Monday, June 7, 2004

An Era Passes

The death of John T. Williams is the larger political community's latest loss.

Posted By on Mon, Jun 7, 2004 at 4:00 AM

There must have been a time when John T. Williams, who died last week of heart failure at his Germantown home, was involved in some way with disagreements and conflict. After all, the 92-year-old eminence had been one of the builders of the modern Republican Party in Tennessee and had run a contested race for Congress once.

But, as was the case with his friend and fellow Republican patriarch Bob James, who died earlier last month, it was virtually impossible to find anyone around who harbored anything but affection and respect -- nay, love -- for Williams, universally known as "John T."

The goodwill associated with -- and extended to -- Williams, a native of the Jackson area but a resident of Memphis for the last several years -- crossed party lines. And, as the GOP's Grand Old Man confided some years back, "It isn't widely known, but I dated Pauline Lafon before [the late former senator] Albert Gore did." (The eventual Gore-Lafon union would produce a Democratic vice president and presidential candidate, Al Gore.)

Williams' conversations would always include fond recollections about figures in both major political parties. If he knew you were going, sometime soon, to an event involving Democrats, he would always send greetings along to this or that person he expected would be there.

But John T. had a special place in the hearts of his fellow Republicans -- a fact which drew several eminent ones to his Tuesday funeral, scheduled for our press time. Among those slated to speak at the rites at Christ United Methodist Church: former senator Fred Thompson, who as a young activist managed Williams' congressional campaign against incumbent Democrat Ray Blanton, later a governor. ("That was back when we didn't even have enough Republicans in McNairy County to even hold a primary," Williams once recalled.)

Others scheduled to make remarks at the funeral were former congressmen Robin Beard, Don Sundquist, and Ed Bryant -- GOP successors (and all winners) in the district, once the 8th and later the 7th, where candidate Williams had been a pioneer.

Williams maintained a steadfast loyalty to Sundquist when the latter, in a second term as governor, ran afoul of some of his partymates by seeking to enact a state income tax. At John T.'s 90th birthday celebration in 2001 at the home of former Shelby County mayor Jim Rout, Sundquist was there to pay his regards and observed wanly, "This is easier than passing tax reform!"

Current Tennessee senators Bill Frist and Lamar Alexander were among those paying tributes to Williams, and the White House itself was expected to be heard from.

Those close to Williams knew that he had suffered greatly from the death, in recent years, of his wife Thelma and his son, also known as John T.

Williams' own passing, along with that of James, and, for that matter, along with that last year of longtime Democrat Bill Farris, another highly regarded figure, signaled the end of an era which was remarkable merely to have harbored such titans -- none of whom achieved high office themselves (though James and Farris held office as city councilman and city commissioner, respectively) but all of whom were recognized, in and out of politics, as influences of the highest order. n

Where There's Smoke ...

The hottest rumor going about city government circles these days concerns -- are you sitting down? -- the imminent resignation of Memphis mayor Willie Herenton. Mayor spokesperson Gale Jones Carson dismissed that report, categorically and vehemently, as pure hooey. "That's crazy. That's just something that comes from people who are opposed to the mayor. He's not going anywhere!"

But, among others, a member of the City Council says he's heard the report of late -- repeatedly. "There are several variations," the councilman says, but all concern after-effects of two circumstances: an ongoing probe into the city's selection of brokers for last year's TVA prepayment and current speculation revolving around a fatal traffic accident involving the mayor's daughter-in-law, Andrea Herenton. •

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