Though he continues to insist that President Bush rethink the nation's current strategy in Iraq, Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr. made it clear last week that he would not repudiate his original support of the president's decision to intervene militarily in that Middle Eastern nation.
And, while praising as "a brave young lady" Cindy Sheehan, the Gold Star mother who had been keeping a well-publicized vigil outside the president's vacation home in Crawford, Texas, Ford declined to second-guess Bush's decision not to meet with Sheehan concerning the war in which her son Casey lost his life.
Addressing the annual awards banquet of the University of Memphis Law School alumni on Friday night, Ford expressed his initial support of the war effort this way: "I support this war in Iraq. I supported it from the very beginning for one reason: Saddam Hussein was a bad guy. Now, there are those who criticize and quarrel with this and make the point over and over again that perhaps we shouldn't have done it the way we've done it, and I would agree. But I wouldn't blame the president, or anybody else for that matter, from waking up on September 12th and wondering aloud what would happen if Saddam Hussein and bin Laden married."
The congressman continued: "It would be very easy for us to sit back in the comfort of our own homes and say, Well, one is secular and one is religious and they won't. It would be very easy for us to think that 9/11 wouldn't happen, but it did."
Bush's "instinct" was right, said Ford, who has visited Iraq three times in the last two years and plans a fourth visit. But he added that there is "a lot of room for change" in how the president pursues operations in Iraq. "I love my president. I love him personally," Ford said. "But he's just wrong - wrong for not being willing to admit that we've made some mistakes. It was right to take him [Saddam] down but wrong to think that we can't right this course."
In particular, Ford said, military action by itself cannot achieve our aims. He said it was incumbent on Americans to understand Islam and suggested the creation of university curricula to facilitate just that. "They understand us, and we don't understand them," he said.
Without naming Saudi Arabia as such, Ford was critical of the administration's policy of "subsidizing the same group of people" who had suppressed women's rights and otherwise curtailed freedom in their own country and had given financial support to Islamic extremist groups.
Spelling that out, in remarks after his speech, Ford said, "I'm not calling the Saudis bad people. My point is that it's clear that the majority of the people on those [9/11] planes were Saudis. It's clear that the Saudi government supports the radical Wahhabism, as it's called."
Concerning Sheehan's vigil, Ford said, "Americans have a right to express their views, and that young lady lost her son and wanted the president to have a conversation with her about that. It's clear we really don't have a strategy. I can't answer for the president as to why he didn't meet with her."
Ford, considered the Democratic frontrunner in next year's U.S. Senate race, added: "If I were president, we'd be doing things a lot different than this president is doing them. I do know that we don't seem to have a clear plan."
"Put that foolishness to rest."
The name of A C Wharton keeps turning up on this or that political blogster's Web site in connection with a possible race for Ford's presumably soon-to-be-vacant 9th District congressional seat.
Forget about it. Asked about it this week, the Shelby County mayor made about as clear-cut and definitive a rejection of the idea as it is possible for a politician to make in this day and age.
"Let me be as clear and unequivocal as possible," Wharton said. "I have not had any intention, do not have any intention, plans, whatever, to run for Congress."
Even Washington, D.C., itself held no charm for Wharton. "I've been there and done that," he said. "I was a trial lawyer with the EOC [Economic Opportunity Commission], and I worked with another firm there. I get in there once in a while to testify and do some business. No, I have no interest."
No interest, no plans, no intention: Out of the mouths of other politicians, anyhow, these can be political wiggle words. Would the mayor eliminate all doubt by making his renunciation of a congressional race absolute and categorical? "Yes," he answered firmly, maintaining that he had owned only two objectives politically. "One I accomplished when I won in 2002. And I want to run again. That's it."
Wharton continued to nail the door shut. "We already have an excellent congressman, and whether he runs [for the U.S. Senate] or not, and I'm confident he will, I have absolutely no interest in that job. And look, I'm 61 years old. I just started this career. It's rough enough to have to run every four years. The way Congress is, I'd be lucky to say at about age 85 [here Wharton assumed a creaky, codger's voice], 'By George, I finally got something passed.'"
The county mayor went on to note the post-9/11 searches and restrictions on one's movements on Capitol Hill and to contrast that with the freer and easier atmosphere of 30 years ago, when he first experienced Washington as a visitor. "I have a better job here," he concluded. A final comment concerning the speculation about his running for Congress: "I wish you'd do me a favor and put that foolishness to rest."
Deed done. Read it and weep, bloggers.
on downtown parks:
Some days earlier, the Shelby County mayor had weighed in on the still smoldering, if somewhat dormant, matter of reconfiguring three downtown city parks.
Even as the City Council and Memphis mayor Willie Herenton seemed ready to remove the issue from the table, Wharton floated a new idea in an interview: namely, to amend the sites of the three controversial downtown parks - Forrest Park, Jefferson Davis Park, and Confederate Park - so as to provide "full disclosure" of the historical facts.
"In other words, you might have an elaborate plaque nearby the statue of General Forrest explaining all his wartime exploits and why it is he was venerated and thought a military genius, but also nearby you should have another plaque or memorial pointing out the criticism he's received and the actual facts concerning it - the slave-owning, the possibility of a massacre, the Klan allegations, all of that."
Wharton said it would be a good idea also to add in each of the Confederate-related parks plaques or prominent signs indicating other historical and tourist sites - for example, the National Civil Rights Museum - where visitors could acquaint themselves with another side of the historical context.
And City Council member Carol Chumney, in an e-mail response to the issue, also advanced some thoughts, some of them critical of Herenton.
Said Chumney: "First, I would like to know why Mayor Herenton proposed a resolution to lease the Forrest park to UT, with provisions that it could not be used for another purpose without his approval, and then withdrew the proposal with the added language that the council would also have to approve any alternative use of the park?
"If the lease of the park is a good deal for the citizens of Memphis, as originally proposed by the Mayor, then why isn't it still a good deal for the citizens of Memphis under the democratic common-sense principles of a balance of powers by adding a Council review? Was there another agenda here all along to develop the park? Even so, this issue is bigger than who sits in any elected position."
And the outspoken councilwoman made her own proposal - one somewhat consistent with Wharton's: "What has been left out of the debate altogether is a solid review and discussion on how to best market our image and history to attract tourists, bring jobs, and tell the full story of our history from divergent viewpoints.
"This could include broadening the presentation in the parks, identifying and restoring historical properties, and/or adding exhibits to the National Civil Rights Museum, Wonders, the Pink Palace, or other venues that will share the lessons we can all learn from the former days."
An Old, Old Story
Publication last week of Herding Cats, a memoir by former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, has drawn attention because of Lott's charge that his GOP successor as majority leader, Tennessee's Bill Frist, undermined him to get the job after the flap over Lott's ill-considered birthday praise in 2002 of Strom Thurmond. It was a "betrayal," said Lott. Lest it be thought that the ambitious Frist was propelled only by that scandal, he told the Flyer in 1998 that "a lot of us are not really satisfied with how things are going" on Lott's watch. Frist said then that if "20 or so" Republican senators were prepared to support him, he might launch a leadership bid.
The senator, who is vacating his Senate seat next year, was in Memphis this week as part of a statewide "listening tour." At Rotary, Frist received an overwhelming show of upraised hands in support of his position favoring federal funding of stem-cell research.