Why are Tennessee politicians all such duds on the national scene?

What is it about Tennessee politicians who go national? They all seem… I dunno… aggressively bland, somehow. Please don’t take this as an attack on the Volunteer State, but when your politicians vie for national attention, they get really… bland. Like I said.

I remember watching the 1996 Republican primaries closely when, in a flash of plaid, Lamar Alexander burst onto the national scene. Not that I was terribly moved by any of the Republicans that year, but I found Alexander singularly unmoving. “I’m not like those other guys,” Alexander said while campaigning in the summer of 1995. “I’m an outsider.” Yuck.

The next wooden, uninteresting politician from Tennessee to make a play for national office was Al Gore in 2000. Gore didn’t seem to catch fire, the way Bradley did. I wouldn’t blame Gore for not wanting to catch fire, because that would be dangerous, what with him being a block of wood and all. And when it came time to push for an accurate vote count in Florida, Gore just didn’t do it. Sure, he was great on Saturday Night Live, but hell, if I was looking for a Saturday Night Live cast member for president, I would have voted for Tina Fey.

Now we’ve got Bill Frist making rumblings in New Hampshire, “very concerned” about the Manchester mayoral race, and talking bland, boring politispeak, like that quote up there. I’ll excuse a politician some politispeak; that’s part of their job, after all, but it seems that that’s all that Frist has to offer. The man isn’t even as good at oratory as Al Gore! Plus he’s a regular conservative Republican line-toer! And he wants to be president?!

A recent issue of The New Republic featured Phil Bredesen as a potential presidential (or vice-presidential) candidate. But TennCare is a mess and besides, Bredesen is bullish on these faith-based initiatives—and he’s another less-than-inspiring speaker.

Maybe Tennesseans like ‘em bland. That’s okay, but I just can’t wrap my head around the appeal of them. Are Bob Clement and Harold Ford more exciting? Maybe Van Hilleary? Those three, I’ll admit, I’m not terribly familiar with, though all the talk about Ford lately seems to suggest that he’ll be making a Senate run soon, so I guess I’d better get acquainted with him. Here’s hoping he doesn’t put me off—or put me to sleep.

For exciting politicians and political sagas, I’m turning my attention to New York and Illinois these days (and, recently, Pennsylvania.) But for all the limelight that Tennessee politicians have gotten over the past decade or so, you’d think they’d have been offering something more interesting. Andrew Jackson? James K. Polk? Where are you now?

I rather liked Fred Thompson. He always exuded a refreshing air, something like, “Fuck you, I don’t need to be doing this. So I’ll just do what I want to do and that’ll be that.”

Thompson… yeah, I forgot about him. I wasn’t wild about his politics, but I gotta say I liked his style.

Thompson kind of had the James K. Polk thing going for him, but I didn’t care for his politics. I was impressed that once he got to the Senate he basically decided it was a nest of snakes and said “no thanks!”, even though there were people begging him to run.

In the final analysis, I think Albert Gore, Jr. is going to be a tragic figure in American history. His father was totally ambitious and really, really wanted to be president. Little Al (as my grandfather, who campaigned for Al Gore Sr. in Middle Tennessee, called him) never really had a choice. He was a good senator and VP because he’s really a policy wonk. He’s a smart guy who loves the ins and outs of government, but I always, always got the impression that his presidential campaigning was half-hearted and only done out of some sense of obligation to his dead father. Little Al lost the 2000 election all by himself by not immediately demanding a full-state recount instead of only picking and choosing the counties he thought he might gain. That gave the Republicans the argument that the count was illegitimate and self-serving. He should have said “Let’s count all the votes and let the chips fall where they may.” Oh, and don’t forget Chance that Gore was a guest voice on Futurama several times and that his daughter was a writer and show runner!

Bill Frist can suck my fat cock. He’s a self-serving political hack whose stances on healthcare come very close to violating his Hippocratic oath. But hey, what do you expect from someone’s whose family fortune came from HCA? The good news is that the Bush machine, who put him in power, will shank him as soon as he shows any sign of being a viable presidental candidate. Couldn’t happen to a nicer man.

Bredesen is a centerist, New Democrat-type who also made his money in health insurance. The Tenncare thing has been hard, but to tell you the truth I see Bredesen’s efforts to save or reform the program as sincere. The entrenched health insurance compaines in Nashville and Memphis want TennCare dead because they see it as sucking off their bottom line and a dangerous experiment in socialized medicine. If it succeeded, then maybe people would reconsider their utter reliance on the failed, exploitive, and downright immoral for-profit health insurance model. Which is not to say that TennCare doesn’t have legitimate structural problems and those who abuse the system–it does, and it needs help if it’s going to survive–but its powerful enemies must be taken into account if you’re the governor of an entire state. Would Bredesen do well on a national stage? I don’t know. Is he a desireable candidate from a political point of view? The jury’s still out on that one, too, but I do trust him as much as I trust any politician, which is to say, not much at all.

Alexander once said “I don’t believe there should be anything like a minimum wage.” He can go to hell. I did actually step on his heels repeatedly during his famous plaid-clad walk across the state when he was running for governor back in the day. I was a little kid and his handlers put me close to him as he walked through our hometown for the photo op. I was being pushed from the crowd behind me and kept stepping on his shoes, causing him to step out of one at one point. The mental image in my head when I think of “Lamar Alexander” is still the nasty look he shot me as he was putting his shoe back on.

My opinion of Harold Ford, Jr. has soured recently. First of all, he voted for the Iraq war resolution, despite the fact that he was in a 100% secure district and had no worries about re-election. He knew he fucked up, too. He was on the radio within hours of the vote trying to justify it to his constituents. I wrote him several angry letters, and then I ran into him in the grocery store a few months later and gave him an earful, embarassing him in front of his date. Then he initially voiced some support for the President’s Social Security phase-out plan until a mountain of negative mail and reaction cause him to withdraw that support before it was even offical and back an alternative bill that creates federal savings accounts outside of the Social Security system. Bush’s recent visit to Memphis was to put the heat on Ford to formally come out in favor again. He wants Frist’s senate seat, and I want him to have it, but they’re already putting the shank in by attacking his crazy, corrupt uncle, state senator John Ford. There was a recent news story in the Commercial Appeal to the effect that his staff was reconsidering the 2006 run because of all of John Ford’s negative publicity. John Ford deserves what’s coming to him, but the timing is all about undermining Jr. IMHO, Harold Ford needs to show some damned backbone and actually stand for something instead of blowing in the wind. He’s a kick-ass public speaker–much better than anybody else in the state that I’ve heard–and he’s got a winnig personality, but he’s got to demonstrate some kind of principles beyond ambition in order to keep me as a loyal constituent.

Van Hillary and Bob Clemet are nothing but empty suits.

So yeah, maybe you’ve got a point about Tennessee politicians.

Well, if you think about it, most politicians who make bids for national office are pretty bland. Excitement tends to alienate voters.

Huh? What, beyond pushing the case to the United States Supreme Court, should he have done?

Um… no. It was Bush who pushed it to the Supreme Court, and he shouldn’t have done that. vibrotronica put it very well: Gore should have insisted on a statewide recount, so that all the votes were recounted.

Anyone who’s seen Die Hard 2 or read Earth in the Balance could only assume that in the case of at least 2 Senators, their forte is fiction as opposed to politics.

'Cause they don’t come up with catchy theme songs anymore.

Andrew Jackson:
In 1814 we took a little trip
Along with Colonel Jackson down the mighty Mississip.
We took a little bacon and we took a little beans
And we caught the bloody British in the town of New Orleans.

Davy Crockett:
Davy, Davy Crockett
King of the wild frontier

James Polk:
He’s a real nowhere man

But James K. Polk has a song! Here it is:

In 1844, the Democrats were split,
The three nominees for the presidential candidate
Were Martin VanBuren, a former president and abolitionist,
James Buchanan, a moderate,
Lewis Cass, a general and expansionist.
From Nashville came a dark horse riding up,
He was James K. Polk, Napoleon of the Stump!

There’s more to it, but that’s the gist. It’s by They Might Be Giants, who are gods.

Oh yeah, and Howard Baker was an outstanding politician. Any other state should have been so lucky to have someone like Baker representing them in Washington.

I had the pleasure of speaking to him for a good twenty minutes at a cocktail party in Tokyo a few years ago. What a nice, polite, intelligent, interesting, and energetic person.

Is that the guy from Law & Order? Love his acting, hate his politics.

How cool! I’ll have to try to find it and listen. But… Is it catchy?

vibrotronica, I guess the Memphis papers must suffer from the same problems as the Nashville papers (i.e. no news of significance on the local scene, but plenty of significant news about other areas). Harold Ford, Jr.'s pretty much as bad as his uncle. It seems like every couple of months there’s a story about Harold Ford Jr. doing something that makes everyone in this area say, “Why the hell do they keep electing him?”

IMHO, what kills TN politicians on the national stage, is that in order to win office in TN, a politician has to spin this folksy, downhome kind of image, where he/she’s just one of the “good ole folks” and not one of those high falutin’ Yankee types with fancy ideas like homerosectual marriage. There’s a very schitzophrenic aspect about this state. They try to project this image that the state has a very sophisticated atmosphere and is fast becoming a cultural Mecca, and yet they play up the whole “simple Southern, country folk” as well. This state needs to pick an image and stick with it. Either we’re rapidly on course to out-sophisticate Atlanta, or we’re going to stay “simple country folk” The only politician who’s successfully (and then only partially) managed balance both aspects is Bill Clinton.

And then, there’s Byron “Low-Tax” Looper.

He isn’t boring.

Stark raving bonkers, yes. Homicidally loony, yes. But not boring.

Actually, Fred Thompson’s didn’t begin his movie career playing fictious characters. He played himself in a movie in which he fought against corrupt politics in Tennessee. And that was after he had served as Watergate counsel alongside Senator Howard Baker. It was Thompson’s questioning that led to the discovery of the Oval Office taping system.

He is one of the Republicans that I would consider voting for.

I’ve defended Frist here before, but only on a personal basis. And I just can’t make that stretch far enough anymore. Politically, he makes my flesh crawl.

Bredesen did marvelous things for Nashville when he was mayor. As governor, he has had a hard row to hoe. I could vote for him for President, but I don’t think that he has the charisma to put himself over.

Harold Ford has the charisma and the intelligence. I’m sorry to read here that he seems to be making some really poor decisions. (I don’t think his uncle will hurt him all that much. After all, look at Neil Bush and other political relatives that were/are less than sterling.

Interesting. I also have a mental image that has stayed with me. When I was teaching in the inner city, he came to a ribbon cutting ceremony for a bridge directly behind our school. The kids were a little excited about seeing the governor. I don’t think the man smiled the entire time – unless it was while he was actually cutting the ribbon. He looked frightened. I don’t think he ever acknowledged the presence of the students.

Thumbs up on Howard Baker – even though I worked hard for his opponent when Baker was first elected. I backed the wrong man.

vibrotronica, your grandfather and my father had something in common. They both campaigned with Big Al.

Did someone say Estes Kefauver? Cordell Hull?

Fie on Andrew Jackson for his cruelty.

Have to agree about Howard Baker. I was very impressed with him during the Watergate hearings, though I was only in junior high at the time.

(Re Fred Thompson) I dunno - I heard him in the Henry Fonda role on a radio play version of “The Best Man.” He imbued the part with all the dramatic spark of a high school office secretary reading the luch menu over the school PA system.

If we want to run a candidate based on his having been in a “Die Hard” movie, how about Alan Rickman? “By Grabthar’s hammer, by the sons of Worvan, you shall be avenged!” Now there’s a catchy slogan.

Yeah, it’s a catchy tune. It’s upbeat; it sounds like a proud, heroic anthem. They usually play it at their concerts, and it drives the crowd wild. (At least, it drives me wild, into a fit of religious ecstasy. I mean, their shows are really good.) It’s off their 1996 album, which is called Factory Showroom, which has a bunch of good stuff on it.

Zoe—I’d forgotten about Estes Kefauver. I’ll admit I don’t know a heck of a lot about him. I remember him as a rather bland compliment of the 1956 Democratic ticket, and ultimately an unfortunate choice. If Stevenson had selected Senator Kennedy, I don’t know if things would have gone that much better for him. Kennedy was still green wood at the time.

To hijack slightly: I still regret what happened to the Stevenson ticket. Of all the candidates who never made it, I regret him the most. Seconded by Robert Kennedy. Then Hubert Humphrey. Then Bill Bradley. (I include Al Gore and John Kerry in that list not so much for themselves as candidates but rather for who got the job instead…)

Honestly, I don’t remember much either about Kefauver. I was thirteen in the summer of 1956 and I do remember watching the battle between our man from Tennessee and this young upstart they called Jack Kennedy. It was my first memory of the Senator from Massachusetts. I had no idea how much I would come to love that man.

A year or two before Stevenson’s death, I had the chance to be introduced to him. This would have been in the mid-1960’s. He had the most open face and gentle voice. He also had, I think, the saddest eyes that I had ever seen in another human being. But I loved his intellect, his humor and his depth. I can’t tell you exactly what year he died, but I do remember that it was on my birthday in the middle of July. There will not be another like him.