Daniel Ruth

Drive down memory lane ends up in the ditch

Think of this as Dick Greco's channeling of Gerald Ford — with a side order of cafe con lecherous.

Greco, who is 247 years old and running to become mayor of Tampa for the fifth time — which would sort of make him the Franklin Roosevelt of Kennedy Boulevard — was holding forth the other evening during a televised candidate debate.

From his body language and temperament, Greco acted as though he had better things to do than share a stage with lesser mortals who have the audacity to think they should have the job, which by Predestination, Manifest Destiny and Tampa Exceptionalism is so rightfully his.

Yet the former mayor was doing swimmingly until he decided to open his mouth and insert his entire shoe collection. At issue was the current climate of Tampa's race relations. That somehow prompted Greco to opine that the city's 1967 race riots, which were sparked after a police officer shot and killed a young black burglary suspect, were little more than a college panty raid that got slightly out of hand.

Only Greco could make a connection between streets gone wild and panties. You could see jaws dropping all the way from the debate site at Blake High School to the spinning grave of the late Bob Gilder, one of Tampa's civil rights giants.

In the wake of the fatal shooting of 19-year-old Martin Chambers by a white officer in 1967, the city erupted into three days of rioting. Fires were set. People were beaten. Then-Hillsborough Sheriff Malcolm Beard started grumbling about locking and loading and shooting to kill.

This was hardly a boolah-boolah, freshman beanie, frat house food fight indulgence. The 1968 Kerner Commission Report on Civil Disorders included the Tampa violence in its study, and it was not an examination of the unfortunate results of college beer-chugging practices.

Much of Greco's campaign strategy has been grounded in long soliloquies about the good old days of yore, how wonderful everything was (especially when he was in office) and just how Camelot-like (beads optional) the city will be once Richard the V comes back into office.

But while Greco can ask voters to let him guide Tampa's future by fondly recalling the past, he can't rewrite it.

Greco is both his own best political adviser and his worst. As anyone who has ever been groped, bussed and otherwise manhandled by the former mayor while he makes the rounds on the hustings knows all too well, this is a superb, formidable retail politician.

But if there is a fatal flaw to Greco as a politician, it is that there is no one around him to tell him: "Dick, for the love of God, please just shut up."

In a presidential debate with Jimmy Carter in 1976, Gerald Ford insisted — repeatedly — that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. And even when given numerous opportunities to amend his remarks, Ford stood fast — and quickly became a laughingstock.

Greco did much the same thing, turning a gaffe into a serving of historical revisionism that makes Glenn Beck look like William Manchester.

Instead of simply admitting he was in error or perhaps used poor wording to describe the 1967 riots, Greco pivoted the day after. He described the Tampa unrest in the streets, as well racial riots spreading across the country at the time, as a "fad."

Adam Goodman, Greco's media consultant, would be forgiven if he stopped at Total Wine and simply bought the entire gin section — and a straw.

Love beads, the Monkees, Hula Hoops and beehive hair-dos were fads. The violence, the deaths, the seething anger fueled by the social cancer of racism that swept the nation — including Tampa — during the 1960s is not in the same category as a Nehru jacket.

An undercurrent of this campaign has been Greco's age of 187, which means he taught Al Lopez how to play baseball. So it didn't help that Greco brought up an event that occurred nearly 44 years ago and then got it wrong.

With only a few more weeks before election day, Greco should get off memory lane. And if anybody asks, Vietnam was bad, really bad.

Drive down memory lane ends up in the ditch 02/10/11 [Last modified: Thursday, February 10, 2011 8:37pm]

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