ENTITLEMENT AND THE JONES AFFAIR 

ENTITLEMENT AND THE JONES AFFAIR

We live in strange and, in the Churchillian sense of the word, wonderful times. Whoever is adept at doing astrological charts should get busy and tell us just what planets are now aligned with what others and how long this disorder in our planetary house is expected to last. I am not going to rehearse here the history of the Iraqi Visitors Fiasco, nor am I interested in the Who-Shot-John of competing chronologies. The basic issue is clear enough -- that representatives of the new government painstakingly installed in Baghdad by the Bush administration came to Memphis with the full backing of the State Department and were, at assorted venues, stood up, robbed, and turned away at the door of local government. Many reasons have been given for the latter circumstance, but there can be no excuse. And now, against a backdrop of budgetary and educational crisis that requires the serious attention of everybody in either portion of our two-headed government, we find that both parts of it may be addled to the point of derangement. Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, who is but barely reconciled with the members of his city council after a long and seemingly gratuitous feud, is now in conflict with the director of his own police administration after intervening on the street in what would seem to have been a routine arrest of a drug suspect. Don’t expect this one to go away. And in county government… Wow! Mayor A C Wharton gave a convincing representation on Wednesday of a man shocked, shocked at the perfidy of two trusted aides who, he indicated, had connived to shuffle papers and trim corners so as to improperly enhance (double, actually) the annual pension of buddy Tom Jones, a longtime denizen of Shelby County government who has copped to state and federal charges and is awaiting imprisonment for embezzlement via his county credit cards. Right. More public money for a man who has pleaded Guilty to -- wrongfully taking public money. Like I said, wonderful -- in the Churchillian sense. I have always liked Bobby Lanier (as who cannot?), am grateful to Tom Jones for his good will and supportive attitude at crucial points of my journalistic career, and have maintained an on-again/off-again cordial relationship with ex-columnist Thorp , a former colleague and rival whose hard edges co-existed with a soft heart (though there were those who would reverse the adjectives). And, like most people who know A C Wharton, I have regarded him with utmost fondness and respect -- as well as an admiring regard for his well-said and deceptively acerbic commentaries on his political contemporaries. Well, now it’s his time to be regarded. Either A C is being disingenuous to a fault (and a rather large fault, at that), or he is astonishingly na•ve and uninformed about what goes on in his office. Like all his mayoral predecessors, the current county mayor virtually wore Bobby Lanier like a pair of pajamas. You never saw one in a public place -- or many private ones, for that matter -- without the other. They lunched together, had adjoining offices, could not have been closer. When I interviewed Lanier two years ago for a profile, he made it clear that he had in essence drafted A C for the role of mayoral candidate. We’re talking tight as ticks, folks. How likely is it that a loyal right-hand man like Bobby Lanier would not, out of that very loyalty, cue his boss in as to what was going down with their longtime mutual friend Tom Jones? Well, A C certainly looked convincing in his profession of shock Wednesday and seemed for all the world to be close to tears. As for the others, there was Jones over on Action News 5 at 10 o’clock Wednesday night, dishing more dirt on his old boss, former county mayor Jim Rout, and on News Channel 3, Thorp sort of acknowledged her own involvement in -- or awareness of -- the Jones pension mess and sort of didn’t, meanwhile allowing as how her latest old boss, A C, must have known about the whole deal. Only Lanier, who took a fall in 1994 for one of his serial bosses, then county mayor Bill Morris, was being a stand-up guy; the others were busy doing stand-ups Thorp was heard from again the next night on Action News 5, maintaining straight-facedly that she shouldn’t be regarded as a “scapegoat,” rather as “collateral damage.” She once again seemed to contradict her boss and his chief of staff, former prosecutor John Fowlkes, on two of Wharton’s premises -- that she was conversant with what went down and that he, the mayor, wasn’t. Just the other way around was bystander Thorp’s line Thorp probably would have been pleased to hear one reporter at Mayor Wharton’s Wednesday press conference ask a question about “Bobby and Susie,” the two-way familiarity conferring an ease of acquaintance on himself and a sense of innocence on them. Well, maybe so, but I’ve been a staffer myself, at the congressional level, and one taboo that is surely universal in all government offices is that you don’t invoke the boss’ authority without permission, actual or implied. Another is that, if trouble comes, you take the bullet yourself, you don’t duck out of the way. Still less do you turn around and shoot at the boss yourself. Then or later. The boss is the elected one, not yourself. Your authority, such as it is, is entirely borrowed and vicarious. If you can’t toe the line, then get out. Thorp managed to imply in her TV interviews that she wasn’t forced out but resigned for such honorable reasons. If so, good for her, though that surely isn’t what Wharton and Fowlkes were saying. Back when Jones first got himself in such terrible trouble -- and it was he who did so, not Rout -- he came up with the exculpating phrase “culture of entitlement” to describe the climate of Jim Rout’s mayoralty. In this he was fully supported by his friend Thorp, who may have had a hand in the coinage. Jones, though, was a right smart wordsmith, himself -- smart enough to have known better about a lot of things. It defies reason that two years later, having named the pathology himself, Tom Jones came back to the trough and prevailed on old friends Lanier and Thorp to help him dip for more. Culture of entitlement, indeed. What were they thinking? Of whom and of what? Certainly not the public and certainly not the public interest. The two sad and irrefutable facts: Right up until the end, they regarded themselves as entitled. But at the end, as in the beginning, they weren’t.

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