A Question of Character 

There is a big difference between having character and being one.

The minutes had turned to hours as I waited for my Uncle George to arrive. It was the day after I'd graduated from junior high. As my favorite relative, my uncle, who lived in Kentucky, had promised me we'd take a road trip from my home in Missouri to Chicago, and just the two of us would enjoy the sights. My family had left the city when I was a child, so to me it was going to be a pilgrimage I'd excitedly anticipated. But, just to be exclusively in the company of the man I had idolized from afar most of my then short and uneventful life was going to be thrilling enough.

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On those rare occasions when I saw him — family reunions or his brief stopovers while traveling through — I became fascinated by the stories George told of people, places, and events that he'd experienced in his life. Though my other siblings would tire of his well-worn tales, I always intently listened, as if I'd never heard any of them before. I relished his braggadocio, tales of how he set foolish men straight, how he took it upon himself, at the risk of possible repercussions, to right injustice whenever he encountered it, even in the pre-civil rights era. I envisioned him as a black version of Don Quixote. Yet, when I would sing his praises to my mother, she would wistfully reply, "Yes, son, George is a character."

This past week marked the reemergence of two colorful "characters" from this city's past. In an extensive interview with the Flyer's sage political columnist Jackson Baker, former state Senator John Ford, released from the legal probation that followed his release from prison as the result of his bribery conviction after the 2005 Tennessee Waltz scandal, went back on the offensive. He alleged he was among a group of black Democrats targeted by a predatory justice system. He asserted videos presented by federal prosecutors were edited to make him look guilty. The boisterous Ford attempted to make the argument that we should all be fearful that freedom of speech is under attack, based on what happened to him. In an accompanying interview, Ford also lashed out at the credibility of his attorney in the bribery case, Michael Scholl. Having reported on the trial, I can say Ford should thank his lucky stars the adept Scholl was almost able to defy the logic of what was undeniably incriminating evidence.

And then it was "Joe Time." Television personality and former Shelby County Court Judge Joe Brown once again briefly ruled the airways in another reality show setting. His outburst inside a Juvenile Court room, as the pro bono legal representative of a woman he met in the hallway, was the fodder of websites, twitter, and ridiculous analysis ad-nauseum. The fact is, and what Brown continually refused to honestly address, is that as a former jurist he knew better than to stage such a contemptuous performance in another judge's domain. He wouldn't have stood for such a scene when he was on the bench.

But, the recent exploits of "Joe and John" reflect the fear of an aging generation of which I am a part. No one wants to feel obsolete. None of us wants to admit the sense of wide-eyed enthusiasm that propelled our youth now seems reduced to spouting the type of clichés we once thought were the last resorts of the foolish and the prideful. Our generation now often dreams of creating new moments by simply ignoring the truth of history or by rewriting it with a different and more favorable spin. We don't want to admit the time we had on our drive to succeed in life has waned so much. It's just easier to use the "shortcuts" we learned along the trail to make up for the time lost and the time we have left to still make a difference.

If we had gone on that trip to Chicago, maybe Uncle George would have taken the time to explain something like that to me. Maybe he would have told me there is a stark difference between "having character" and "being a character." To be a character takes little more than to establish a personality that stands out from the crowd. That can be manufactured. To have character is to realize honesty and truth are more than just words. They are the foundation of our existence.

At some point, I stopped waiting on Uncle George.


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