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.

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Dating from the 1980s, cartoonist Brad McMillan’s famous murals on the walls of the P&H Cafe in Midtown include a Ford family section featuring brothers (left to right) James, Harold Sr., and John. | photograph by Brandon Dill

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.”


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