The long-running deathwatch that has been conducted by members of the Memphis media over the prospect of imminent legal action against Mayor Willie Herenton may finally be coming to a resolution. The mayor was the featured speaker at Memphis Rotary Club Tuesday, the
same day of a published report in The Commercial Appeal concerning a federal grand jury's interest in Herenton's making a $91,000 profit from a downtown land deal connected with a redevelopment proposal he had championed.
Herenton himself noted the eerie conjunction of events, and, before a packed house at the University Club that included an abundance of media members and guests, along with Rotarians, he made a point of praising a ceiling light fixture as an antidote to the "dark cloud" which, as everyone knew, was hanging over his head.
Technically, Tuesday's mayoral appearance was Part II of Herenton's State of the City remarks, begun last week at a luncheon of the downtown Kiwanis Club.
And the mayor did make it a point to discuss some pending city business: plans for dodging part of the current financial shortage by outsourcing some programs, for example, and closing others. He had some harsh words for what he called "conflicted discourse that is quite frankly embarrassing." That was his way of referring to the Shelby County Commission's refusal to follow the city's lead in enabling a takeover of the Pyramid by the Bass Pro chain, and Herenton, who every couple of months makes a pro forma pitch for city/county consolidation, used the disagreement between the two branches to make yet another. It seemed not to occur to him that bicameral differences of that sort are a routine part of the checks and balances of American government.
But an even larger irony surfaced when the mayor began to lay it on the line about significant pending cuts in the city's work force. It would have been an absent mind indeed that did not make a connection between those remarks and the mayor's own predicament — particularly when he made a point of thanking the audience for having given him the opportunity to serve as mayor.
In a question-and-answer session with the media afterward, Herenton pointedly declined to give a firm answer to the question of how long he intended to stay in office — even when one media member asked if he thought he might still be serving in December of this year (the second of his most recently won four-year term). It was hard for him to predict, he answered, an acknowledgement that his fate was no longer entirely in his own hands.
But the ultimate giveaway to the mayor's fatalistic cast of mind might have been his quoting to the Rotarians a passage from President Theodore Roosevelt championing "the man in the arena" against those who shy away from the risk of either victory or defeat. "Sometimes I have stumbled," he said, "but I have been in the arena."
Compelling as the passage was under the circumstances, it was made more so by the fact that the identical passage was quoted by former president Richard Nixon on the day he resigned the presidency because of the Watergate scandal.