Friday, August 20, 2004

Entitlements

Tom Jones departs, leaving shock waves.

Posted By on Fri, Aug 20, 2004 at 4:00 AM

We live in strange and, in the Churchillian sense of the word, wonderful times. Whoever is adept at doing astrological charts should get busy and tell us just what planets are now aligned with what others and how long this disorder in our planetary house is expected to last.

I am not going to rehearse here the history of the Iraqi visitors fiasco, nor am I interested in the Who-Shot-John of competing chronologies. The basic issue is clear enough -- that representatives of the new government painstakingly installed in Baghdad by the Bush administration came to Memphis with the full backing of the U.S. State Department and were, at assorted venues, stood up, robbed, and turned away at the door of local government. Many reasons have been given for the last circumstance, but there can be no excuse.

And now, against a backdrop of budgetary and educational crisis that requires the serious attention of everybody in either portion of our two-headed government, we find that both parts of it may be addled to the point of derangement. Memphis mayor Willie Herenton, who is but barely reconciled with the members of his City Council after a long and seemingly gratuitous feud, has just asked for the resignation of the fifth police director to serve during his tenure.

And in county government Wow! Mayor A C Wharton gave a convincing representation Wednesday, August 11th, of a man shocked, shocked at the perfidy of two trusted aides who, he indicated, had connived to shuffle papers and trim corners so as to improperly enhance (double, actually) the annual pension of buddy Tom Jones, a longtime denizen of Shelby County government who has copped to state and federal charges and is awaiting imprisonment for embezzlement via his county credit cards. Right. More public money for a man who has pleaded guilty to wrongfully taking public money.

Like I said, wonderful -- in the Churchillian sense.

I have always liked Bobby Lanier (as who cannot?), am grateful to Tom Jones for his goodwill and supportive attitude at crucial points of my journalistic career, and have maintained an on-again/off-again cordial relationship with ex-Commercial Appeal columnist Susan Adler Thorp, a former colleague and rival whose hard edges coexisted with a soft heart (though there were those who would reverse the adjectives). And, like most people who know A C Wharton, I have regarded him with utmost fondness and respect -- as well as an admiring regard for his well-said and deceptively acerbic commentaries on his political contemporaries.

Well, now it's his time to be regarded. Either A C is being disingenuous to a fault (and a rather large fault, at that) or he is astonishingly naive and uninformed about what goes on in his office.

Like his mayoral predecessors, the current county mayor virtually wore Bobby Lanier like a pair of pajamas. You never saw one in a public place -- or many private ones, for that matter --without the other. They lunched together, had adjoining offices, could not have been closer. When I interviewed Lanier two years ago for a Flyer cover story, he made it clear that he had in essence drafted A C for the role of mayoral candidate. We're talking tight as ticks, folks. How likely is it that a loyal right-hand man like Lanier would not, out of that very loyalty, cue his boss in as to what was going down with their longtime mutual friend Tom Jones? Well, A C certainly looked convincing in his profession of shock Wednesday and seemed for all the world to be close to tears.

As for the others, there was Jones over on WMC Channel 5 at 10 o'clock Wednesday night, dishing more dirt on his old boss, former county mayor Jim Rout. And on WREG News Channel 3, Thorp sort of acknowledged her own involvement in -- or awareness of -- the Jones pension mess and sort of didn't, meanwhile allowing as how her old boss, A C, must have known about the whole deal. Only Lanier, who took a fall in 1994 for one of his serial bosses, then county mayor Bill Morris, was being a stand-up guy; the others were busy doing stand-ups.

Thorp was heard from again the next night on Channel 5, maintaining straight-facedly that she shouldn't be regarded as a "scapegoat," rather as "collateral damage." She once again seemed to contradict her boss and his chief of staff, former prosecutor John Fowlkes, on two of Wharton's premises -- that she was conversant with what went down and that he, the mayor, wasn't. Just the other way around was bystander Thorp's line.

Thorp probably would have been pleased to hear one reporter at Wharton's Wednesday press conference ask a question about "Bobby and Susie," the two-way familiarity conferring an ease of acquaintance on himself and a sense of innocence on them. Well, maybe so, but I've been a staffer myself at the congressional level, and one taboo that is surely universal in all government offices is that you don't invoke the boss' authority without permission, actual or implied. Another is that, if trouble comes, you take the bullet yourself, you don't duck out of the way. Still less do you turn around and shoot at the boss yourself. Then or later.

The boss is the elected one, not yourself. Your authority, such as it is, is entirely borrowed and vicarious. If you can't toe the line, then get out. Thorp managed to imply in her TV interviews that she wasn't forced out but resigned for honorable reasons. If so, good for her, though that surely isn't what Wharton and Fowlkes were saying.

Back when Jones first got himself in such terrible trouble -- and it was he who did so, not Rout -- he came up with the exculpating phrase "culture of entitlement" to describe the climate of Rout's mayoralty. In this he was fully supported by his friend Thorp, who may have had a hand in the coinage. Jones, though, was a right smart wordsmith himself -- smart enough to have known better about a lot of things.

It defies reason that two years later, having named the pathology himself, Jones came back to the trough and prevailed on old friends Lanier and Thorp to help him dip for more. Culture of entitlement, indeed. What were they thinking? Of whom and of what? Certainly not the public and certainly not the public interest.

The two sad and irrefutable facts: Right up until the end, they regarded themselves as entitled. But at the end, as in the beginning, they weren't.

Afterthoughts: Upon the initial appearance of this article on the Flyer Web site last week, I received and responded to several e-mails from Tom Jones, the last of which was written only minutes before he departed for Forrest City, Arkansas, to begin serving his prison term. Since Jones authorized me to do with these as I would, I have condensed and edited these e-mails into a single commentary (see Viewpoint, page 13). It amounts (for the time being) to his last word on the subject.

In general, I found Jones to be gallant -- nay, courageous -- about his fate, if still somewhat defiant in his interpretation of the reasons for that fate. Both in his years of generally superb public service and in the quality of his friendships, Jones had much to commend him, and I hope to stay in touch with him, as he suggested.

I regret what happened to Jones, and, for that matter, to the other characters in the tale.

Further developments: Mayor Wharton's report on the Jones affair was released Monday by mayoral aide Fowlkes (see Cover Story, page 14). Among the findings: Lanier and Thorp both took active roles in expediting an elevated pension that they presumably saw as their longtime friend's just desserts. (One of the tales that got told out of school concerns Thorp's attempt to get Circuit Court clerk Jimmy Moore to hire Jones.) Several other county officers took a role in the process but not, says the report, Wharton himself.

On the city side, Herenton's firing of police director James Bolden was almost inevitable, given his statement last week that he was "disappointed" in Bolden, who had defended his men. "Disappointing" Herenton is as fatal as doing so to John Gotti.

This naked city is getting closer and closer to being full-frontal.

Note: Shelby County Republican executive secretary Don Johnson has indicated that his statements cited here last week about potential Democrats for Bush were general and hypothetical and that he neither has specific knowledge about individuals (or an announcement concerning them), nor would he be authorized to comment on them if he did. Point accepted, with apologies.

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