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

(page 1 of 5)

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.”


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