Thursday, June 26, 2008

On George Carlin

Benjamin Hooks and Pat Halloran played bit parts.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 26, 2008 at 4:00 AM

George Carlin was one of those people whose death reminds a lot of us who grew up listening to his comedy how much the times have changed.

Most of his famous "seven dirty words" that made it to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1978 are as widely used today as the expressions "man" or "shit," which, come to think of it, was one of the seven words.

Today, a 6-year-old with a computer can hear the rest of them in a variety of formats in about three seconds. How far we've come from 1978 when the Supreme Court, in an opinion authored by Justice John Paul Stevens (who is still on the court), wrote that broadcasting has "the most limited First Amendment protection" because of its "uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of our people" and especially because "broadcasting is uniquely accessible to children."

Carlin recorded "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," often shortened to "Filthy Words," live in California, and a New York radio station played it in 1973. A man who said he heard it while riding in his car with his young son complained to the Federal Communications Commission, one of whose members was Memphian Benjamin Hooks, who was appointed to the FCC by President Richard Nixon in 1972.

The FCC issued an order in 1975 granting the complaint, and the defendants filed a lawsuit that made its way to the appellate courts and, finally, the Supreme Court.

Justice Stevens wrote an opinion that cited, among other things, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes' famous statement that "free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theatre and causing a panic" and an equally famous opinion about "fighting words."

"The question in this case is whether a broadcast of patently offensive words dealing with sex and excretion may be regulated because of its content," Stevens wrote.

The pithy conclusion of the opinion, which upheld the FCC action, was worthy of Carlin himself.

"As Mr. Justice Sutherland wrote, 'a nuisance may be merely a right thing in the wrong place — like a pig in the parlor instead of the barnyard.' We simply hold that when the commission finds that a pig has entered the parlor, the exercise of its regulatory power does not depend on proof that the pig is obscene."

Appended to the opinion is a verbatim transcript of Carlin's monologue, in case you missed it.

Carlin performed at the Orpheum three times and also appeared at casinos in Tunica. His first appearance in Memphis was at a point where he had turned a corner in his career and was making heavy use of the seven dirty words. Orpheum president Pat Halloran remembers him as the first really foul-mouthed comedian to play the theater but hardly the last.

"While he was creative and successful for decades, I found him pretty difficult to deal with," Halloran recalled. "The angst and the temperament carried over to his regular persona after he left the stage."

Carlin helped open the door, for better or worse, to comedians and entertainers who made dirty words a standard bit. I'm pretty sure I heard most if not all of the seven words in the first five minutes of comedian Kathy Griffin's appearance at the Orpheum a couple of years ago. I know I heard some of them last week in the first 30 seconds of the first cut of the new CD by the Memphis rap group Three 6 Mafia, featured on the cover of this week's Commercial Appeal Playbook section. And I "hear" them bleeped out every night on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show. Strangely enough, newspapers are one of the last institutions that still limit use of words you can hear everywhere else, although we publicize the people who say them.

What I think made Carlin popular for so long was his clean stuff — "When did we all get so dry?" in response to the bottled water craze, for example.

Among several terrific tributes to Carlin was this one from Jerry Seinfeld in The New York Times this week: "As a kid it seemed like the whole world was funny because of George Carlin. His performing voice, even laced with profanity, always sounded as if he were trying to amuse a child. It was like the naughtiest, most fun grown-up you ever met was reading you a bedtime story."

How rich it would be to hear George Carlin do 30 minutes on the current state of things in Memphis, Tennessee.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Eating Our Own Cooking

On having a stake in schools, pools, and public transit.

Posted By on Wed, Jun 18, 2008 at 4:00 AM

Several years ago, when my children were pre-teens, swimming was the be-all and end-all of summer activities. It was not unusual for them to spend several hours a day at a nearby swimming pool where we had a membership. Then, one year, disaster struck. The pool was closed for construction and major repairs. Our daily routine was shot.

We scrambled for alternatives. Fortunately, that was one of the years the Mud Island River Park opened the "Gulf of Mexico" as a swimming pool. In a city full of Mud Island detractors, we quickly became Mud Island fans. Likewise, we discovered pools at Shelby Forest, Maywood Beach in Mississippi, and Scenic Hills in Frayser and saw those places in a different, kinder light. The now-disparaged mini-van was, that summer, the Perfect Motor Vehicle. And, of course, any neighbor who opened their backyard pool to us was a candidate for sainthood.

It is sad and scandalous that the Memphis Park Commission has closed its public pools since the two drownings on opening day. Sad for the victims and their families, sad for thousands of other kids with nothing to do, and scandalous that there is no hue and cry to reopen the pools with better safety and staffing. Legal concerns aside, if the pool users were not mainly poor and black, that would not be the case.

Our opinions of public services and the intensity of those opinions change when we do or don't use those services on a regular basis. This is especially true of public schools. Some of the harshest critics — as well as some of the most hypocritical defenders — of Memphis City Schools have no first-hand experience with them. One of the things that gives the school board credibility and makes it hard to dissolve is that two members, Jeff Warren and Stephanie Gatewood, have children in MCS, and the majority of their colleagues are either graduates and/or parents or grandparents of former MCS students. The same goes for City Council members Ed Ford Jr. and Bill Morrison, who are teachers. Morrison's school, Southwind Middle School, is in the county system, but it feeds Southwind High School, which is supposed to become a city school. His perspective is valuable.

On the other hand, nothing is more grating than hearing someone pontificate about MCS when you know they are talking about other people's children. All Shelby County residents have a stake in MCS, but customers and employees have the biggest stake.

The investigations of corruption in Memphis City Schools are focused on food-service and transportation contracts. Many of the middle-class kids who go to MCS don't eat in the cafeteria or ride the school bus. So the inefficiency and corruption are tolerated, and the denunciations are indignantly righteous. I don't agree with interim superintendent Dan Ward that MCS is the best school system in the country, but I like his style.

The rising price of gasoline to $4 a gallon may cause a similar shift in our thinking about Memphis Area Transit Authority and public transportation, although I think the tipping point is probably closer to $6 or even $7 a gallon, or whatever it takes before politicians and journalists start riding the bus.

Part of the appeal of men such as FedEx founder Fred Smith and Virginia senator (and author) James Webb as actual or potential public servants is their military careers as Marine platoon leaders in Vietnam. They have been under fire in a way that most of their fellow CEOs and senators have not.

There are a couple of areas where most of us Memphians eat the same cooking. One is property taxes. One reason why members of the City Council were willing to cut school funding to lower the tax rate is that in their districts homeowners who vote probably outnumber public school parents who vote. The other is crime. On Monday night I attended a community meeting in Whitehaven hosted by District 3 city councilman Harold Collins. Items on the agenda were supposed to include crime, school funding, and police residency requirements. About 35 people showed up. The meeting lasted an hour and 15 minutes. Every single question was about crime.

I asked Collins, a freshman council member who voted along with nine others to cut school funds, if he had heard much from his constituents. All but one of his phone calls, he said, have come from residents of District 5, which includes Grahamwood, White Station, and Snowden optional schools.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Superintendent Search

The MCS school board preserved itself while installing a new co-leader.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 12, 2008 at 4:00 AM

If Memphis school board members stick to their schedule, and if six of them can agree, there will be a new superintendent by the time you read this.

My hedged bet is on Kriner Cash. But whether that guess is right or wrong, three men with a combined total of more than 100 years experience in public schools and government — Cash, Nicholas Gledich, and Willie Herenton — gave thoughtful attention to MCS. The next superintendent and the school board should learn from all of them.

Let's get one thing straight. School board members, led by Chairman Tomeka Hart, and The Commercial Appeal will herald a successful search and a new day for MCS. But the process did not change the status quo in one fundamental way: The school board is still there. Memphis was unwilling to follow the lead of urban systems such as New York City and Washington, D.C., which have done away with elected school boards.

Herenton won't get the schools job, but he will continue to be a player so long as he serves out his fifth mayoral term, which doesn't expire until 2012. The Herenton non-candidacy is dead, but the "Herenton Blueprint for School Reform" lives.

Or some of it, anyway. Corporal punishment for grades K-8 is opposed by both Cash and Gledich. Underused schools operating at less than 60 percent capacity will get a reprieve for at least another year without the only proven school-closer — Herenton — as superintendent. City-county school consolidation, which Herenton endorsed in January but backed away from in May, is not going to fly.

Other parts of the Herenton blueprint will fare better. Vocational education, or applied education if you prefer, got everyone's support. So did a central office overhaul, but not to the extent of Herenton's proposal that every administrative job be declared vacant. A new school at the Mid-South Fairgrounds is in developer Henry Turley's master plan. The motto "Every Child, College Bound, Every Day" is not long for this world. Maybe Herenton's "Business as usual is a recipe for disaster" should replace it.

Hanging questions include the city-county school funding formula based on average daily attendance, the classification of Southwind High School and future schools in unannexed areas as city or county schools, the tense relationship between the school board and the City Council, and the city's extra financial contribution — if any — to MCS.

Kriner Cash would be a Memphis celebrity. He is telegenic, with an intriguing, Obama-like biography. High school athlete in Cincinnati. Exchange student to Norway. Degrees from Princeton and Stanford. Child of a white mother of Pennsylvania Dutch and French descent who played piano and sang in Tommy Dorsey's band and a black "Renaissance man" (architect, professor, scholar) father. Cash praises Strunk and White's little classic The Elements of Style and vows to write a monthly newspaper column. And surely he is the first candidate for superintendent of MCS to list squash as a hobby.

Cash says a superintendent should be "visible with a purpose." He is a lieutenant in the huge (353,216 students) Miami/Dade County Florida Public Schools. He expressed reservations last week about "full funding" of MCS after the City Council cut $72 million, and according to the Cincinnati Enquirer, he is interviewing in Cincinnati this week "regardless of the Memphis decision."

Memorable Cash quote: "I am going to bend this organization and bend it hard if data support that is what is needed."

Nicholas Gledich is a chief operating officer who makes the buses run on time and has been in the Orange County, Florida, school system for 30 years. He is a finalist for another superintendent's job in Osceola County, Florida.

Memorable Gledich quote: "If I'm your superintendent, I may have to say things to you [the board] that you don't want to hear. Shame on me if I don't say them."

Two things about the Orange County School System caught my eye. It has 65,000 more students than MCS but 24 fewer schools. And it has 13 schools on Newsweek's 2008 list of the best 1,358 public high schools in America. MCS has one. Nine of the Orlando standout schools are magnet schools, as is the one MCS school, White Station, which is called an optional school. In their "wisdom," some MCS board members are threatening to cut the optional program.

The superintendent search was rocky. The consultants from Ray and Associates held near-empty public meetings during spring break, failed to produce a list of 15 to 18 semifinalists, as they said they would, refused to disclose the names of other applicants among the 221 "inquiries" from 44 states and 54 "completed files," produced no details of the employment contract, and came up with two "finalists" who withdrew and two more who seem eager and qualified. MCS ought to hire both of them.

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Thursday, June 5, 2008

After the Rainmaker

No one can accuse federal prosecutors of Ford fatigue.

Posted By on Thu, Jun 5, 2008 at 4:00 AM

In the long-running epic series The United States v. The Fords of Memphis, John Ford is about to reclaim the starring role.

In May 2005, the feds indicted then-senator Ford in Operation Tennessee Waltz. Coincidentally, it was a few days after Harold Ford Jr.'s announcement of his candidacy for U.S. Senate.

In December 2006, federal prosecutors in Nashville indicted John Ford a second time on charges related to his consulting for TennCare contractors. That same month in Memphis, the feds indicted John's younger brother Edmund, then a Memphis city councilman, on bribery charges stemming from a zoning case.

In 2007, John Ford went to trial and was convicted and sentenced to 66 months in prison. Also in 2007, Edmund Ford was indicted a second time for bribery along with former MLGW president and chief executive officer Joseph Lee.

In 2008, Edmund Ford was tried and acquitted on the charges connected to the zoning case. He still faces trial on the MLGW-related charges.

All this, of course, followed the mistrial and retrial of Harold Ford Sr., culminating in his acquittal in 1993.

It looks like the spotlight is about to shift once again to John Ford and the city of Nashville, scene of Ford's legislative prowess for more than 20 years. On June 24th, Ford, now a prison inmate in Leitchfield, Kentucky, is scheduled to go on trial again.

"I will be ready, but I won't be ready if [prosecutors] dump hundreds of documents on me at the last minute," said Ford's attorney, federal public defender Isaiah S. Gant, who says he has been trying to get the government's prospective exhibits for several months. "I haven't gotten one sheet of paper since February."

A status hearing before a judge is set for June 9th. Assistant U.S. attorney Eli Richardson, head of the public corruption office in Nashville, said he expects the case to begin June 24th. When and if the case goes to trial, Ford will be moved to a facility in Nashville and come to court in civilian clothes. Prospective jurors are likely to be questioned about their knowledge of Ford's Memphis conviction, although that might not come up in the actual trial.

"Generally speaking, that would not come in unless he took the witness stand," Gant said.

Former federal prosecutor Hickman Ewing Jr. said if Ford takes the stand he can be asked if he has been convicted of a felony even though his conviction is on appeal.

Ford isn't the only one who's already been punished. His consulting partners, Doral Dental and United American Health Care (parent company of a Tennessee subsidiary called Omnicare), have both lost their TennCare contracts with the state Department of Finance and Administration. UAHC, a publicly traded company, made the disclosure in a quarterly filing last month.

"Management believes the discontinuance of the TennCare contract will have a material impact on the company's operations," the company said.

As UAHC's rainmaker, Ford was paid more than $400,000. Most of Omnicare's 100,185 enrollees came from Shelby County and West Tennessee. They are expected to transfer to other managed-care organizations this year. UAHC got 60 percent of its total revenue from the TennCare contract. Its stock price has fallen from $9 in early 2007 to $1.76 this week.

TennCare, Omnicare, United American Health Care ... who cares? Why go forward with a second John Ford trial? Because, unlike Tennessee Waltz, which was based on an FBI sting operation and a fictional company called E-Cycle Management, the TennCare case involves real companies. A conviction would send a clear message to companies and politicians alike about the legality as well as the ethics of consulting, which has had its practitioners on the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission, as well as in the General Assembly, where Ford and others openly listed it as their occupation.

In announcing the Nashville indictment, then assistant U.S. attorney Craig Morford said it showed Ford's "appalling willingness" to betray the public trust. Morford has since moved on to the attorney general's office in Washington.

The upcoming Ford trial comes at a time when a change in administration in Washington is certain and a power shift from Republicans to Democrats is a fair bet. Politically appointed assistant United States attorneys customarily start sending out their resumes now. After this year, they won't have John Ford to kick around any more.

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