The Illusionist 

Defensing a past rejection and a future threat, Mayor Willie Herenton is revising reality itself.

Mayor Willie Herenton's "press briefing" with the assembled local media last Thursday can fairly be called a bull session — in more senses of the term than one.

Though the news media themselves were among the targets of Herenton's "J'accuse" — along with federal law enforcement and the local business establishment — media members who sat in the Hall of Mayors for upwards of an hour with the mayor would acknowledge among themselves later on that they never had a better time.

For all his impassioned accusations of a serious conspiracy to bring him down, Herenton was in high good humor — a case in point being his implied threat, at the very end of his discourse, to run again. "I was thinking of retiring, but I must be doing something right," he jested, enjoying the tease as much as the reporters themselves did.

And there's the simple fact that Herenton makes for good copy. Nobody does it better — whether it's alleging a sexual blackmail plot against himself (election season 2007) or declaring himself a major prophet ordained for special vengeance missions by the Lord (January 1, 2004, and various points thereafter) or warring against his City Council (for much of his fourth term) and the city school board (at various points from the second through fifth terms) or challenging a City Council member to "step outside" a conference room (Brent Taylor in 2004) and a former heavyweight champion to step inside a boxing ring (Joe Frazier in 2006) or dancing a lively two-step in church that would be memorialized on YouTube or ...

But there's no getting through such a list. And these, after all, are just some of the latter-day highlights from a public career that goes back for a turbulent half-century, through extended tenures as mayor, as school superintendent, as teaching cadre and principal, and as a youthful Golden Gloves champion who still boasts, "Once I got my growth, I never got beat."

For better or for worse, Willie Herenton has become a figure of the first rank in Memphis political history. Arguably even the preeminent figure, outshining his historic foils in the Ford family, together or singly, and rivaling even the great Ed "Boss" Crump.

The mayor is now engaged in his most audacious effort ever — to revise history both backward and forward. At his Thursday media event, he made the extraordinary claim that he had never resigned — despite the incontrovertible and highly public evidence of his mid-March letter formally notifying CAO Keith McGee of his intent to resign as of July 31st.

Herenton maintained on Thursday that his statement had been qualified by "conditions" having to do with his opportunity to direct the affairs of Memphis City Schools, though no such conditions nor any reference to MCS are contained within his letter. The fact is, for a vital day or two, Herenton's interest in the vacant school superintendency had been a matter for speculation only, along with other hypothetical reasons for his departure.

Ultimately, the mayor made it clear that — the school board willing — he did indeed want to crown his career of public service by a triumphant return to MCS. His lobbying of board members and of local CEOs (whom he prevailed to endorse his candidacy for school superintendent) was an open and obvious affair. The problem was that, with the singular exception of maverick member Kenneth Whalum Jr., the board wasn't willing. Miami educator Kriner Cash, ungraciously dismissed by Herenton as a "third-rater," was hired instead.

The result? Herenton began to insist, as he did again on Thursday, that he had never even sought the school job!

His primary task on Thursday, however, was more pointed. Charging that the recent federal prosecutions of his former protégé Joseph Lee and others were but political assaults on blacks in general and himself in particular, Herenton was clearly organizing his base in advance of a rumored future indictment relating to city contracts awarded to mayoral associates.

In essence, the mayor was daring the feds, who have just lost two public-corruption cases in a row, to proceed in the face of a daunting political scenario he has now prepared in advance. Having altered the past, Herenton has now gone to work on the future — revising the circumstances of reality in two directions at once.

The ancient Greeks had a word for that: hubris. You can look it up. In the lexicon of history, it keeps close company with that well-known biblical warning about the pride that goeth before a fall.

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