Sleight of Hand

So here’s my main complaint with the Democrats in DC these days: They ‘take the bait’ from Trump every time. Every single time.

It happened again today with his latest outrageous, scurrilous rhetoric about the four congresswomen, whom he despises as much for their skin-tone as their politics.

Hear me out.

Yes, what the President said about the four non-white elected officials was racist. Yes, it was un-American and vile. And, yes, it was even a new low for him – this damaged man we are saddled with for at least another 18 months.

But all those easy slam-backs from the establishment Dems so misses the point of what Trump is really doing in these ridiculous, un-American moments. What he is really doing is creating intentional smoke-screem. He continues to do his damned-est to divert us all from what ought to be the real stories.

The real story is his failure and ineptitude to advance anything substantial other than tax-cuts for the wealthy and stacking the Supreme Court (which works because he has the unquestioning help of a complacent Senate).

Here’s how he rolls: A, It is a fact is that almost none of Trump’s policy priorities are working out for him – not at the southern border, not with the Muslim travel ban, not in North Korea, not in the Middle East, not even the time-bomb question he wanted inserted into our Census this time. B, He understandably wants none of us (and especially Congress and the news media) giving any sustained attention to these topics, these failures, so therefore, C, He lobs out smoke-bomb after smoke-bomb to constantly change the Story of the Day to his liking.

For this low strategy to keep working, it’s essential for Trump to make each outrage seem more vile than the last, because that’s what ensnares the daily media and most of his DC opposition. They are overwhelmed and don’t seem to know it.

And as long as this sleight of hand works for him, and the longer the opposition falls into the trap, the longer he will occupy the White House.

Person to Person

A couple of remarkable things happened yesterday morning that reminded me of the very positive reality that lies underneath much of the public rancor, anger, and controversy in our public life today.

First, I got to be the keynote speaker at the big annual meeting of the Tennessee Municipal Electric Power Association, held at the Loews Vanderbilt Plaza Hotel. My thanks to Jeremy Elrod, TMEPA Legislative Director, for the invite. (Yes, the same Jeremy Elrod who is Metro Councilman for District 26.) Some 250 execs from 60 local electric utilities statewide were there, from such diverse Tennessee communities as Memphis and Trenton, Columbia and Chattanooga, Etowah and Knoxville. Many of these kindly bought copies of my books afterward, and while I was signing their books a surprising number wanted to tell me of their own memories of what I call the ‘In-Between Time.’

The ‘In-Between Time’ was the period of the 1980s and 1990s when Tennesseans saw a more constructive bipartisan spirit at work in state government that produced good government and forward-facing policies. Most of these TMEPA members who volunteered their own personal stories seemed to lament (as I do) that period of bipartisanship which seems missing nowadays in governments at all levels. And, remember, these are hard-nosed business men and women who deal with professionals and the public every day. It was encouraging to me - as a Tennessean and an American - to hear their laments actually because therein lies much of the hope we all must have for better governments, and the return to decency in places where it appears lacking today.

Later in the morning, checking my email, I was thrilled to read a remarkable volume of comments to my Tennessean column about women’s suffrage and the centennial (coming next year) of the 19th Amendment. So many readers agreed, in their own words and citing their own family stories, that the year 2020 should be a momentous celebration, especially across Tennessee. (I even heard from my own cousin something I had not known before yesterday - that her grandmother and mine, who were sisters, had marched with other women in a pro-suffrage parade in their hometown, the DeKalb County seat of Smithville, Tennessee.) See my column at https://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/columnists/2019/07/12/tennessee-needs-big-celebration-its-role-womens-suffrage/1704228001/

Of course the fact is that, even in this age when anger seems to dominate social media and all our airwaves, underneath there is so much good that abounds in our good country. There are far more wise and anchored and balanced folks than the TV screen ever permits us to see, more common sense and fellow-feeling than demagogues make it seem.

My friend Jim Brown, in his book Ending Our Uncivil War, offers many good lessons about political recovery and spiritual renewal. He advocates for a genuine return to more civil personal relations and how that requires each of us to reach out and know individuals from different racial and cultural backgrounds than our own. Just as the late Nelson Andrews used to remind us, we will never get to know each other well as members of groups until we get to know each other as individuals.

That begins one person at a time.

'Begin the World Anew'

When I was finding my way as a new columnist, I remember questioning whether any of us outside the big media capitals ought to write much about national affairs. There’s plenty of subject matter here in the hinterlands after all, and anyway aren’t the experts sitting in NY and DC?

No more. Around 2016, I came to believe that any of us with a platform anywhere need to weigh in on what we’re seeing. On what worries us as citizens, and what ideas give us hope in what has become a dark and fearful time in our federal government.

I believe there are wise and knowledgeable people who are witnessing exactly what’s going on and what it means for America. They are sitting at desks and kitchen tables all over our nation.

Forget the Russians for a moment. It’s not only them. Closer to home, our national norms are being centrally assaulted by an obvious “enemy within” (as RFK once wrote, or if you prefer, the way his ghostwriter Seigenthaler titled it) when he described the Teamsters’ organized crimes in the early 1960s. The difference now is it’s Trump with his serial erosions of our institutional norms, aided by the complacent and/or cowardly Congress.

This extended Fourth of July weekend has got me thinking fresh about all this – reading how Trump militarized our Independence Day, his continuing undermining of the free press, and on and on. In truth, it’s time a lot of us said what we’re seeing and what we feel about it, and that we hear each other saying it. There is so much good in our cities and towns and nation. But we never hear this from our President, except when he consents to read the words penned by an invisible speechwriter (I’d like to know that person’s name). But even then, so little sincerity undergirds this President’s ghosted words that just a few raindrops on a ‘prompter screen will get him way off message.

There were genuine heroes of our Revolution – think Jefferson, Adams (both), Hamilton, Franklin, Madison, Revere, Ross, Washington himself – and another of them was Thomas Paine. “We have it in our power to begin the world anew,” Paine bravely wrote, under the shadow of tyranny, the reign of great fear, the risk of death.

We have that power, even now. Some days I’m reminded of the words of “Howard Beale,” the central figure in the brilliant 1976 film Network, by the screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky: “Get up! Get out of your chair! Go the window, and yell, I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” That film was fiction, of course, whereas real life is much more complicated. A more relevant film is Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). It’s the true story of Edward R. Murrow at CBS News in the early 50s and his takedown of Senator Joe McCarthy. It’s a good reminder, in stark black-and-white, of the role of our free press and why it matters in extreme times.

In any case, the feeling here is that it’s time for any and all of us to speak up, using whatever “windows” and platforms are available, and to not be timid or bashful about it. It’s what Americans are supposed to do. And we should do it soon.

Who’s with me?

'One Person, One Vote'

This day, July 4, is a good day to read and reflect on what Tennesseans & the Warren Court gave our nation in the ‘one person, one vote’ decision of 1962 - and how, last Thursday, the Roberts Court refused to extend that standard to combat partisan gerrymandering.

For starters, see my Tennessean column on how the landmark Baker v. Carr case began and ultimately served the cause of democracy. Find it on my Columns page under the ‘First Drafts’ menu above, or at https://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/2019/07/03/supreme-court-destroyed-baker-v-carr-redistricting-decision/1623701001/

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.