Probably nothing could better illustrate the degree of political polarity -- in the country, in general, and in these parts, in particular -- than the receptions accorded former President Bill Clinton and his successor, President George W. Bush, during visits to the area last week.
Both men were greeted with enthusiasm -- adulation, even -- from their supporters, who happen to come from wholly different segments of the population.
Clinton -- who, along with local civil rights legend Maxine Smith, was a recipient of a Freedom Award from the National Civil Rights Museum -- was the first to arrive, on Tuesday of last week. He and Smith made two appearances -- at an afternoon forum at Temple of Deliverance COGIC Church on the street, G.E. Patterson Blvd., named after one of the church's eminences; and at The Peabody Tuesday night for the Freedom Awards banquet.
It will probably enrage the former president's critics to read this, but the fact is that when the fit-looking, blue-suited, white-haired Clinton emerged in the Temple of Deliverance auditorium, he was greeted with nothing less than a collective and highly audible swoon from the overwhelmingly African-American audience.
It has been observed by some of the more metaphorically minded that Clinton may have been "the first black president" -- a description that derives from the former president's obvious affinity for such audiences and from social and economic policies meant to benefit blacks and perhaps, too, for some elements of personal style.
Buoyed by his reception, Clinton felt entitled to use the description himself -- and did so, to applause. He was relaxed enough to indulge in a characteristically Clintonian compliment to Smith, the longtime former local NAACP head and ex-Memphis school board member. Marveling at one of the shots of a younger Smith shown in an introductory video, Clinton acknowledged thinking how "good looking" she was. "I hope you'll forgive me. I did it. I confess."
And, speaking of first black presidents, both at the afternoon forum and before his remarks at the evening banquet, at each of which venues Memphis' 9th District congressman introduced him, Clinton made a point of stating, "I hope I live long enough to vote for Harold Ford Jr."
Fade to the weekend and the arrival of President Bush, whose motorcade route in Southaven, Mississippi, where the president spoke on behalf of Republican gubernatorial candidate Haley Barbour, was lined with enthusiastic white suburbanites.
There were blacks in the crowd, as there were also in the DeSoto Civic Center, which was filled to the rafters, but they were a distinct minority. Besides stoking the audience on the virtues of Barbour and the other GOP candidates present, the president's speech addressed the verities of patriotism and family values and education that might be expected to predominate among middle-class homeowners.
This was an audience that would have sat on its hands -- or applauded politely -- for Clinton, just as the former president's admirers would have provided a lukewarm reception -- at best -- for the current president.
Last week's reminders of the enduring polarity in national politics provided a contrast to the relatively bipartisan nature of next week's two city runoff races -- between Carol Chumney and George Flinn for the District 5 City Council seat; and between J. Bailey and Willie Brooks for the District 1 school board position.
Both races appear to be too close to call, with the outcomes likely to be skewed by lower-than-usual turnout.
State Rep. Chumney and businessman/physician Flinn are each working hard to corral fresh sources of support in their bid for the District 5 council seat. Chumney has picked up some of former opponent (and fellow Democrat) Jim Strickland's backers, but, as of press time, no formal endorsement from Strickland himself, a former local Democratic chairman who had support in his council race from members of both parties.
Flinn, who faced a divided party in last year's unsuccessful race for county mayor, has support this time from such moderate Republicans as Annabel Woodall, David Kustoff, and Nathan Green, and hopes to claim his share of former Strickland voters.
Newest names in the hat to fill Chumney's District 89 House seat are Kevin Gallagher, an aide to Shelby County mayor A C Wharton; political consultant Jeff Sullivan, whose wife, Maura Black Sullivan, had previously considered the race; Beverly Robison Marrero, a former bookseller and real estate broker; Rendall Linn; and Kerry White. Gallagher and Sullivan have formally filed, both as Democrats. Marrero, another Democrat, has the avid support of State Sen. Steve Cohen, a sometime political broker who was a strong booster of Chumney's when she was first elected in 1990.