This is no longer the vacation season for most people, but even if it were, a traveler would have to get pretty far away from Memphis to avoid hearing jibes about the conduct of our local officials. To Mars, maybe -- but what with the advances made in the technology of various sky probes, even that kind of distance probably wouldn't serve.
Even before the brief and surprising announcement last week from Mayor Willie Herenton that he was the father of a 4-month-old child, sans wedlock, we were in the way of jibes from the likes of Jay Leno and Rush Limbaugh, both of whom saw fit to wax witty at the expense of state senator John Ford, whose multiple child-support cases in multiple households were the subject of a well-publicized court hearing.
Now, after the Herenton bombshell, the wags are bound to be asking what it is that we put in the water in these parts. (Answer: not saltpeter, that's for sure.)
There is an obvious difference in the two cases: Members of the state legislature have, as it were, out-of-town jobs. Like it or not, the distance from home of their official pursuits, added to the fact that they represent only a portion of the whole, has tended, historically, to diminish their accountability. Indeed, John Ford seems to relish his bad-boy role, finding in it an acceptable form of macho. And, like it or not, his constituents tend to shrug it off. (They also shrug off the fact that Ford makes his residence -- er, residences -- outside the district he purportedly represents.)
To his credit, Mayor Herenton has never been such a scofflaw. This is not to say that his hands are altogether clean. Herenton's departure from his job as schools superintendent was hastened in 1991 by negative publicity stemming from a previous liaison, as well as from the conflict-of-interest concerns that came with it. But, by and large, Herenton has been a useful role model while serving as mayor, both for the inner-city population he sprang from and for the community at large. His natural air of authority (which occasionally drifts toward arrogance) and inherent dignity have been viable parts of an image which he has frequently projected on behalf of the city's needs and concerns.
We try not to be overly judgmental about the private life of public officials (although the record will show that we did not shy away from several public chastisements of former President Clinton during the fallout from l'affaire Lewinsky). We do not normally point the finger at offenders per se. Hey, like the Book says, we're all sinners. Peccadilloes are a dime a dozen, and we've got our own.
But precisely because the office of mayor is such a high-profile position, with the image of its holder so closely bound up with that of the community he represents, Mayor Herenton has created real difficulties both for himself and for his constituents, those whose public face he is to the world. He already is accused, in some quarters, of being one whose frequent policy broadsides -- advocating city/county consolidation, for example -- generally peter out for lack of follow-through. That problem is now almost certainly compounded.
Under the onslaught of various prior events, the mayor has already indicated both that he had given a thought to discontinuing his present term and that he might reconsider the idea of running again for a fifth term in 2007. We would advise him to think again, quite seriously, about which course would best serve this city.