Memphis Congressman Steve Cohen's cell phone rings in telephone calls to the theme song of the old Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson? Who knew?
Whatever the answer was before, the updated answer is: Everyone who attended the 9th District U.S. Representative's annual public issues meeting for constituents, held on Monday in his third-floor office at the Federal Building downtown.
The bouncy chords of the Paul Anka-composed tune that used to signal "Here's Johnny" rang out once during the nearly two hours of Q-and-A between Cohen and his overflow crowd, and that sound lasted just long enough for the congressman to put the phone on hold and stash it away.
Cohen himself was as accessible and upbeat as the tune suggested, and both were ironically at odds with the basic message the congressman had for his constituents. That was summed up in his statement: "We're going into a new Dark Ages that will make Dwight Eisenhower look like a progressive."
That's understating the case a bit. Eisenhower, a tough but genial presence known to his generation as "Ike," was the Allied Supreme Commander in Europe during World War II, and his popularity never sagged very much during the two terms he served as president from 1953 to 1961.
Historians, in fact, have already begun to locate Eisenhower on the moderate end of the political spectrum. In Cohen's forecast of things to come, the administration of President-elect Donald Trump might well make such past Republican conservative figures as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan look like progressives.
Reviewing Trump's cabinet appointments, for example, Cohen called Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions "the wrong person to be attorney general." He regarded the president-elect's designates for such agencies as the EPA, Energy, and Education as uniformly "awful," enemies to the legitimate aims of their departments and cases of "the fox in the henhouse." And, said Cohen, all the other appointees are "just billionaires."
Said the congressman: "He's cut out the middlemen; he's put the billionaires in charge, which is called oligarchy. That happened in Russia, and it's happening here."
Cohen eased up only a bit for Elaine Chao, Trump's Transportation Secretary designate. The congressman, a member of the Transportation Committee, said "I've met her; I know her. I'm going to try to get projects from her. Let's leave it at that."
The essence of Cohen's forebodings was that the combination of a Republican Congress and President Trump would mean less money for desirable public programs, more privatization for the gratification of special interests, and an erratic foreign policy.
Cohen expressed some hope that a minority of relatively moderate Republican senators might be open-minded in forthcoming Senate hearings on the cabinet nominees. He named them as Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine, and John McCain and Jeff Flake of Arizona. "And, hopefully, Corker and Lamar" (Tennessee Senators Bob Corker and Lamar Alexander.)
Asked if he had hopes of being able to have a useful conversation with Trump himself, Cohen said, "Dr. Shea has passed away," a reference to the late Dr. John Shea of Memphis, famous for his work in improving or restoring faulty hearing.
"What Trump has done is unleashed people so they feel it's a cool thing to be mean and that it's okay, and it's not a cool thing to do at all."
The congressman noted the occasional strains that have occurred between Trump and Speaker of the House Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. "He could get Paul Ryan upset. ... He's the guy who can bring an impeachment."
Cohen had opened his meeting with constituents with a tease: "There's an announcement coming." He said that "in about three weeks, I'm going to be receiving a leadership position." When that moment comes, Cohen said, it would mark the first time in 30 years that a Tennessean would be in the Democratic leadership.
• By a 7-4 vote on Monday, the Shelby County Commission approved another year's appointment of former Commissioner Julian Bolton as special legal advisor to the Commission at a stipend of $65,000 a year. There were four nay notes — from David Reaves, Mark Billingsley, George Chism, and Steve Basar. The commission also approved a legislative package to present to the current session of the General Assembly.
• Deidre Malone, founder and CEO of the Carter Malone Group, a public affairs, advertising, and consulting firm, has been named chairperson of the Memphis chapter of the NAACP and will be installed as such in a ceremony on January 22nd. Malone is a two-time candidate for Shelby County mayor, a former Shelby County Commissioner, and a long-time eminence in civic and Democratic Party affairs, having served the last extant version of the local party as a vice chair. She also logged several years at WLOK-AM as a news reporter and anchor and at WMC-TV, Action News 5, as a producer.