BOBBY HARRISON: Potential for stories sends journalists to Neshoba fair

JACKSON – At the 1996 Neshoba County Fair political speaking, then-Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice spent his precious allotted time lambasting then-Speaker Tim Ford.

The speech was much talked about because it was unusual for an incumbent governor to so aggressively attack the sitting speaker who was key to how much of his agenda would be passed by the Legislature. But in hindsight, the speech probably was a watershed event in ushering in the partisan vitriol that had been previously lacking from Mississippi politics.

Now don’t get the wrong impression. Before the mid-1990s, Mississippi politics was far from being a Sunday walk in the park, but the bickering and vitriol were not confined to political party. Politicians hated each other for reasons other than party.

But at any rate, the speech was memorable for one other reason. Fordice, who had a knack of harnessing a level of bitterness and venom to his political advantage, quoted from a Wall Street Journal editorial that labeled Ford as the worst speaker in the nation.

The Wall Street Journal editorial said in the hallowed halls of the Mississippi Capitol, Ford was referred to as the Sun King – a line that prompted the people who actually walked in those hallowed halls to scurry to the nearest library to research the Sun King. The Internet was not readily available in those long-ago days.

As it turned out, the Sun King was Louis XIV of France who touted the absolute power of the monarchy. The general consensus at the Capitol was that Ford, an amicable and well-liked individual who ran the House through consensus, was a powerful speaker, but the Baldwyn Democrat was no Sun King.

This prompted your humble scribe to call the author of the Wall Street Journal editorial – John Fund, who to this day can be found on Fox News and elsewhere – to inquire about the Sun King editorial that had been the center of a speech at the much revered, by Mississippi standards, Neshoba County Fair.

To my surprise I got Fund on the phone, and he was very eager to talk to me about what a terrible speaker of the House Tim Ford was until I asked one question.

Perhaps the question was unfair, but it seemed logical to me at the time. If Tim Ford was the worst speaker in the nation, who was the second worst, I asked. It made sense to me that if a person felt qualified to label someone or something as the worst that there was research done so that an educated comparison could be made. What was the criteria used to determine the worst? Who was the best?

Fund hemmed and hawed before finally saying that California Speaker Willie Brown also was pretty bad. I pointed out that at that particular time Brown was not the speaker in California so it seemed that such a comparison was – well – not really a genuine comparison.

Fund never did name another speaker – other than Ford, the presumed Sun King, and Brown, a former speaker.

It is safe to assume that no one will invoke the Sun King today or Thursday during the 2013 version of the Neshoba County Fair political speakings. It is safe to assume there will be countless references to how bad Obamacare is and of the importance of the Second Amendment, which gives us the right to bear arms.

I wonder if there will be signs at the fair banning weapons?

Former Gov. Fordice provided me some of my most memorable “fair moments” whether it was the Sun King speech or the year he argued with members of the crowd and then with his gubernatorial candidate opponent, Dick Molpus, during a first-ever fair debate that is still the most surreal political event I have ever witnessed.

More than likely, the speeches today and Thursday will be mild by those standards and there will be few, if any, memorable moments made.

But somebody might say or do something memorable. Somebody just might. That is why we keep on going back to the steamy, hot red clay fairgrounds.

BOBBY HARRISON is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 353-3119.