Mystery Shrouds Crash of Mississippi Governor
It’s been six weeks now since Mississippians last eyeballed their governor, and that was of him laid out on a stretcher after almost dying in a fiery, single-vehicle crash.
Gov. Kirk Fordice, 62, was driving home alone on election night from Memphis where he had been spied dining--and supposedly holding hands--with a woman who was not his wife. His car left a highway, struck several trees, soared 40 feet through the air and landed on its roof before catching fire. He suffered a broken back, a collapsed lung, a broken shoulder bone, broken ribs, a badly bruised heart and a nearly severed ear.
The blustery Fordice, a pro-family-values Republican who has often attacked Bill Clinton on moral issues, left the hospital over two weeks ago but has yet to return to work. When he does return, he’ll have a lot of explaining to do.
Questions surrounding his trip, the accident and the Mystery Woman have gripped this state like a TV soap opera. Fordice has not spoken publicly about the accident. The public hasn’t even seen a recent photograph of him. Because few details are known, rumor and innuendo have rushed in to fill the gap.
There are even suspicions of an initial attempt at a cover-up. Immediately after the crash, Fordice’s aides said the governor’s security detail was nearby when the accident occurred. It turned out they were three miles away, keeping their distance because Fordice had requested privacy.
The widely held view is that he was, as a local columnist put it, “up to some hanky-panky while his wife was away in France.”
The early press coverage “approached the limits of decency,” groused Mark Garriga, the governor’s press secretary. “There was a lot of sensationalizing.” He found it especially distasteful, he said, because the governor was fighting for his life when these accounts were published.
“I think people would have preferred it if the news media had provided us with factual information instead of innuendo,” griped Bobby Roberts, manager of a Jackson barbecue restaurant the governor frequented. Roberts acknowledged, though, that the public ate up the rumors as greedily as they scarf down his sauce-slathered ribs.
So far, concern for his health and the public backlash against the perceived excessiveness of early press coverage seems to have muted the governor’s opponents.
“I don’t think for a minute that people want to know the minute details of Kirk Fordice’s life, but they do want to know why he was out of the state, who he was with and why,” said Alice Skelton, executive director of the state Democratic Party.
Almost everyone assumes the governor has been having an affair, especially since, in an unguarded moment, he told a reporter in 1993 that he was in love with his high school sweetheart and planned to leave his wife. Fordice went to high school in Memphis.
His wife of 40 years, Pat Fordice, who is universally described as a “gracious” and “classy” Southern lady, issued a press release saying she knew nothing of marital difficulties and had no intention of leaving the governor’s mansion.
Fordice’s personal life briefly became an issue during the 1995 reelection campaign. But voters, ignoring it, reelected him overwhelmingly.
Roberts credits Fordice’s reelection more to the racial calculus of Mississippi politics than anything else. In the perception of whites, he said, black people have taken over the Democratic Party. “Everything is racial,” said Roberts, who is white. “It’s not like, ‘I don’t like you, and you don’t like me.’ It’s just that people feel more comfortable with people who are like them, who share their views and background.”
Fordice won reelection, he said, because “there are more white people in Mississippi than black people.”
Sid Salter, publisher of the Scott County Times and a syndicated columnist who wrote the 1993 story that briefly turned the state on its head, said he questioned Fordice about alleged infidelity because rumors were circulating around the capital even then.
The backlash to his column and to his raising the question of Fordice’s marital problems during a 1995 debate--followed by Fordice’s reelection--caused him to consider the issue a moot point. Until the car crash, he said, the issue was dead.
Now everyone, it seems, wants to know who was the mysterious “middle-aged woman” who waiters at a Memphis restaurant say drank two glasses of California wine and nibbled a salad Nov. 5 while the governor feasted on catfish and sipped one glass of wine.
The few brief statements Fordice has issued through his press secretary said nothing about why, on the day of the accident, he’d sent away state troopers assigned to his security detail. Nothing about what caused his 1996 Jeep Grand Cherokee to suddenly veer off the road as he traveled south on Interstate 55 south of Memphis. Nothing about why he left the state, apparently without notifying his staff of his whereabouts.
His office will say only that he went away on “private business.”
Passersby who witnessed the crash pried him out of his Jeep before flames engulfed it. They had no idea the bloody man they rescued was the governor. The state troopers, who by policy must remain in his general vicinity even when Fordice excuses them, were three miles away, oblivious to his plight.
They heard about the crash on their radio but did not know it involved Fordice. They briefly considered whether to go render assistance. But when they learned that emergency vehicles were en route they proceeded on to Jackson. Only later did they learn that it was the governor’s vehicle that crashed.
Officials say no alcohol was found in Fordice’s system and the weather was clear.
Pat Fordice, who was in France when the accident occurred, cut her vacation short. Among the governor’s first words when he regained consciousness, she told reporters, was, “Was I alone?”
Fordice said he did not remember the crash. When he is feeling well enough to return to work, probably sometime in January, his staff says he will meet the press to address their questions. But Garriga, Fordice’s chief of staff, said it is possible that no one will ever know why the accident occurred.
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