Waiting for Godot with John Ford
Now out of prison, the flamboyant state senator and scion of Memphis' most prominent political clan probes his chances for a comeback.
August 2012: Former state senator John Ford arrives at a Memphis halfway house after his transfer from the federal penitentiary in Yazoo City, MS.
photograph courtesy WMC-TV
It is mid-March, near the end of what seems a never-ending winter, and John Ford is in the midst of an agonizing reappraisal. Having been convicted in 2007 for acceptance of bribes as a member of the Tennessee General Assembly, an offense for which he had served five years in federal prison, the longtime state Senator is awaiting the formal end of the probation he’d been put on following his August 2012 release from federal prison in Yazoo City, Mississippi.
Getting to the end of probation has been a complicated multi-stage legal process, involving a probation officer’s having to file a clearance document to a supervisor, who would then sign off on it and dispatch it for approval to the U.S. Attorney’s office, who in turn would forward it to presiding U.S. District Judge J. Daniel Breen. And when and if Breen should finally notify him that his probation was at an end, he would regain his full rights as a citizen, including the ability to vote and — perhaps more important for this former legislative star, a member of Memphis’ best-known political family — the right to run again for political office.
Back in October, in the course of a wide-ranging conversation I’d had with him in the cramped but comfortable living room of his current East Memphis condo, Ford, who, since his release, has been working as an assistant at his brother Edmund’s funeral home on Elvis Presley Boulevard (the funeral business, like politics, runs in the family), had hinted broadly that he would be filing for another public office, if not in 2014, when county, state, and federal offices were up for grabs, then in 2015, when a city election would be held.
Where public office is concerned, John Ford has been there and done that. A city councilman from 1971 to 1979, he had been elected to the Tennessee Senate in 1974, the same year his brother Harold was elected to Congress and began presiding over a Ford-family political empire. Before his arrest in 2005 as part of an FBI governmental-corruption sting code-named “Tennessee Waltz” led to an enforced departure from the state Senate, John Ford had risen to a position of truly major influence and power in Nashville. There had even been another concurrent four-year stint (in the 1970s he served simultaneously as city councilman and state senator for five years) as elected General Sessions Clerk in the 1990s.
But now his prospect of regaining elective office was in jeopardy, and not just because of the frustratingly slow process of having his rights restored — still hanging fire with one filing deadline, that for countywide office, having already passed, and another, for state and federal office, looming straight ahead on April 3rd.
Over the months, Ford kept me informed on a fairly regular basis about the prospect of his being delivered from probation, hinting at all sorts of candid revelations he’d feel free to make once the constraints were off. But his progress reports about a process that was supposedly in its last phase — and had been since late last year — had settled into a numbingly repetitious, Waiting-for-Godot-like mantra.
“Any day now,” he’d said after the turn of the year. And it was “any day now” in late January. And again in February. And in March …
But more unforgiving than an ever-advancing calendar was another rude fact of life. Though when perfectly toileted and dressed to the nines, as has ever been his custom, Ford can still evoke memories of the dapper and commanding presence he had been in his prime, he is 71 now, and his body is showing signs of betraying him.
Only the week before our meeting, he had fallen victim to a sudden and strange malady affecting his right hand, which had become infected and badly swollen and had required emergency surgery to reduce severe fluid pressure.
Two days after the operation, with the cause of his problem still not fully diagnosed, Ford was convalescing in his apartment and coming to a surprising resolve.
“I’m going to have to give up shaking hands!” he declared — a vow that, for a politician, was tantamount to a final swearing-off of his basic trade — even of his core identity. Ford now has to consider that his decades-long practice of pressing the flesh with friends and strangers, all of them germ-carriers and possible agents of contagion, might have to be renounced.
“That’s the reason Michael Jackson wore a glove on his right hand,” Ford observed, by way of justification.
And it wasn’t just the hand. Whether because of the rogue infection or, as Ford suspected, as a consequence of the antibiotics and other medications he’d been dosed with (“All that stuff messes up your immune system”), his blood pressure had soared, in a week’s time, from a more or less normal 134/78 to 226/122. “That’s stroke level!” he exclaimed.
Ford had clearly decided that, even if his symptoms should clear, his earlier thoughts about running for office would have to be shelved. There was all this delay with the end of probation, and now these physical alarms. “I’ve got to work on my health first,” he said. “I’m not likely to do anything this year, maybe later.”
And the fact is, some of the fire may be gone.
Ford says he is well off financially — or well enough, though the income streams of his high-flying years are plainly a thing of the past. He boasts that — unlike fellow Tennessee Waltz felon Roscoe Dixon, white of hair after doing four years of his own — he looks relatively unchanged, and, to be sure, the East Memphis gated community Ford has lived in for the last year and a half seems reasonably posh.
“Man, I’ve got two or three fine women to talk to. I’m a single man,” boasts the once flagrant Lothario, whose juggling of women and households, coupled with a lavish lifestyle, always rendered his financial situation problematic. But the fact is, John Ford has had a rough few years. Falls from grace are not easy.
At the time of his 2005 arrest, he was still a mover and shaker in what had long been a Democratic-Party-controlled legislature. He was a lion of the state Senate, and chair of the General Welfare, Health, and Human Resources Committee, and a recognized man-to-see. Earlier that year, he had come under fire for suspect dealings with out-of-state healthcare agencies which, it was suggested, were paying him to help them obtain state contracts at the same time that his Senate chairmanship gave him substantial oversight over TennCare matters.
The revelation of all this had come about as a result of a typical John Ford over-reach in what was clearly a personal matter. The Senator had gone to court seeking relief on child-support payments to one of his several ex-wives — he was basically supporting families and houses all over Shelby County — and this had the side effect of opening up his personal finances, which led finally to an ethics probe in a Tennessee General Assembly that was caught between a desire to protect one of its own and a need to propitiate mounting public outrage.
Either to cover his tracks or because he honestly thought he was doing nothing wrong, Ford made a modest amendment to his state financial-disclosure form to account for the relationship with the companies and for X amount of otherwise unexplainable income. Called before a bicameral ad hoc ethics committee one day that spring of 2005, he brandished a copy of the form and said righteously, “Look here! It says ‘consultant!’”
There were all kinds of obvious problems with that approach, and these would lead to a federal prosecution in the not-too-distant future, but at the time word was that, in the legislature itself, Ford might get off with some kind of censure — hard cheese, but something the senator could nibble his way through in the long run.
But worse awaited him. One Thursday morning, late in that legislative session of 2005 (“It was the last 10 days, and I’d already done everything I was going to do”), he left the hotel room he always kept in-session (on the 18th floor of Nashville’s downtown Sheraton), went upstairs to the hotel’s 22nd floor hospitality room (where he breakfasted, as usual, on some orange juice and a fruit bowl), and boarded the elevator, along with Senate colleague Joe Armstrong of Knoxville, intending to go downstairs, exit the Sheraton for a brief appearance at that week’s climactic Senate floor session, and prepare for a quick getaway to Memphis.
The trip home, and a few engagements he had waiting in Memphis, were all he had on his mind as the elevator stopped again on his floor, the 18th. When the doors opened, “two guys in suits, one white, one black” got on. “They didn’t say a word, just moved in and made a point of standing behind us on the elevator. They didn’t say a word. It was odd.”
When the elevator floor opened on the lobby floor, however, one of the men finally spoke. “You’re John Ford?” When he nodded, the man said, with formal politeness, “Can we talk to you?”
Ford shook his head. “I’m busy,” he said. “I don’t really have time to talk.”
That brought the boom down quickly. As Ford recalls, “the guy said, ‘We have a warrant for your arrest,’ and he showed me a paper or something. I told him, ‘I’ve got to pay my hotel bill. I can’t leave without paying.’ I had my clothes already packed and put in my SUV.”
Unlike most legislative matters, though, this was a non-negotiable situation, and Ford had to comply. Looking around in the lobby, he saw Lois DeBerry, the venerable and beloved Memphis state representative, now deceased, and he entrusted his car keys to her for safekeeping.
John Ford was not the only person shuffled off in federal custody that morning. There were six more, including Memphis Senate colleagues Dixon and Katherine Bowers. It was the final closing of the trap for what had been a two-year FBI sting carried out by agents posing as lobbyists for a phony computer company that was willing to shell out wads of cash — an alleged $55,000 in Ford’s case — on behalf of a bill to facilitate resale of used computers in worldwide markets.
And this time no claim of being a mere “consultant” was going to do the trick — not in the face of the abundant audio and video evidence the wired agents were going to produce in court.
Of course, even a delayed re-entry into public life would likely be a disturbing idea to many of John Ford’s fellow Memphis citizens, put off by what had been his controversial and somewhat sensational tenure.
There had been public feuds with city council colleagues. There had been similar scraps in the Senate. There had been inflammatory public dialogues, sometimes with verbally inventive flourishes (“I’m pissed off to the highest degree of pissitivity!” Ford exclaimed on one occasion). There had been racially tinged disputes. There was the time in 1978 when members of the county’s African-American community were enraged by his mysterious withdrawal from a county mayor’s race in which he had been the solitary black opposing a plenitude of whites.
There had been publicity over Ford’s numerous paternities and public brawls between and among his women. There was a curious incident in which Ford and a woman friend were held at gunpoint by an alleged intruder and forced to pose for nude photographs.
There was the video of his kicking an obtrusive reporter in Nashville. There was a dispute with MLGW workers outside one of his houses, which resulted in his arrest for brandishing a shotgun at them. And there was the time, in 1991, when he was tried in Lexington, Tennessee, for allegedly firing a pistol at some truck drivers. That last one ended in both legal and public-relations exoneration for Ford, when in court the drivers, using offensive racial epithets, acknowledged they had menaced Ford on the interstate by hemming him in with their packed vehicles.
All the while, though, Ford continued to have the backing of his loyal constituents in South Memphis, core of the Ford-family power base, and he enjoyed support in high places elsewhere.
As this writer said in a 2005 Memphis Flyer cover story, after a dramatic ride home from Nashville with Ford, a story which appeared, ironically, just days before his Tennessee Waltz bust:
“...[F]or all of the current storms attending his name, for all his sporadically outlandish behavior, for all his confrontations with a prying media, and, yes, for all his suspect dealings, Ford has a reputation among his peers as a go-to guy, as a stout supporter of The Med and a pillar for the mental-health community, as a dependable vote for programs of benefit to society’s economic bottom-dwellers, as a legislative strategist for FedEx and other locally based concerns, as, in fact, an all-purpose facilitator.”
This is the John Ford who was proudly cited and featured pictorially in the campaign literature of his daughter, Kemba, a promising political newcomer, in her losing bid for state representative in a special election last year. In that 2005 Flyer story, I quoted Ford on the controversies then swirling about his “consultant” work: “There’s conflict of interest, and there’s illegal,” he declared, commenting on a freshly adopted new legislative ethics code, largely occasioned by publicity he himself had generated: “Those crazy-assed rules and everything? Shit! I won’t be able to make a living.”
Ford’s fateful elevator encounter would be followed by his two federal trials, one for the Tennessee Waltz sting, another for official corruption in not disclosing almost a million dollars the senator had received from several out-of-state providers of health and dental services who had enlisted his services in securing TennCare contracts.
Following his Tennessee Waltz conviction in Memphis in 2007, Ford was tried on the corruption charges in a Nashville trial that culminated in 2008. The two offenses together netted the former freewheeling solon a total of 19 years imprisonment, but 14 of those fell away in 2011, when the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals threw out the Nashville charges in finding, essentially, that Ford’s alleged offenses, whatever their deviations from state requirements, were not covered by federal statute.
The bottom line of that reversal was Ford’s release in August 2012 from the close-to-home prison venue in Yazoo City where he’d done most of his five years, the assignment to which owed much to the intercession on his behalf by 9th District Congressman and former state Senate colleague Steve Cohen.
His description of the experience? “One word: horrible,” was what he said when we talked about it back in October. Especially for someone as famously hedonistic as himself. “Food was horrible, not being with a lady was horrible, not being in a sanitary place was horrible. Bunking with another person was horrible.”
Not that he was mistreated. “It wasn’t hard time. I was in a dormitory, not a cell. It was just the time being away from family.”
He would often think about all the years spent driving to and from Nashville, a journey of 200-odd miles and three hours more or less (although Ford, a serial speeder, was famous for making the somewhat monotonous trip as much “less” as possible). “While you’re driving, you may get a little tired. But you get where you’re going, and then you can do this and that. But when you’re incarcerated you can’t do anything.”
Talking about driving reminds him of the several transfers from venue to venue before he finally landed at Yazoo City. “A car or a plane or whatever it is, and they have you handcuffed. It’s horrible.
“That’s the best way to describe it. The people back home, even if they don’t have very much money and have to eat at McDonald’s, for example, at least they’re free. If you’re in prison, McDonald’s hamburger and French fries could seem like caviar, you understand.
“It’s that you don’t have that freedom.” When he was being driven back and forth while being transferred, said Ford, even the random glimpses he got of life on the highway, however mundane — “trees, cars, people, buildings” — were all tokens of a lost Eden. “That’s why I like to go driving kind of aimlessly now, just wander around town, just to look at the trees and see how beautiful they are.”
In prison, Ford said, “I just stayed out of the way, had no trouble. I watched the TV news every day. I read the Wall Street Journal, The Commercial Appeal, and USA Today. They had all those in the library.” And he had ample time to ponder his circumstances, retrying his own case mentally.
“I used to think to myself, ‘Hell, if you’re in jail, you must be in for a reason, you must have done something.’” But he would always conclude: “That ain’t the case. All you gotta do is look at TV and read the newspaper. “
There, he said, you would find case after case of old convictions being reversed — due to DNA samples, new evidence, what-have-you. And there was the issue of entrapment. The FBI agent who laid the sting on Ford during Tennessee Waltz was a savvy, jive-talking African American calling himself “L.C. McNeill,” a nom de guerre for his role of computer lobbyist with a roll of ready cash.
“He claimed to be connected with a music company, said he had his own company, making videos.” In retrospect, Ford seemed genuinely offended by the imposture. “Take a person: If you’re dishonest, you’re dishonest. If you’re honest, you’re honest.”
As for the video shown during his Memphis trial and endlessly repeated on TV and in online takes, like the notorious one of “McNeill” counting out hundred-dollar bills — the then senator was accused of taking a grand total of $55,000 for his services in getting the bogus computer company’s bill passed — Ford professed incomprehension. “There’s nothing illegal about that, about somebody counting out money and giving it to you. What makes it illegal is if they’re talking about a bill or something like that.”
To make the proverbial long story short, Ford seems to be maintaining that, as he puts it, “when they’re talking about one thing, they give you the money because of work on something else.”
Suffice it to say that neither judge nor jury nor the media pack covering the Memphis trial saw things quite the way he did.
Ford, at least for now, takes pains to be circumspect about the Memphis trial and the Tennessee Waltz charges for which he was convicted and has served his time. It is otherwise for the Nashville corruption case and his conviction there. He is passionate about that trial having been a de facto perversion of justice, and is grateful to the 6th Circuit appellate panel for overturning his conviction.
I had dinner with Ford back in January at Ruth’s Chris Steak House, one of several local restaurants where Ford is a familiar presence. We downed a pair of Belvedere Cosmos, a cranberry juice, lime, and vodka concoction, and dined on Chilean sea bass as his conversation hearkened back to the early days of the civil rights struggle and to historical figures like Emmet Till, who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955 “for whistling at a white woman,” and the trio of Schwerner, Cheney, and Goodman, who were killed by Klansmen during the Mississippi Freedom Sumer of 1964.
Times have changed, however, and he asks, “Now since they can’t do that, how do they kill John Ford?” The question is clearly rhetorical and just as clearly meant by Ford to include himself in the historical skein of such martyrs — even as he locates his court case within the technical lineage of liberating legal precedents.
“Cases on appellate appeal are the only ones that make a difference in the case law. The essential case was TVA vs. Peabody. That was part of it. That had to do with …” he pauses to remember the case number “... 18 USC-43-2000. The other part, on 18 USC-43 para 1942-43. That was based on Armed Services wire fraud. That ruling came down based on the U.S. Supreme Court out of Texas, the Enron case, what’s that guy’s name? They overturned that thing.”
And Ford taps into more recent history: “What’s the guy’s name that leaked all that stuff? Snowden? Well, Snowden did America a favor. He may have done some harm, but he did more favor than harm. Some people knew, most people did not know. I would say 99 percent of the folks did not know the full scope of what they’ve done, the potential to the Constitution. You know, you have freedom, First Amendment, the 6th, 14th Amendment. The whole thing. They’re taking all that away. They can do anything.”
As we dined on, it became obvious that there was manifestly another John Ford beyond the rogue, the rake, the study in arrogance, the public character whose caricature status owes as much to himself as to the media. There is John Ford, the erstwhile eminence, who remains accessible to his public, in the way any successful politician must. As we sat there talking, eating, and tippling, numerous employees and fellow diners would come by to pay homage.
There were two young women — daughters, it appeared, of one of Ford’s vintage colleagues, former state Senator Edgar Gillock of Frayser, who had some legal problems with the feds himself. For their benefit, Ford recalled a story from his first year in Nashville.
“I was new in the legislature, and I was in Printer’s Alley one night. I went down there every week. Your dad played a trick on me, gave me a name with a number. He said, ‘The singer, she likes you. She’d like you to call her.’ I was so damn excited, I went back to the hotel and called the number. It was the Nashville police station!” Ford then guffaws at his own expense.
“He’s still a trickster,” one of the women says.
Later interlopers would include, along with random greeters, another young woman who is a former — and perhaps future — candidate for county office; a young man eager to catch Ford up on his and his family’s personal circumstances and to tell him about his brand-new entrepreneurial start-up; and Chuck Pierotti, a brother of former District Attorney General John Pierotti, whose salutation to Ford is a cheery and deferential “Hello, Mr. John.”
Ford, who maintains that he gets this kind of thing all the time when he’s out in public, observes, “I don’t say anything to them. They come to me. And, by the way, black and white.”
The egalitarianism of that statement reminds me of a story that I’ve heard told and I’ve told myself many times as a surefire John Ford anecdote. Now is my chance to nudge the tale out of the realm of the possibly apocryphal and get it personally confirmed by the subject himself.
“The Hawaiian story,” I tell Ford. “You know the one I mean?”
He nods and smiles. He knows.
The way the story is usually told, Ford and a colleague are off on a junket somewhere, sitting in a restaurant, and Ford begins to hit on the waitress. Big-time. Shooting his cuffs, smiling his smile, boasting his clothes and his car, floating his whole arsenal of flirtatious lines.
Ford now takes it up and tells it himself from this point:
“‘Naw, naw,’ the lady says,’ I don’t date no black men.’ And I said, ‘Well, that may let some people out, but it don’t let me out.’ She says, ‘Why not? Aren’t you black?’
“I say, ‘No, baby, I’m Hawaiian!’”
Ford laughs, the way other people, whole audiences, have laughed at that punch line, and he adds the coda that is normally missing: “And I got the woman!”
Sexist, opportunistic, or whatever, it’s hard not to find this story endearing. And harder still to count out the man who tells said story on himself.
So, politics and his health problems and his legal status aside, when he says, elsewhere in that same conversation, “I’ve been rich. I know what it’s like to be a millionaire. I’m going to be a millionaire again,” you don’t know exactly how to regard it.
It’s like that scene in the movie, when another character says to the stupefied Jack Nicholson character, “It’s Chinatown, Jake!”
Well, what the hell, it’s John Ford!
Jackson Baker is the politics editor of the Memphis Flyer, and a contributing editor to Memphis magazine.