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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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.