Foreign Affairs

Call it a tempest in a teacup, if you will. But there's no doubt that last week's controversy regarding City Council chairman Joe Brown's decision to refuse access to City Hall to a visiting Iraqi delegation was an international embarrassment of the first order for Memphis. When you're suddenly famous for buffoonery from L.A. to London, you should not consider it anything less than a black eye for the city.

Brown has apologized, sort of, but steps need to be taken to ensure that Memphis never again finds itself in such self-inflicted hot water. For starters, let's be certain that whoever happens to hold the largely ceremonial office of City Council chairman is brought up to speed on the duties of that office, e.g., that he/she understands that the chairman is a point person as regards international visitors and thereby has in place a system for welcoming such visitors. In that fashion, "misunderstandings" (as Brown called last week's snafu) can be eliminated and avoided.

Second, let's find a means to give some legitimate funding for the Memphis branch of the Council for International Visitors, our local liaison with the State Department. This all-volunteer organization has struggled for years, with virtually no budget, to show off Memphis to dignitaries from abroad; in such circumstances, one could seriously argue that last week's debacle was an accident waiting to happen. Elisabeth Silverman, who tirelessly organizes local tours and meet-and-greets for our foreign guests, was underappreciated before last week, and she should not be scapegoated now for the preeminent sins and misdeeds of others.

We spend literally millions trying to present a positive image of Memphis and Tennessee to the world at large. Surely we can spend the minimal amount of time and money required to ensure that no foreign delegation to this city ever gets treated so shabbily again.

Third, local rivalries and political grandstanding, both of which played a significant part in the misunderstanding, should be prevented by whatever means necessary from interfering with the sensitive issue of foreign visitors to our city. Though both Chairman Brown and Mayor Willie Herenton, who made himself unavailable to meet with the Iraqis, pleaded protocol issues and would adamantly deny being influenced by their frayed relationship with council member Carol Chumney, it seems indisputable that, as various of her councilmates have indicated in one way or another, Chumney's decision to take a hands-on role in shepherding the Iraqis put off her colleagues in city government. They should not have let their feelings toward Chumney get in the way of their larger responsibilities to the visitors and to the community's good name.

And Chumney, who characteristically released a detailed "chronology" of events putting the blame for the fiasco on any and all others, needs to reexamine her way of interacting with other council members and with the mayor's office. The causes she advocates may be -- and most often are -- estimable in themselves, but she seems determined to pursue them with a minimum regard for other officials and maximum regard for her own celebrity.

Last week was not strike one for Memphis. It was a strikeout, a whiff, a total embarrassment in the eyes of the world. We had best be better prepared for the next time at bat.



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