When John Wilder, the once and no-longer-future Speaker of the state Senate, greets somebody he knows, he grabs them by the hand and pulls them toward him in a tight embrace, a close-contact maneuver which allows the old man to communicate quite directly his wiry frame, impressive strength, and still intact muscle tone.
Yes,in recent years he has dozed during hearings; yes, he absent-mindedly hawks up his post-nasal drip in the manner of a dilapidated pensioner who is well over the last low hill. Yes, he talks in a self-parodying Dick-and-Jane idiom about his legislative world. "The Senate is good," he was famous for saying, sometimes yoking that to "The Senate is the Senate" and repeating the two phrases in this or that order. Sometimes that's the entierety of his discourse.
But this man was, right up to the reconvening of the Senate on Tuesday, a playa. He had survived various coups, he had survived old age, he had survived the political tides, he had even survived a notorious video showing him dipping a finger into his nose and apparently ingesting his find. At 85, John Wilder could suffer Borat doing his worst and be not shaken. Even as it seemed that, once again, Wilder had the votes to continue as Speaker and as lieutenant governor, you had to give a lot of credit to Republican Ron Ramsey as well as to Joe Haynes and Jerry Cooper, the Democratic senators who had publicly rebelled against him, for even trying to put the man down.
In the end, he was not brought down by either of the his rebellious party-mates - both of whom Wilder had brought back in tow, though not without some serious and bitter words being uttered, in both directions. It was Rosalind Kurita, the diminutive, independent-minded Democrat from Clarksville, the same Rosalind Kurita who had run a lonely, solitary campaign for the U.S. Senate last year until it became obvious that her state and party hierarchies were intent on nominating then congressman Harold Ford Jr. to bear the party standard.
Kurita's role is sure to provoke controversy. It already
has among most of her Senate Democratic colleagues. Meanwhile, Wilder has
received his just desserts from his colleagues in both parties, who gave him a
standing ovation before the Senate adjourned on Tuesday afternoon. It remains to
be seen whether successor Ramsey follows his predecessor's tradition of
appointing members from both parties to head Senate committees.
Almost everybody, Democrat or Republican, who served during the 35 years of Wilder's tenure as lieutenant governor could confess to having been seriously aggravated at least once by Wilder's sly and cautious administration of the Senate. Almost all of them, too, could express admiration, however grudging, for the Speaker's even-handed and usually fair perspective.
When he was in Memphis last month to preside over a swearing-in ceremony for interim state Senator Shea Flinn, he was asked what he expected to happen when the Senate came to choose a Speaker. "It'll be all right, Everything's going to be all right," he said. It was impossible to tell at the time whether Wilder's words amounted to certicude or fatalism.
In any case, we share the old gentleman's hope that his cherished Senate indeed is, and will remain, "good." The times require it.