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 postnasal 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 sum 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 not be shaken. Even as it seemed that, once again, Wilder had the votes to continue as Speaker and as lieutenant governor, you had to give Ron Ramsey and Joe Haynes and Jerry Cooper, the Democratic senators who publicly rebelled against him, a lot of credit for even trying to put the man down.
In the end, he was not brought down by either of these party stalwarts, 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 Kurita who ran 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 Tuesday afternoon. It remains to be seen whether 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 evenhanded and usually fair perspective.
When he was in Memphis last month to preside over a swearing-in ceremony for interim state Senator Shea Flinn, Wilder 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 certitude 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.