Willie Herenton, who can be the most plainspoken man on the planet, chooses to operate in a more Delphic manner from time to time. As witness the last two weeks and what appear to be the mayor's daily shifting rationales.
As school board member Kenneth Whalum Jr., a sure vote for the second coming of Herenton as school superintendent, notes, "Confusing people is something he does on purpose." An explanation for that was advanced this week by former City Council member Jack Sammons, who boasted what he describes as a "cordial" relationship with Herenton for most of the time until Sammons ended his several terms of service this past year.
Sammons recalled something he'd been told about Charlie Vergos, founder of Memphis' legendary Rendezvous restaurant: "He'd walk out on the floor and start shouting and waving his arms, and nobody knew why, but everybody would suddenly start shining things up and getting busy. It was a form of constuctive confusion."
In any case, the more confusing that the mayor's statements and actions have appeared to get in the almost two weeks since the first news of his "retirement," the more things have finally begun to make sense. Herenton has always talked about consolidation. It now develops that a truly sweeping — and long-incubated — plan for city/county consolidation may have been at the root of his seemingly out-of-nowhere surprise last week.
And there's that leftover conundrum of the 2007 city election: Just what did mayors Willie Herenton and A C Wharton have to say to each other while famously chowing down at Le Chardonnay just before Wharton announced that, draft or no draft, he would not be running for mayor?
Wharton insisted in an interview with the Flyer on Monday that logistical questions concerning the pending election, like "who's going to run, who can win, and who can't," were not on the agenda.
"People would be highly surprised to find out the nature of the conversation" is about all the genial Wharton would allow this week, confiding only that, "of course," matters affecting the city and county were discussed, and he raveled the mystery even further with the teasing remark, "A fly on the wall would really have been incredulous."
With Wharton out of the way, Herenton would go on to win a bruising mayoral contest, one marked by racially divisive rhetoric and by still unresolved charges by the mayor concerning an alleged plot involving lawyer Richard Fields and other civic figures to ensnare him in an illicit sexual relationship.
Then came Herenton's moment of vindication in October, one which, almost everybody, including the city mayor himself, agrees was more the point of his reelection race than any burning desire to continue serving as the city's chief executive, at least in the same old sense.
But what did Herenton want to do? Like several others, Wharton had seen Herenton's interest in city government fading. Only one subject would light him up — that of education, he said. "He'll tell you himself, he is not a hands-on, research type, but on this, I can tell you right now, on this, he is. It [education] is a calling, almost, in a way that I've never seen him do in the affairs of politics." That analysis is seconded by Whalum, who, like Wharton, turns out to have been the beneficiary of several lengthy conversations with Herenton over the last several months, mostly about the school system. "It's been evident for two or three years," Whalum said, "that the mayor's heart was not in being mayor of the city of Memphis. But every time we talk about the Memphis city schools, his contenance changes, his whole demeanor is transformed."
So count this as a given: Herenton intends to be school superintendent again and has so intended for quite a while — perhaps, as both Wharton and Whalum contend, to redeem and futher his legacy in local education.
And, whatever the agenda happened to be at Le Chardonnay, Wharton left little doubt this week what he'll be doing if there's a special mayoral election this year. If Herenton departs the job, would Wharton be interested in it? "Yeah," he said, "but have I lined everybody up, have I printed my signs? No. If I pursued it, I'm confident I'd get it. And I'm confident that those who have supported me and more would support me for that."
Anybody's who still confused after that just can't be helped.
Jackson Baker is a Flyer senior editor.