward. If GM is in a headline today it is probably next to the words "losses mount," "job cuts," "federal aid," or "possible bankruptcy." The market capitalization of FedEx is now five times as much as GM.
In the MBQ interview, Smith said globalization, contrary to political demagoguery, has been the main engine of economic growth in the U.S. for the past 25 years. "The problem," he said, "is that the benefits of global trade are very diffused and the pain is very localized."
Except in Memphis, where the benefits are very localized. When it comes to leadership, our gain is America's loss.
Cory Booker, the charismatic mayor of Newark, New Jersey, spoke to the Leadership Academy in Memphis last week, getting the star treatment in an Oprah-like setting. Walking out of the Hilton hotel, I ran into city councilman Bill Boyd who asked me, "What percentage of the people in that room would you say were comparing [Booker] with our mayor?"
Most of the audience, including Mayor Willie Herenton, probably noted some similarities and differences. But Booker reminded me of another Memphis politician: a younger version of Herman Morris.
Booker was a star football player at Stanford; Morris was a star football player at Rhodes. Booker has a law degree from Yale; Morris has a law degree from Vanderbilt. Booker's parents were civil rights activists; Morris was head of the Memphis NAACP. Booker is multitalented, with a gift for public speaking; Morris is multitalented, with an impressive portfolio of paintings.
But Booker has had political success, and Morris, who is less politically driven and gregarious, hasn't. Booker won his first race for City Council and rose to the mayor's office in 2006 on his second attempt. Morris lost a City Council race in 1987 and didn't get back into politics until 2007, when he finished third in the Memphis mayor's race with 21 percent of the vote.
A strong resume doesn't automatically translate to political success. Several thirtysomething men and women in Memphis would make good political leaders, but they either won't run for office or they can't get elected.
Bringing Booker to Memphis was inspirational, but it was also sort of a tease. He's not moving here, although his older brother Cary is executive director of the Stax Music Academy. If he did move, there is no doubt he would win support from Leadership Academy members and graduates, but leadership groups are more educated and more affluent than the general population. Booker earned credibility and electability by living in the inner city, by serving on the Newark City Council, and by playing extreme politics, such as going on a hunger strike.
His success is hard to duplicate and not just because, as he said, he had to deal with accusations of being KKK, gay, and a tool of the Jews. He favors eliminating one entry-level political job: the elected school board representative.
Part of the Sarah Palin phenomenon is that every politically ambitious school board member or councilman now sees himself or herself as a potential mayor, congressman, or governor. The elected school board is a step to political upward mobility. The only local board member willing to do away with it is Kenneth Whalum Jr. I was sitting near a table of other Memphis City Schools board members, and they weren't clapping when Booker said "you cannot manage large institutions by committee" or when he plugged mayoral control of schools.
Getting more Cory Bookers in politics would be easier if some other people stayed out of politics. Maybe leadership groups should give equal time to John Ford, Rickey Peete, Michael Hooks Sr., Michael Hooks Jr., Roscoe Dixon, Kathryn Bowers, and Bruce Thompson. I bet every one of them is a graduate of a leadership program and attended dozens of programs like the one in Memphis last week.
In exchange for a reduction in their prison sentences, those former public officials could be offered a chance to explain their temptations and troubles in public forums — one hour, one person alone on a stage in front of a microphone, open to any and all questions about their political rise and fall.
"What happened?" "What would you tell someone who is considering running for political office?" "What is it about Memphis and Nashville that produces political corruption?"
It would be an emotional experience for everyone, much like the belated remorse and pleas for leniency that convicted defendants make in court to a judge and a handful of spectators at sentencing hearings. There might be some long pauses and awkward silences. It goes against the grain of groups like the Leadership Academy, which has a goal to "celebrate what's right in Memphis" and says "it's time to give the microphone back to the optimists."
Give the microphone to the fallen, too. Memphis could learn a lot by examining the broken places with the people who know them best.
Anyone who watches football or basketball knows that the fastest, most time-tested way to fire up fans and rekindle hope and interest in a losing team is to replace the head coach.
Last year, Bobby Petrino quit the Atlanta Falcons, where he was 3-10, and replaced Houston Nutt at the University of Arkansas, which defeated Auburn last Saturday. Nutt was eagerly scooped up by Ole Miss, which beat Florida two weeks ago. Nutt replaced Ed Orgeron at Ole Miss, who replaced David Cutcliffe, who replaced Tommy Tuberville. After turning around Ole Miss, Tuberville replaced Terry Bowden at Auburn and led them to an unbeaten season in 2004.
Sylvester Croom replaced Jackie Sherrill at Mississippi State and took them to a bowl game season last year. Nick Saban replaced Mike Shula at Alabama, which is a powerhouse again. Urban Meyer replaced Ron Zook at Florida, a contender for this year's national championship. If things don't improve in Knoxville, someone, maybe Tuberville, will replace Phillip Fulmer.
In basketball, John Calipari replaced Tic Price at the University of Memphis and turned a mediocre program into a superpower and dramatically increased season ticket sales. Bruce Pearl did the same thing at Tennessee after he replaced Buzz Peterson. Since coming to town, the Memphis Grizzlies have had five head coaches.
All these changes have taken place in the last 10 years.
Changing coaches doesn't always work, of course. Witness Orgeron at Ole Miss and Mark Iavaroni at the Grizzlies. But it's surprising how often and how quickly a new coach and staff get better results with basically the same personnel, the same venue, and the same structure. Even when the new coach doesn't win, he sells tickets, and fans have hope and something to talk about.
Moving on is no disgrace in coaching. It comes with the territory. As former basketball coach Chuck Daly once said, "sooner or later they just stop listening to you."
In sports, nobody ever talks about consolidation. Auburn and Alabama or Louisville and Kentucky don't discuss merging for the sake of efficiency and economy. Even Vanderbilt, which eliminated the athletic department and athletic director in 2003, has since had to replace the chancellor, Gordon Gee, who ordered the change. An efficiency campaign or organizational change doesn't sell tickets. Successful teams have to change the people at the top, and they do it quickly, even ruthlessly.
That's why Memphis is in a rut and why the revival of the wonky consolidation issue is so pointless. Memphis has had the same head coach, Mayor Willie Herenton, for 17 years. Nashville and Atlanta have each had three different mayors during that time; Chattanooga has had four. Team Memphis needs a new head coach, not a consolidation distraction.
All the talk about referendums and complicated legalities and what might happen in 2010 could have been avoided if Herenton had taken one of several chances to move on. He could have done it after two terms in 1999, when he got 46 percent of the vote. He could have retired after three terms in 2003, or after four terms in 2007. Or in early 2008 when he famously heard another call. That's four opportunities to elect a new mayor and change the leadership in city government. All that was required was a decision by one person. Had Herenton retired in his prime, Memphis might well have had two or three "coaching changes" by now.
The other consolidation cliché is that it can succeed if schools are taken out of the equation. This is also dubious.
First, why does consolidation make sense if separate city and county school systems must be maintained?
Second, there is nothing stopping Memphis City Schools superintendents and board members from closing underused schools, as former superintendent Herenton has said they should.
Third, schools cannot be simply "taken off the table." There is too much unfinished business that isn't going away, starting with the delayed annexation by Memphis of southeast Shelby County and the fate of Southwind High School, a county school that is supposed to become a city school after annexation. As a nearly all-black school in a majority white system, Southwind students will be reassigned if it remains a county school and if U.S. District Judge Bernice Donald's 2007 order on school desegregation is upheld by the appellate court.
The issues of race, growth, taxation, and quality education are not going to disappear with or without consolidation. Leaders — coaches, if you will — must address that.
Motivational speaker Cavett Roberts once told me that one of the secrets of his trade was "Don't change the speech, change the audience."
Mayor Willie Herenton made his latest pitch for consolidation this week to a Memphis City Council that includes nine freshman members and a Shelby County Commission whose five most senior members were forced out in 2006 by term limits.
"I am not on an ego trip," he said. "Consolidation of the governments is more important than any of our political aspirations."
Herenton said he isn't basing his pitch strictly on savings but believes "in the long term it is a more efficient government and will cost the taxpayers less."
The fifth-term mayor has made the pitch several times, and he has the newspaper clippings to prove it. In 1993, two years after he was elected, he gave an interview to New York Times reporter Ronald Smothers in which he proposed that Memphis merge with Shelby County by surrendering its charter. He presented a different path to consolidation in 2002, suggesting that a vote could be held in 2004. Six years and two city elections later, Herenton again plugged consolidation in his speech to the Memphis Rotary Club in January. This time, consolidation was one of several New Year's proposals, including a new convention center.
Most recently, in a Flyer interview in September, the mayor said he and business leaders will work for consolidation in 2009 with an eye toward creating a referendum in 2010 and a metro mayoral election — thereby bumping his own retirement ahead by one year, since he would not seek the job.
In this scenario, the presumptive metro mayor would be the current county mayor, A C Wharton. He is restricted by term limits from running again for that office. He could, however, run for city or metro mayor, and he recently formed a fund-raising committee.
Wharton is as popular as Herenton is unpopular. He was in Nashville Tuesday when Herenton spoke to the council and commission, but he has spoken in favor of consolidation at other public meetings. Popular he may be, but if he can't persuade the County Commission to give up the Pyramid for $5 million, then how will anyone get them to give up their jobs?
Candidate Wharton would have opponents such as Carol Chumney, who got 35 percent of the vote in the city mayor's race in 2007, and probably others running as anti-consolidation candidates. A referendum on consolidation would bring them out in droves.
Herenton has always predicted that consolidation would occur when there was a financial crisis in local government. Now we have a crisis on the horizon, and at least one longtime Herenton critic agrees with him.
"He can't sell it, but it will get done," said suburban developer Jackie Welch. "We'd be better off if we had one mayor and one council. If they freeze the school system boundaries, then I think everything else would work out."
Walter Bailey, who was a county commissioner for three decades, disagrees.
"The anti-consolidation forces are locked in their position," he said. "Their justification doesn't hinge so much on the economy as wanting to keep themselves separate from the city."
A case can be made that a crisis would divide voters rather than unite them — witness the tenor of the presidential campaign and the rough passage of the bailout bill.
A consolidation plan might well look sort of like a bailout bill in reverse. The bailout bill was loaded up with pork-barrel inclusions to satisfy reluctant congressmen. A consolidation proposal would be loaded up with exclusions for schools, unions, and law enforcement. Savings and efficiencies, if any, would be years in the future, while the crisis festered.
Government and real estate are right up there with FedEx as engines of the local economy. Real estate is broken, and the tax base is threatened. Welch says builders can't even get people to come to open houses, much less buy a new house. Government jobs are patronage plums and safe harbors in this economy. In 17 years as mayor, Herenton has not proposed cutting a significant number of them.
Timing is everything in the news business. Whether a story gets major or minor treatment, becomes fodder for commentary, or "goes national" is often a matter of what else is going on at the time.
The bailout bill, the stock market, and the presidential campaign have dominated television and newspaper coverage this week. Here are three stories that otherwise might have gotten more attention:
In federal court in Nashville on Monday, John Ford was sentenced to an additional 14 years in prison for his conviction on charges stemming from his illegal consulting business while he was a state senator. Ford had previously been sentenced to five years and six months in Memphis for his Tennessee Waltz conviction.
"I'm not suggesting that this was not a crime that did not warrant punishment," said Skip Gant, Ford's attorney. "Even people who hate John Ford probably didn't realize in essence he's getting 14 years for a white-collar, paper-type crime where nobody got hurt."
Ford took a huge gamble when he decided to go to trial in Nashville instead of making some kind of deal. He was a convicted felon. Jurors weren't supposed to weigh that in their deliberations. Whether they did or not, we'll never know. But U.S. district judge Todd Campbell, was required to weigh it, along with sentencing guidelines that were different because the amount of money involved — $854,000 in the Nashville case compared to $55,000 in the Memphis case — was so much larger.
"Going to trial is a 1-in-15 shot," said former federal prosecutor Bud Cummins of Little Rock.
Throw in the Nashville factor and the loss of home-field advantage for Ford — the Memphis jury found him not guilty on three counts and deadlocked on a fourth — and the odds were probably worse than that. Note that another former Memphis politico with a criminal record — ex-city councilman Rickey Peete — copped a plea the second time around. Allowing for possible reductions for good behavior, Ford, 66, will be at least 80 if and when he gets out of prison. As John Ford's brother, Joe Ford, has noted, violent criminals with prior records often get less than 14 years and are released on parole.
Cummins was in the news himself this week. A new report on the U.S. Justice Department under Attorney General Alberto Gonzales concluded that Cummins and 13 other federal prosecutors were replaced or targeted for replacement for political considerations while Justice Department political hacks claimed they were "weak" or "ineffectual" or "chafed against administration initiatives."
"I feel vindicated, if vindicated means that my conclusions about what happened are consistent with what they say happened," said Cummins, who was supposed to be a guest on a national talk show Monday but was bumped by the stock market collapse.
"Some of my colleagues were more willing to subscribe to conspiracy theories," he said. "I always felt it was more pedestrian than that and that, whatever you may think of Karl Rove and Alberto Gonzales, staff people were driving the train."
Cummins, a Republican, prosecuted former Shelby County Medical Examiner O.C. Smith after the West Tennessee office of the Justice Department recused itself. Cummins said he has no plans to reenter public life and, as of Tuesday, had not read all of the 362-page report in which he gets an entire chapter. Given the general irrelevance of the Bush administration, not many others are likely to read it either.
Finally, Platinum Plus was in the national news last week, and not because of the auction of the strip club's furnishings and memorabilia. The Wall Street Journal resuscitated a 2002 lawsuit filed in Memphis against Medtronic, Inc., the medical-device manufacturer which has its headquarters near the Memphis airport. Charges made in the lawsuit are now the subject of a Senate investigation.
The newspaper reported that a former attorney for the company, who filed the lawsuit, alleges that Medtronic routinely paid kickbacks and that sales representatives entertained visiting doctors at Platinum Plus and picked up their tab for "VIP" services.
Platinum Plus was closed last year, and its owner, Ralph Lunati, pleaded guilty to federal charges that dancers engaged in prostitution and had sex on stage.
Medtronic has been one of the companies around the airport leading a campaign to clean up the area, close strip clubs, and improve the overall image. In a Flyer cover story earlier this year, Medtronic officials gave no indication that former company employees and customers were strip club customers.