Friday, August 25, 2000

Reeves Best (Short-Term) Clerk Bet

Guy Bates' little-known assistant will profit from a stalemate on the Shelby County Commission.

Posted By on Fri, Aug 25, 2000 at 4:00 AM

Joe Reeves, the little-known administrative assistant to the late Probate Court Clerk Guy Bates has become the best bet for a short-term appointment-- should the Shelby County Commission decide to make one before November's special election. Meanwhile, the entry into the clerk sweepstakes of Commissioner Linda Rendtorff at a Shelby GOP steering committee meeting Thursday night compromised the hopes of another GOP hopeful, outgoing State Senator Tom Leatherwood. And another commission member, Democrat Shep Wilbun, has seen his hopes for both a short-term appointment and the Democratic nomination weakened-- the first by Rendtorff's entry, the second by a widening field of fellow Democrats. With both Rendtorff and Wilbun in the running, and with other hopefuls emerging in both major political parties, the seven Republicans and six Democrats on the commission would be hard put to choose one of their two commission mates as a temporary appointee. Leatherwood's hopes for ultimate nomination by the Republican steering committee are threatened not only by Rendtorff's candidacy but also by some aversion, in high party councils, to a couple of his legislative votes. It is known that the administration of Shelby County Mayor Jim Rout was less than enamored of Senator Leatherwood's role in the defeat of a real estate transfer tax which county government had been counting on. And that fact, leading to lukewarm support by Rout's faction (or worse), is said to have contributed to his narrow loss to Democratic incumbent Rita Clark in the assessor's race. Wilbun, meanwhile, is looking at an enlarged field of aspirants for the Democratic nomination-- including, notably, former University of Memphis basketball coach Larry Finch, as well as John Freeman, Tanya Cooper, and Ed Stanton. Finch lost narrowly to Bates in November 1998 and has since resolved to improve on his relatively nominal election efforts if he should be the party standard-bearer again. The Democrats will choose a candidate on September 7th, the Republicans three days later, on September 10th.

Wednesday, August 23, 2000

The 'Orange and White' Issue

Officials of the two parties don't Get It: This is a different Grand Division

Posted By on Wed, Aug 23, 2000 at 4:00 AM

Of all the political controversies to crop up in Tennessee this year, the most unexpected one by far concerns the orange-and-white color motif the University of Tennessee uses for its athletic teams and other emblematic purposes. The issue burst into consciousness in Los Angeles on Thursday of last week, the last day of the Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, when state Democratic chairman Doug Horne urged members of the Tennessee delegation at a final luncheon to wear some UT caps he'd acquired for display purposes during native son Al Gore's acceptance address that night. Most delegates accepted the suggestion without demurrer, but some-- like State Representative Larry Miller of Memphis, bridled. Miller refused to wear a UT cap because, he said, the University of Memphis and other state colleges and universities had equal claim to represent the state publicly. "That just shows what we're up against and why we [U of M] don't get our share of state money," Miller grumbled. (Not as vehemently, delegate Chip Forrester of Nashville declined to wear an orange-and-white cap because, he said, one would clash with his bow-tie.) When show-time came later that evening, perhaps half the seated delegates would not wear UT caps during Gore's speech. The orange-and-white issue nearly resurfaced again on Friday, the day after Gore's speech, when Tennessee Republicans and GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush staged a well-attended pre-emptive rally in Shelby County, the western-most edge of Gore's home state, and the home base of the blue-and-silver-hued University of Memphis Tigers. At the climactic point of the rally, cascades of orange-and-white confetti were released from the rafters. No one complained on the spot, but all the returns are not in from the 10,000 or so Bush rooters who were on hand.

Thursday, August 17, 2000

Ford Takes Star Turn

Memphis congressman's keynote speech is big moment for himself, others.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 17, 2000 at 4:00 AM

LOS ANGELES -- U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis got his widest national exposure yet Tuesday night in what has been a meteoric rise to public attention, giving a keynote address at the Democratic National Convention which was an apostrophe to Democratic standard-bearer and fellow Tennessean Al Gore but could serve as well as an exclamation mark on his own political future.

Following stemwinder Jesse Jackson, two Kennedys (Senator Ted and JFK daughter Caroline Kennedy Schlossberg, and defeated Gore foe Bill Bradley, Ford rose to the occasion, asking Americans, including independents and Republicans, to embrace a "magnificent moment” in history by voting for the Democratic ticket and reminding his listeners of some yet unfulfilled chapters of the American dream.

"If we can find the will and resources to build prison after prison, then surely we can build new schools, reduce class sizes, connect every classroom up to the Internet," Ford said. "The choice before us - a choice that weighs heavier on my generation than any other - is not what kind of leadership we will have in the next four years, but in the next 40 years."

Much of the address was taken up with extolling the virtues of Gore as the potential next leader for America. Ford recalled as a young boy listening to Gore talk politics with his father and predecessor, former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr. and said, in language which was clearly somewhat self-referential, "He jumped feet first into public life and was elected one of Tennessee's youngest congressmen ever," Ford, the youngest current member of Congress, said. "That's when he became my role model."

Some representative quotes from the speech(See complete text of address in “For the Record”): "Some in the other party would have us go back.. Back to the past where prosperity touches only the well-off and well-connected. Back to a past where children lean from outdated textbooks and parents can't scrape together the money to send them to college."

"Back to a past where polluters write our environmental laws. Back to a past where politicians run up enormous deficits, run factories out of business and run the economy into the ground."

In contrast, the Memphis congressman, chosen by Gore personally to deliver the keynote address, hailed the vice president as a sensitive, inclusive and future-oriented leader Ð- one he met when a younger Gore visited the Ford family home to call on Ford's father.

Democrats see Ford as having a role in helping to solidify the party's base among African-Americans while appealing to younger voters-- groups actively sought by Republicans this year. Gore, in advance, declared that Ford is a rising star for Democrats nationally as a "young but proven leader" who "exemplifies the positive vision our party has for the future."

In Tennessee, the Ford family has traditionally been a major factor in generating votes for Democratic candidates with an enthusiastic turnout among blacks in Memphis. That has historically been the margin for carrying several statewide races for Democrats.

The Ford family has been carefully cultivated in the past by Gore and other Democratic officeseekers in statewide elections-- despite occasional controversies involving the congressman's father, former U.S. Rep. Ford Sr.; and his uncle, state Sen. John Ford. Both the congressman's father and uncle were on hand at the convention.

Thus, as Ford was presented as the wave of the Democratic future, he also tied back into the party's past in Tennessee-- where Ford could help generate a big turnout for Democrats in Memphis and help Gore win a home state lately proclaimed a battleground by both sides in the presidential race.

Officially, Gore partisans emphasized Ford's youth and status as a Tennessean who knows the vice president in talking of the choice.

"It says a lot for Tennessee. He (Gore) could have picked anybody in the nation and he picked someone from Tennessee," said Harrison Hickman, veteran Democratic pollster and Gore advisor. "It says a lot about Al Gore... that the vice president isn't locked into the old way of doing things. `"It's more than just the African-American vote," said Burson. "He (Ford) is a standout. It cuts across barriers."

Ford has worked with Republicans on several issues and regularly calls for a bipartisan approach in government.

He also maintains close relations to national black leaders such as the Rev. Jackson, who says Ford is "like one of my sons" and Gore's selection of him as keynote speaker "left me ecstatic." Yusef Jackson>, the reverend's youngest son, is described by young Ford as "my best friend."

Rev. Billy Kyles of Memphis, an intimate of the late Dr. Martin Luther King and a longtime friend of the Ford family, toasted Ford at a party in the keynoter’s honor later Tuesday night at Nick and Stef’s Restaurant in downtown Los Angeles. “He’s on his way,” said Kyles, who called the speech a huge success and said it worked out better “than that other one did in Atlanta in 1988.” That was a reference to then Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton’s overlong and ill-received nominating speech for Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee that year.

.The subtext of Kyle’s remarks and of much other conversation among Tennesseans in L.A. was a future bid for the presidency by the young congressman. “You’re very kind,” Ford would say when reminded of the prospect by any of several well-wishers.

One booster in particular had spoken directly to that prospect and predicted beforehand that Ford would be the hit of the convention with his speech. This was Dorothy Ford of Washington, D.C., the congressman’s mother, who, with her other sonsJake and Isaac, with her ex-husband, former U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Sr., and with other ranking Democrats and friends, occupied two suites in the Staples Center arena Tuesday night.

One of the boxes was double-booked, having been assigned as an oversight both to the Ford family and to Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who graciously offered to share the box and largely deferred to the visitors. “I knew when I saw those chicken wings in here that this was supposed to be a Memphis box,” jested Jerry Freeman of Atlanta, a friend of the congressman’s from his University of Michigan undergraduate days.

Most of those familiar with Ford’s oratorical ability who were on hand in the Staples Center or watched the Ford speech from a TV screen elsewhere in the convention area remember even more compelling efforts from the young congressman, who usually speaks ex tempore, but thought Ford had transcended some of the limitations of the address, which was vetted by members of the Gore camp and loaded up with predetermined talking points. Ford nevertheless was able to embroider on the prepared text, ad-libbing for several stretches with his own idiom and concerns.(Reportedly, there was some wrestling between Ford’s camp and Gore’s on what sort of content should predominate.)

Reaction from media sources was mixed, with the Los Angeles Times terming the fairly brief speech “lengthy” (though it was much shorter than the one which preceded it, a relatively dull and listless presentation by defeated Gore rival Bill Bradley) and observed that some of the crowd had begun “thinning out” toward the end of Ford’s speech.

The National Journal, however, quoted pollster Frank Luntz, who was conducting focus groups of viewers, as saying the highest response of Tuesday night was given to a passage in Ford’s speech in which the congressman asked listeners to imagine a world with clean coastlines, affordable health care, and word-class education. “Well, it is time to stop imagining. Tonight, I call on all my reform-minded Republican and independent friends to join us in our new crusade, said Ford, getting off a sentiment about which Lunz said, “They loved that line. It went through the charts.”

Although CNN and C-SPAN covered the Ford keynote address in its entirety, the traditional Big Three networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, all cut away during Bradley’s speech and never returned-- a circumstance which prompted a round-robin discussion of the decision on CNN, where correspondents observed that the Gore camp had desired maximum attention for Ford.

Tuesday, August 15, 2000

No Fatigue Here

Political and entertainment stars dazzle Tennessee Democrats

Posted By on Tue, Aug 15, 2000 at 4:00 AM

LOS ANGELES-- In a decided rebuff to the notion that there is something describable as “Clinton fatigue,” the current president of the United States woke up slumping delegates at the Democratic National Convention here Monday night with a rousing address recapping his administration’s achievements and sharply rebutting Republican criticism.

On the evidence of the evening, the aforementioned term-- a favorite of political pundits-- may have to go into retirement before Bill Clinton himself does. Clearly, he’s not tired, and people-- at least the ones in the jam-packed Staples Arena here and, most probably, a good many of those watching on home TV—aren’t tired of him. Certainly the Tennessee delegates here who filled their front-and-center just-under-the-podium seats were roused as Clinton remembered aloud his administration’s achievements and talked up the prospects of both wife Hillary Clinton, the New York Senate candidate who had preceded him with her own well-received speech, and Vice President Al Gore, who was scheduled for his own, crucial turn at the podium on Thursday night.

Clinton got some of his best response with such lines as, "Let's remember the standard the Republicans used to have for whether a party should continue in office. My fellow Americans, are we better off today than we were eight years ago?" As the crowd roared in appreciation of his irony, he answered his own question, "You bet we are!”

If Clinton got the delegates’ blood stirred, it was the mission, on Tuesday night, of U.S. Rep. Harold Ford of Memphis, the convention’s keynoter, to keep it circulating. As several of the Tennesseans present here have commented, the saga of Ford Jr. is virtually unique in politics, a profession that depends on patient waiting -- often for years at a time -- on the advent of opportunity, usually in the form of some grueling, long-odds struggle for office. Iron Butt stuff.

It’s a different scene for the 9th District congressman, both an electrifying orator and, as a certified “black centrist” (a term used two years ago by the New York Times to describe him), a prize exhibit for the national party-- particularly in this year when the rival Republicans are making concerted efforts to display their own newly found diversity. Ford has an impact like that of the entertainment figures who have been visible fore and aft at this convention-- and maybe a chance of short-cutting the time-serving process altogether.

Ford chatted with Tennessee reporters Monday about his prospects. “If this is the trajectory I’m on, I like where I’m going,” he said with a disarming frankness. He recalled that he had deliberated for a lengthy period last year on making a race for the U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent < b>Bill Frist and that if he had, “I could probably not have been keynote speaker or [state] co-chair of the Gore 2000 campaign.” (He shares the latter honor with former Governor Ned McWherter and former state party chairman Jane Eskind.Ó)

Asked whether he was nervous about his opportunity, the 9th District congressman said, “I’m nervous about the teleprompter. As you can tell, I like to talk. I’ve never had to write a speech or read a speech before.” He said he’d received some advice about speech content from “people in the [Gore] campaign and the DNC [Democratic National Committee].”

In a preview of his speech earlier, Ford had promised that the speech would attempt to tell the "compelling life story" of fellow Tennessean Gore. Ford said that, as the youngest serving congressman and as an African American, he would be in a position to use his primetime spot to explain to the country how far the nation had come.

"Al Gore entered political life not in search of a career, but because he heard a calling.” Ford said the speech would “send a loud, clear signal about Al Gore's public life and how he has always looked ahead with vision. . . .At every point in his public life he has always been a leader. I'm going to humanize him and show America why they should not be looking back to the Bushes.”

In his talk with reporters Monday he compared the careers of candidates Gore and George W. Bush, both sons of established public figures, but said that one, Bush, had strived to “protect those on top of the montain,” while Gore attempted to “help others climb that mountain.” And, he said, “as someone who grew up a few blocks of the site where Dr. Martin Luther King made his ‘mountaintop’ speech [at Mason Temple, downtown, on the eve of his assassination in 1968], I have a real attraction to that metaphor.”

--

The connection between the locale of this convention and the historic nature of this show-biz company town was dramatized for Memphians by several events as the week got under way. On Saturday night, a number of early arrivals, like Lois Freeman, betook themselves to the Mandeville Canyon estate of Hollywood producer Ken Russell for an opening-night soiree, where they rubbed elbows with such Tinseltown luminaries as Brad Pitt and his new bride, Jennifer Anniston, Angie Dickinson, Michael York, Whoopi Goldberg , Gregory Peck, and David Brenner.

On Monday night, Shelby County Democratic chairman David Cocke and Gore cousin Dawn Lafon, who teaches Latin at White Station High School, were invited, along with Gore intimates and fellow Memphians Jim and Lucia Gilliland, to watch the president’s address in a special box just under that of former President Jimmy Carter and Rosalyn Carter -- “the best seats in the house,” said Cocke. They sat elbow-to-elbow with model/actress Christie Brinkley.

Sunday saw some of the, rubbernecking the protesters in Pershing Park across the street from the downtown Regal Biltmore - site of the 1937 Academy Awards show, according to a souvenir photograph in each hotel room, and the temporary abode of most of the Tennesseans. At that stage of the game, the protesters were part of the entertainment. Not so much later on, especially when bus schedules to and from the arena were interrupted by demonstrations and by massed formations of the LA police, who were out in force, determined-- as various commentators in print and on the tube kept observing-- to overcome the shabby image of recent corruption scandals with a show of effectiveness at crowd-control.

Later on Sunday night, following an official Tennessee reception at the California Science Museum, most of the Tennesseans went to an affair at an amusement-park area on the Santa Monica Pier, sponsored by the conservative congressional “Blue Dog” caucus. That event was complicated by such factors as a crowd overflow, leaving many of the Tennesseans shut out of the action by a zealous security effort.

Mounted patrolmen kept at bay several large knots of protestors, who chanted such slogans as “Al Gore, Corporate Whore!” and generally taunted the delegates. State Gore 2000 official Janice Lucas of Memphis made a hasty exit from the affair, saying as she went, “I’ve never been so harassed in my life.” That kind of experience, the tightly packed nature of the crowds, and the generous amount of moist and clumpy waste dumped on the beach by the officers’ steeds all dimmed the luster of the event somewhat

--

Memphians had conspicuous roles at the convention. House Speaker Pro Tem Lois DeBerry was scheduled to be one of the speakers placing Gore’s name in nomination Wednesday night (along with the vice president’s daughter, Karenna Gore Schiff, who logged some time locally a few years ago as an intern at WREG-TV, Channel 3). State Representative Carol Chumney and State Senator Steve Cohen each had input on the official proceedings as members of the convention platform committee.

Chairman Cocke, not for the first time, pitched Cohen on the idea of running for Shelby County Mayor when the office comes due again in two years, and Cohen, not for the first time, said he’d give the idea serious consideration.

--

One of the most eagerly sought-after artifacts of the convention pre-existed it by a few days. The New Yorker last week published a lengthy analysis of Gore, written by Nicholas Lemann, which in great detail documents the existence in the vice president of two personalities, the famous “wooden” political or public one and a private one, rarely revealed but captured in the article in detail, which runs to intellectual and logical clarity, almost to a rarefied extreme.

Only a copy or two of the magazine Ð quickly gathering a reputation as definitive on Gore - arrived in Los Angeles Ð and there was a lengthening waiting list among Tennesseans who wanted to see for themselves.

Lemann, incidentally, is a New Orleans native and a relative by marriage to Memphis lawyer Jay Linde, who was in Los Angeles doing ad hoc work for Rep. Ford. Another Memphian, businessman Pace Cooper, has a well-known cousin-by-marriage, too - vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman.

--

One of the most unexpected-- and cryptic - remarks made at this convention came from State Democratic chairman Doug Horne, a genial East Tennessee mega-businessman whose public remarks are often unscripted and who told Tennessee delegation members at their Monday breakfast , “When I was a young man, I did some of the stuff George W. Bush is said to have done.” The remarks, part of a generalized stream-of-consciousness in his welcoming remarks to the delegation, were a propos no particular issue.

And later he announced that state Gore 2000 official Lucas had advised him that he “really hadn’t done what George W. Bush did in his youth.”

Still later, Horne’s wife Brenda told a reporter, “He didn’t do anything that bad after I knew him, or I’d have put him in Time-Out real quick!” TV commercials on behalf of the U.S. Senate candidacy of Democratic nominee Jeff Clark were scheduled to begin running this week, Clark and partner/campaign manager Joe McLean said at the Democratic National Convention here Monday.

The commercials, on the theme, “They Said It Couldn’t Be Done,” focus on Clark’s underdog role in the Democratic primary and now against incumbent Republican Bill Frist. The 30-second spots were scheduled to start on Tuesday of this week and run through the convention during coverage of convention events on CNN outlets in Tennessee.

Coincidentally, Clark and McLean were having to say, on another matter, that it wasnÕt done. This-- or rather, thes- -- were harassment allegations made in the past by two of Clark’s students at Middle Tennessee State University. Featured in a Nashville Tennessean story Sunday, the claims were made by a female student, who said in 1997 that Clark had entered a supply closet where she was taking a test and sexually harassed her by putting his crotch in her face, and by a male student, who accused Clark of profanity and sexist and racist comments in class.

”There’s no there there!” Clark insisted to Tennessee reporters at the convention after the delegation breakfast Monday. And partner/manager McLean said, “We’re not talking about that any more!” And, in truth, the 1998 claim by student Thomas West was undercut somewhat by a finding of the Office of Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of that "we could not find a witness who was willing to corroborate his story." And the other claim, made in a 1997 campus police report by studentLori Ann Parr, who alleged that Clark came uncomfortably close to her when she was taking a make-up test in a supply closet in 1996, never was the object of legal action.

--

Even as Democrats from Tennessee were making news in LA, Texan Bush decided to make some in Tennessee, arranging to speak in Bartlett at 11 a.m. Friday at Brother International Corporation, 3131 Appling Road. (This news was featured on the Flyer’s website, updated daily, at www.memphisflyer.com.)

Ford Previews His Speech

Ford Previews His Speech

Posted By on Tue, Aug 15, 2000 at 4:00 AM

“If this is the trajectory I’m on, I like where I’m going”: that was U.S Rep. Harold Ford Jr. (D-Memphis) talking to Tennessee reporters Monday on his opportunity to address the Democratic National Convention as keynote speaker Tuesday night.

Ford recalled that he had deliberated for a lengthy period last year on making a race for the U.S. Senate against Republican incumbent Bill Frist and that if he had, “I could probably not have been keynote speaker of [state] co-chair of the Gore 2000 campaign.”

Asked whether he was nervous about his opportunity, the 9th District congressman said, “I’m nervous about the teleprompter. As you can tell, I like to talk. I’ve never had to write a speech or read a speech before.” He said he’d received some advice about speech content from “people in the [Gore] campaign and the DNC [Democratic National Committee].”

Earlier he had said the speech would attempt to tell the "compelling life story" of Gore. Ford said that, as the youngest serving congressman and as an African American, he would be in a position to use his primetime spot to explain to the country how far the nation had come.

"Al Gore entered political life not in search of a career, but because he heard a calling.” Ford said the speech would “send a loud, clear signal about Al Gore's public life and how he has always looked ahead with vision. ...At every point in his public life he has always been a leader. I'm going to humanize him and show America why they should not be looking back to the Bushes.”

In his talk with reporters Monday he compared the careers of candidates Gore and George W. Bush, both sons of established public figures, but said that one, Bush, had strived to “protect those on top of the montain,” while Gore attempted to “help others climb that mountain.”

Monday, August 14, 2000

Bush Coming to Memphis

Bush Coming to Memphis

Posted By on Mon, Aug 14, 2000 at 4:00 AM

The Flyer has learned that Republican presidential nomineee George W. Bush will make a public appearance in Memphis Friday. The Texas governor will appear at 11 a.m. at Brother International Corporation, 3131 Appling Road, Bartlett.

Further details will follow when available.

Saturday, August 5, 2000

After the Fact: Some Post-Convention Notes

Frist and Arnold have a heart-to-heart talk, the Don goes arty, and Harold Jr. catches a break.

Posted By on Sat, Aug 5, 2000 at 4:00 AM

*As Senator Bill Frist was being led toward the convention stage through the bowels of Philadelphia’s ComCast arena on Thursday night during Bush’s acceptance speech, he encountered Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, whose name had figured in vice-presidential speculation for weeks before Frist’s own name got some serious boosting late in the game. Ridge warmly congratulated the senator on getting an Ed-Flex plank into the party platform (as one of three platform committee co-chairs), and the senator responded with crediting its success to backing by Ridge.

Frist also encountered another celebrity on that backstage circuit-- Arnold Schwarzenegger, the actor/bodybuilder who had had, more or less on the QT during the last year or so, a heart bypass operation. The two engaged in animated conversation about the operation, which had been performed by a friend of Frist’s.

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Thursday, August 3, 2000

Ford vs. Forrest: a Losing Skirmish?

Setting out to do some sharpshooting at George W's expense, Memphis' congressman misfires.

Posted By on Thu, Aug 3, 2000 at 4:00 AM

PHILADELPHIA -- U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr. of Memphis, where Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest is enough of a legend to have streets and a park named after him, found himself coaxed out onto a shaky limb Wednesday, having boasted that he would “get” Vice President Al Gore to denounce the general, a statue of whom looms prominent in Memphis

The congressman, in the Republicans’ 2000 convention city as part of a Democratic “truth team,” talked with reporters at the media pavilion outside the convention center in the role of an “Al Gore advocate.” In the course of rebuffing the Republicans’ efforts to identify themselves with the principle of diversity, Ford said that Bush was "pandering" to hard-core conservatives and cited Bush's refusal to take a stand against the flying of the Confederate battle flag at the South Carolina state capitol as an example.

On the theory that the sins of the goose are as culpable as those of the gander, a Tennessee reporter asked Ford point-blank whether Gore, as the Democrats’ presidential standard-bearer, should denounce a three-foot bust of Forrest in the state Capitol building. Forrest is, in fact, the most memorialized state hero of any state in the Union, and Tennessee, by statute, recognizes Forrest's birthday each year as an official holiday.

Continue reading »

Wednesday, August 2, 2000

Dealing in Diversity

The GOP, meeting in Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love, actually seems to be practicing some.

Posted By on Wed, Aug 2, 2000 at 4:00 AM

Lo and Behold! The national Republican Party, evidently tired of losing presidential elections has copped a page from the Democrats' playbook -- talking up diversity, tolerance, even affirmative action! And they're passing the word: let Al Gore be the Blue Meanie if he wants to. (Can this last?) WILMINGTON, DE - "We ought to write Pat Buchanan a check," said Oscar Mason of Memphis Tuesday morning as the Tennessee delegates, alternates, and other guests at the 2000 Republican Convention gathered for their morning breakfast at the Sheraton Suites in this state-line suburb of host city Philadelphia.

The remark was Mason's variation on what former Tennessee Republican chairman Jim Burnett had said the previous day about Buchanan, the GOP's former ideological bulldog, now a would-be Reform Party candidate for breakfast. "Nobody here is shedding any tears about his departure," Burnett had said.

The translation in both cases was that the national Republican Party seems to have learned its lesson from two straight presidential defeats by Bill Clinton's Democrats. In 1992 at Houston, Buchanan's opening-night philippic set the tone for what the sometime TV commentator called a "culture war" against the Democrats. It is generally believed that then President George Bush had a hard time living down that diatribe, which may have contributed to his defeat by challenger Clinton, who was simultaneously trying to steer the Democrats away from their fringe elements into the political center.

In 1996, Clinton, Vice President Al Gore, et al. had a solid hold on that center, and GOP nominee Bob Dole, though a mellow man personally, was saddled with the same kind of angry retro- rhetoric -- a fact which Tennessee Senator Bill Frist, a major force at this convention, said Tuesday caused the same end result: a revolt against national Republicanism on the part of the electorate.

That was then; this is now when Frist -- one of three co-chairs of the GOP platform committee -- and various other Republican luminaries, not excluding nominee-to-be George W. Bush himself, the apostle of "compassionate conservatism," have made a conspicuous effort to remake the Republican countenance as a sort of national Happy Face, featuring harmony, toleration, and make-nice attitudes of all sorts.

The two pieces de resistance of all that Monday night were Laura Bush, the sweet-dispositioned wife of the candidate and an ex-schoolteacher who dropped words like "Head Start," General Colin Powell, the former Desert Storm commander who followed her with a rebuke to corporate special interests and a call for affirmative action.

None of this was accidental, Frist explained to the Tennessee press corps Tuesday. He made it clear that the Republicans this year would try to claim the same center that Clinton has occupied for his two elections and two terms. Even what Frist sees as the agile, combative debating style of Democratic nominee-in-waiting Al Gore will play into the GOP's hand's he said. "People are tired of all that anger, all that meanness, and in-your-face stuff," he said.

Frist Gains in Stature

Frist was not bashful about pointing out what is shaping up as a major role for himself in national Republican affairs. The state's junior senator, who says he was apparently the last alternative prospect talked to by the Bush team before the selection of Dick Cheney as the candidate's running mate, will shortly be named, he announced, as the Bush campaign's official liaison with the U.S. Senate.

Even though Frist is running simultaneously for reelection to the Senate, he is not expected to be sufficiently taxed by the victor of Thursday's Democratic primary -- either John Jay Hooker, Jeff Clark, or Shannon Wood -- to be seriously threatened with defeat. Hence, his hands will be relatively free for campaign work on Bush's behalf. If nothing else, he made it clear Tuesday, he is regarded as a kind of Republican counter in Tennessee to native son Gore.

As Frist reminded reporters Tuesday, he will precede the acceptance address of the newly nominated Bush Thursday night with a key speech of his own on the need to add a prescription drug plan to Medicare -- a theme which is itself a concession to his party's new centrist perspectives.

On the same day, Frist, a heart-and-lung transplant surgeon, will do some highly publicized volunteer medical work at Philadelphia's Nueva Esperanza clinic in a Hispanic neighborhood as part of a GOP media blitz to illustrate the idea of "compassionate conservatism."

And, according to the National Journal, it was largely thanks to Frist that Bush had an official platform he felt he could live with. As the Journal noted in its last pre-convention issue, Frist managed on Friday to re-implant an education plank that conservatives on the platform committee had previously managed to dump.

As committee co-chairman, the senator submitted an amendment that, as the paper suggested, restored “a version of the Bush principles that called for raising academic standards, reforming Head Start, and “allowing federal dollars to follow' children from failing schools to schools of their choice."

Frist also assisted in holding the line against efforts on the committee to abolish the Department and Education and, in general, to phase out the federal role in education. Ideas like those were given sanction in the 1996 GOP platform but were rejected this year.

"Gov. Bush has offered a vision and agenda that truly captures the spirit of the American people around the concept that no child should be left behind," Frist told the committee. He added, "My goal as a co-chairman is to marry the will of 107 delegates with the vision of George W. Bush." The senator played the role of matchmaker to the hilt, rejecting efforts by naysayers like platform committee member Cheryl Williams of Oklahoma to defeat the Frist amendment on the grounds that, as Williams said, it would give "the appearance of federal control of all education."

The final result, as Bush spokesman Ari Fleischer put it: "Now the Republican platform on education in 2000 is a marked departure from the 1996 platform, and properly so."

The Upshot

Former Shelby County Republican chairman David Kustoff elaborated somewhat this week on the parallels between the 2000 Republican campaign strategy and that of Clinton's Democrats in 1992. "In both cases, the party that wanted to win the most badly made a point of going to the center. Not everybody in either case was real happy, but the hunger to win was such that even those who might want to disagree kept quiet about it," Kustoff said.

(As an illustration of his point, arch-conservative preacher Jerry Falwell was quoted as saying about the larger component of gays at this year's Republican convention, "This is a political party, not a church. You have to do what you have to do to win.")

And national Republican committeman John Ryder of Shelby County agreed. He also noted that it was likely that actual policy would follow calculated rhetoric and saw this as another parallel to 1992. In other words, deeds do tend to follow words in politics, and if Bush and company pull off their centrist campaign this year, they may enact real changes in their party's performance -- much in the way that Clinton came to co-opt traditional Republican goals of budget-balancing, welfare reform, and Law-and-Order.

A Gentle Demurrer

The Republican strategy drew some scorn Tuesday from Tennnessee Democrats, who disputed the legitimacy of their centrist claims. U.S. Harold Ford Jr. showed up at the Convention Center Tuesday to mock the GOP pretensions, and State Republican Chairman Chip Saltsman contended the Democrats were “playing the race card” in a move that would backfire.

The only full-fledged African-American delegate among Tennesseans at the Republican National Convention, meanwhile, said both parties have let blacks down. "The Democrats take the African-American vote for granted and Republicans feel that the Democrats have the vote already,'' said state Revenue Commissioner Ruth Johnson.

Former Democrat Johnson, is the only black among the 37 full delegates to the GOP convention from Tennessee. But eight of the 37 alternates are black and the delegation arguably . reflects the state's African-American population percentage, said Kustoff,who doubles as the statewide director of the Bush campaign..

By comparison, Tennessee Democrats will send a delegation of 81 delegates and 11 alternates to their party's convention later this month. Twenty-four of the 81 full delegates and two of the alternates are black, said Greg Wanderman, executive director of the state Democratic party.

Ford's presence at the Covention was primarily to underscore the differences between the parties on health care, said his spokesperson, Jody Bennett. But she said he also wanted to address what he saw as the falsity of the Republicans' claim to a true diversity.

Wanderman made the point that most of the delegation's alternates (including most of the Tennessee blacks attending) will be seated in the "nosebleed" sections of the upper deck. Kustoff retorted, "Our leadership, in Governor Bush, has been extending a hand to African-Americans, Hispanics and other minority groups whose members are conservative by nature but often have not voted Republican."

There was no disputing one point. The Tennessee delegates here (whose hotel is almost in the "nosebleed" perimeter of the Philadelphia areak incidentally) share the general optimism of the attendees at this year's convention. Tennessee Republicans, most of whom saw the handwriting on the wall at the previous two conventions, see the word "victory" written on the wall this year.

And moderation, toleration, and diversity -- pursued both as means and as end -- will apparently be the surrounding graffiti. Respond to Jackson Baker at: baker@memphisflyer.com

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