Find the Good

         The great author Alex Haley, who grew up in West Tennessee and became important to the whole wide world, urged us in his lifetime to “Find the good, and praise it.”

         By this he meant that each of us should seek out the inspiring stories our families tell write them down. That is what Haley did in his own family research that inspired Roots, and that spurred others who read the book or watched the TV mini-series to capture stories of their own generations.

         Haley’s six words – Find the Good, and Praise It– are timely instruction for us now, whatever our creeds and circumstances. There is much good to recognize in our world, and across Tennessee, especially in this time of much worry and stress that can otherwise make us to feel gloomy.

         Nashville is a city of good people doing good things daily. So are Memphis and Knoxville and Chattanooga, and every crossroads and hamlet in between. We don’t read much about these acts of goodness, partly because Good News is not much the job of news media nor of the Internet. More of it ought to be. Today we could use the grounding of good role models and their deeds that inspire and not deflate and discourage.

         This is where my own optimism comes from: Reminders of what is commendable around us and of the good souls who make it so.

         I was invited to speak in Knoxville the other day. May 1 was Law Day, annually observed by attorneys and bar associations across the nation. I was telling those 200+ lawyers about the history of bipartisanship that produced great things in Tennessee in the 1980s and 1990s. During the Q&A session, a gentleman in the back of the room stood and asked me, “Do you really expect we can get back to that kind of bipartisanship in our country?”

         I answered, “Yes, partly because I’m an optimist and I feel in my bones that our country is capable of doing that.” Not only do I believe we must have a restoration of civility, but my gut tells me that most Americans want it back.

         A few days later, in Nashville, a friend suggested to me how we may be “living through the end of the Enlightenment.” In the latter third of the last millennium, objective science, Renaissance art, and public education overtook the strictures of autocrats and the medieval church.

         Watching today’s spasms of gun violence, the cowardice of Congress and legislatures to push back against them, together with the rise of intolerance, it feels hard to deny in this moment that we’re living through end-times on some level. But I’m an optimist for many reasons. That’s partly, I admit, because I don’t like feeling pessimistic or being down about my country in spite of our temporal leadership. And partly because I am lifted when I look in the eyes of grandchildren, who give me a mixture of hope and a feeling of responsibility.

Finally, I also see the good that flourishes around us all – not in the headlines but at street level – of the kind that Mr. Haley celebrated. A few examples…

·      Teachers. The work teachers do makes an undeniable difference in the lives of children, making discerning citizens of each new generation. This is the true hope of cities and nations, and astonishing examples abound.

·      Librarians.There is much good that libraries do, day in and day out. Professional librarians work in a wide assortment of library types, in fact, from those at K-12 schools to colleges to our great public libraries and all their branches in the inner cities, rural zones and suburbs.

·      Non-Profits.These agencies do vital work of social healing and community building. They are driven forward by committed professionals, supportive donors, long tradition, and great need. This is a largely untold story of how Nashville works.

·      Philanthropy. Take the “Big Payback” initiative, managed by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. In this year’s edition, more donors gave more money to more non-profit agencies than ever before. There is much generosity here.

·      Good Neighbors.Neighborhoods certainly change – and nowhere more lately than my own hometown – but so many citizens still want to know their neighbors and to be available to help where they can.

·      A Welcoming City. At a time when some politicians see personal gain in dividing native from immigrant, Nashvillians believe otherwise, and they walk the walk. Ten years ago, in defeating the dark “English Only” referendum, voters here declared we prefer to be a welcoming place, knowing that immigration made us stronger over centuries.

         There are more than these – many more – and I hope to spread the word in future columns. I hope you will share the Good you see, and how it helps you see hope in our loud and distracted world.

Who Will Lead Out of the Wreckage?

         Five centuries ago, the Italian essayist Niccolò Machiavelli wrote this about the uses of power: “It is not titles that honor men but men who honor titles.”

         Those words are as true and timely today as they were in 1513. They are especially relevant now to the Casada Crisis that hangs low over Tennessee’s state capitol.

         Casada clamored and clawed to become Speaker of the House – the third position in the line of succession to governor – but somewhere along the way must have forgotten why he wanted it. Maybe all that he ever wanted was the title, the trappings, and the associated patronage.

There was no glimmer that it ever was, for him, about high policy but only low politics. Clearly it wasn’t about respecting the memory and service of his honorable predecessors, both Republican and Democratic, from Ned McWherter to Beth Harwell. They honored their titles, not the other way round.

         Speaking of McWherter. In my own reading of Tennessee political history over the past half-century, Casada’s record of manipulation and of tolerating the wrong things is the most significant episode since the Blanton ouster of 1979. True, there have been other scandals and corruptions between Blanton and Casada’s, some that the FBI gave code names. But at the end of the day the Operations ‘Rocky Top’ and ‘Tennessee Waltz’ were only about petty bribes.

         Casada’s case now, like Blanton’s, has been mostly about abuses of power by an entitled one who enabled it and failed to correct it. How the Blanton case ended, so abruptly with the early swearing in of Gov. Lamar Alexander, was less about Bad Guys Doing Wrong than about Good Guys Doing Right. The good guys then were the senior leaders of the state legislature, most of them Democrats in that moment, putting the end to low behavior by a governor of their own party and in a way that had never been done before.

         Most times, tradition is a good and grounding thing. It anchors us. Other times, like now with the speakership stalemate (or gridlock, call it what you like) that Casada has left behind, not so much. Tradition and proper order are the things that have been violated now. It’s in this context that those now calling for Gov. Bill Lee to step in are making a good point. No, that would not be a traditional step, but this isn’t a normal time. In fact, this present time is quite extraordinary.

Frankly I cannot imagine any of our former governors who followed Blanton letting this unusual sort of slippage persist much longer. Governor Lee’s opportunity now is to create a path forward for a House that is otherwise unable to heal its own wreckage. He could even do it very privately, letting the results unfold in the public eye. But this essential corrective will not be easy, and it won’t be accomplished without much boldness, skill, selflessness, and wisdom.

This is also not about party politics anymore. It’s about responsible governance. Think what you will of the fact we have a GOP supermajority in the Tennessee General Assembly, but it is what we have now. Leaving that rudderless group unaided in this unusual moment helps nothing and nobody.

Importance of Staying Tuned In

On this Saturday morning following the Casada crisis, a friend wrote in to ask me how come so many incumbent members of the legislature continue to be re-elected. It’s a good question, and it’s true that in a typical year there’s isn’t much turnover as House and Senate elections come and go.

I’m thinking there are several reasons why the same people tend to get re-elected, some good reasons and others not so much. The positive reason is that, in truth, most members do a good job consistently consistently over time. In those cases, it’s proper and right that voters in their home districts (the ones who keep up, anyway) reward them on Primary and Election Days with another term. On the other hand, some in the legislature seem to make a point of staying ‘below the radar’ and never getting into the spotlight, for either policy or partisan reasons; some of these, in turn, either never get challenged at re-election time or their voters just don’t pay attention, or both. This condition is not so positive and sometimes can lead to mischief, arrogance, and even corruption.

Most voters are reasonable and tolerant, but there is also a limit to tolerance of bad behavior. That line doesn’t get crossed often, but it has been crossed in the current General Assembly by Casada and his crowd. A lot of people in government have power, but some can’t handle it with fairness and grace that leadership requires.

What we all need next are more good elections - meaning, where more citizens stay tuned in and stay alert to the arrogance of a supermajority, and where everyone votes when the time comes..

Can We Talk?

America is a place of many languages, looks and lessons. Since my earliest days as a young news reporter, I have been amazed at how so many people have stories to tell that the rest of us ought to hear. In particular, Tennessee is a place of great creativity. Our neighbors, too, often want to share their stories - sometimes with a little prodding.