Some Favorite Things

I will admit to you that it does get harder by the week, but I remain a determined optimist about our city, our country, and our people.

All have flaws and do bring their disappointments, but good people are working on the problems. (Well, the current White House seems a big exception, and so is how the Senate so caves, yet even on these Washington fronts I find myself lately whispering ‘Hurry, Election Day.’ So it’s not like there’s no fixing it. Just don’t get me started about Greenland.)

More immediately, from my reading over the past couple of evenings I am reminded of these very good things that are currently worth noting:

The state legislature meets tomorrow and will elect a new Speaker of the House, putting a period at the end of the Casada regime.

The aforementioned Tennessee legislature will only be meeting for one day. God is good.

Grandchildren: The creatures who bring us hope. (I didn’t read that anywhere. I just know it. Don’t get me started.)

In Nashville, early voting begins tomorrow (Friday, August 23). God willing, it will be our last election for mayor for awhile.

The weather: I know, but I looked at a 10-day forecast this morning. It promises that next week the highs will be getting lower. I’m going with that.

Metro Council this week re-named the street in front of Vandy’s Memorial Gym. It’s now called “Perry Wallace Way” which is a fine thing. I like that.

Last night I read how the Land Trust of Tennessee has turned 20 years old. Definitely a good thing. My continuing thanks to Phil Bredesen, who organized the Land Trust three years before he became Governor.

Where I read that was in an exceptional magazine called “Tennessee Home & Farm” which the Tennessee Farm Bureau publishes for its members. Beautifully done mag. I always learn something, sometimes a lot. Kudos to the publisher.

Councilman Freddie O’Connell’s constituent newsletter: I have looked forward to his notes for four years on every first and third Tuesday prior to Council meetings.

Freddie has also been re-elected. I hope he continues his newsletter for four more years.

Voter registration among high school students seems to be showing good progress. I’m hopeful this will translate into more Election Day participation by young people. I always vote, but the future belongs more to them than me.

Did I say, Grandchildren? Grandkids are cool.

What are you grateful for?

Conversation Now, not Debate

Lately whenever I’ve spoken in public – as in all the stops along the Crossing the Aisle book tour – I have found myself wanting to go light on the speechifying and heavier with the Q&A. In almost all situations anymore, I’d rather have a conversation than make a speech.

I also think most everybody in the room, be it large or small, shares that preference whenever possible. Of course, sometimes the pre-arranged format, deep on structure and light on spontaneity, is necessary for balance and fairness, as when there are multiple candidates in an Election Year forum.

But the “Conversation Mode,” let’s call it, is otherwise better whether I’m facing a couple dozen folks at a small book club meeting, or several hundred in a large banquet hall.

This thought came to me again yesterday (Sunday) afternoon, sitting in the vast sanctuary of 15th Avenue Baptist Church in Nashville. It was a public meeting of NOAH (Nashville Organized for Action and Hope) and their municipal election “Run-Off Edition” with Mayor David Briley and Councilman John Cooper, the final two candidates for Mayor of Nashville.

NOAH is a county-wide “social justice” coalition of 66 congregations and labor unions. NOAH makes a point of saying they don’t endorse candidates, and yet their events do a good job of eliciting beliefs and commitments on vital community issues. (On Sunday, NOAH facilitators zeroed in on criminal justice, affordable housing, economic equity and jobs, and education.)

The NOAH format had Briley and Cooper seated at the same table, but each was asked to respond to questions independently of the other. (NOAH’s chair, the Rev. Edward L. Thompson, instructed the two guests: “No cross-talk between candidates.”) So it went - each in turn stood and replied to each question, speaking into a hand-held microphone for all to hear.

My mind jumped ahead to what might happen in the fully televised “debates” coming over the next three weeks when Briley and Cooper close out their campaigns. I haven’t seen details on how those will be staged as yet, but my hope is that something fundamentally different can be done as they appear together on TV screens in our homes citywide Because TV is such an intimate medium, the Conversation Mode is highly indicated now.

Several weeks ago, in this space, I advocated precisely that for the next time just two candidates will sit together before a television audience. (If you missed that Field Note, just scroll down this page to the August 3 post titled “We Need to Talk.”) My recommendation is to design an update of the old “Miller & Company” Saturday evening TV show, the one Dan Miller hosted on Channel 4 back in the day. Media have definitely changed but “Miller & Company” was marvelous conversational television. It’s noteworthy that “M&C” ran for seven years in Nashville because of its strengths and it popularity.

I hope at least one of the local producers will take this to heart. It would require a special moderator who can sit there, in a third chair, and proactively manage a live on-air conversation between two strong-minded characters like Briley and Cooper. Engaging each other, at the same table, would be the best way now for all the rest of us to observe these two candidates more fully than before. We would get a better glimpse of how they work, how each thinks and responds in the moment, as they ask and answer each other, one-on-one, with all the city watching.

And then all the city, watching at home, just might have a clearer sense than many of us have now about who would be the better mayor for governing a complicated city through the next four years. It is harder than making a speech or tossing out a glib answer unchallenged. But it’s not supposed to be easy.

This much we know: These next four years ahead for Nashville will challenge the front office at our City Hall as never before. And suddenly all the snappy spots and sound-bites of the campaign trail will help us not at all.

What do you think? 

My Conversation with the Speaker, Part 1

One week from Friday, the Tennessee House of Representatives will elect a new Speaker. This action will, among other things, put a more complete coda to what we might later call the “Speaker Casada Phase” - you remember, the one who flamed out after just six months of arrogant, top-down rule.

The new Speaker will be state Rep. Cameron Sexton from Crossville. He comes from a long distinguished line of center-right Republican leaders, including the Bakers and the Duncans of the Knoxville region. And, next weekend, he inherits the mantle of a long line of honorable men and one woman - Tennesseans named Jenkins and McWherter and Naifeh and Harwell - who have served with distinction through many years of trial and change.

Last Tuesday morning I had an opportunity to sit with Cameron Sexton, and talk with him at length, and take his measure as he becomes one of the three top leaders of Tennessee’s state government.

My newspaper column this weekend is about him, his temperament, and thoughts on the job he will shortly take on. I hope you’ll give it a read (at https://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/columnists/2019/08/16/cameron-sexton-tennessee-house-speaker/2008631001/ and on Sunday in the print edition. Do let me know what you think.

Rep. Cameron Sexton

Rep. Cameron Sexton

What Kind of Nation

“In this difficult day, in this difficult time for the United States, it is perhaps well to ask what kind of a nation we are and what direction we want to move in.”

Those words, so relevant to our current day, were actually spoken 51 years ago. The place was Indianapolis. The speaker was Senator Robert F. Kennedy, then running for president, and the time was early evening, just hours after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been murdered in Memphis.

Then, as now, there was anger and fear in our nation, and a great distrust of authority. The nation was fundamentally adrift. So, too, is America now.

The issues today are admittedly different, but what worries our cities and our families now are both new and also very old. History can be a helpful teacher, though often too many us fail to pay attention.

Our nation and our cities have become fractured in fundamental respects. There is much strength around to hold us together, but our communities and neighborhoods also struggle for communication, for understanding, for connection and context.

In many aspects, the news media especially do not help us in this struggle. Some do, but most do not.

While some newspapers are persisting in the good fight of truth over misinformation, sadly fewer of us read newspapers anymore. While there also continues to be some important television coverage of local issues, so much of TV has been whittled down to essentially the same maddening clips that may yield ratings numbers but little truth of what communities need to know.

That is especially true of CNN and Fox, in which every moment must yield a blockbuster “live” interruption, each more grave in tone and/or lurid than the one it interrupted, whether the newest development is actually important or not.

That phenomenon, in my view, is especially treacherous terrain for our young people and what is to become of them in this angry age. It’s one thing for a teen or young adult to constantly text friends with quick messaging – but quite another if the small hand-held screen becomes that young person’s only channel for perceiving the wider world.

As editors and producers fight forward to figure out what citizens need to know, more of them ought to give some deeper thought now to context and history, and less attention to snatches of “news” in the immediate moment. I don’t suggest that this is an easy task – it is surely one of the hardest of our age – but the experts who ought to be leading the way sadly are not.

It meanwhile does not help any of us to have a President who does not understand history and the wider world, who does not read unless someone else’s words are on a TelePrompTer, and who projects less care for context and consequences than for snarky tweets and thumbs-up grins too wide at the wrong moments.

I often think that what our republic needs most today is a set of broadly available lessons about basic journalism: What is the news, what is the historical role of news media, how to read the newspaper with good scrutiny, and the importance of multiple sources of information.

And what of the most important values of our society, and of democracies everywhere? What of compassion and of love among our human family? How shall we all, especially our younger generations, know these values too?

On that awful night in 1968, Senator Kennedy also said this:

“We can do well in this country. We will have difficult times; we’ve had difficult times in the past; we will have difficult times in the future…. But the vast majority of white people and the vast majority of black people in this country want to live together, want to improve the quality of life, and want justice for all human beings who abide in our land. Let us dedicate ourselves to that, and say a prayer for our country and for our people.”

Farewell to Dr. No

I miss David Manning.

There were times in my earlier career that I would never have thought that possible, let alone write it down anywhere, but I realize its truth today. Today I have learned that David is gone.

I remember the very day that I met David Manning, in 1979. We were both young staffers at the Tennessee State Capitol. David then worked for the State Treasurer, Democrat Harlan Mathews, one of Tennessee’s constitutional officers, and I was a staff assistant to the new governor, Republican Lamar Alexander.

We were representing our bosses in a routine meeting of the Tennessee Student Assistance Corp., one of a myriad of low-profile agencies that together have much to do with the fiscal stability and services of state government.

David had been in his job longer, and was way smarter in ways I was not. We got to be friends, in spite of our bosses’ allegiances to different political parties. Even at that early point, David seemed to have an innate grasp of finance, administrative process, bureaucracy, and institutional politics at the capitol. What I didn’t yet appreciate then was how he already had earned a deep level of trust among members of the Tennessee General Assembly on both sides of the aisle.

In later years, David would make his reputation as a whip-smart and savvy finance guy in the highest levels of Tennessee’s public sector. In late 1986, following Governor Ned McWherter’s election, David became one of his most trusted advisors, as his Commissioner of the Department of Finance & Administration. Later on, he was the Director of Finance for Metro Government in Nashville, under Mayor Bill Purcell. (They had worked together during the years of the McWherter administration, when Purcell was the Democrats’ long-serving Majority Leader in the state House of Representatives.)

Some people liked to call David “Dr. No” as happens with most any tough-minded budget chief who keeps a tight grip on revenues and expenses. (I also remember how my friend Lewis R. Donelson, who was Alexander’s first F&A commissioner, kept a sign tacked inside his office door; when a guest was ushered in and the door was closed, you saw the sign with one word: “No!”) Even so, David helped Governor McWherter accomplish two significant achievements that endure to this day: He was the architect of TennCare, the innovative variation of the federal Medicaid program - not just designing the new program but shepherding its approval by the federal government. David also quarterbacked the visionary but politically fraught project to develop the Bicentennial Mall on the north side of the capitol.

During his Metro Government years, both Mayor Purcell and David’s own Finance Department office were relocated to the old Ben West Library, temporary quarters while the historic City Hall and Courthouse downtown underwent extensive renovations. One particular meeting there with David has remained in my mind to this day.

The project under discussion that day was development of the Nashville Symphony’s new home, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Project leaders, hoping for some city government funding, had arranged for an economic benefit study. The report showed a positive balance to the city in the form of added construction jobs, tourism, and downtown revival. The Symphony’s CEO Alan Valentine was proud of the report and suggested we take the Finance Director a copy to buttress our case.

David made short work of that part of our meeting. “You know,” he said, looking me straight in the eye, “a person in my position ought to ignore a report like this from a person in your position,” meaning a non-impartial advocate. We hastened on to the next (non-financial) item on our meeting agenda. (Mayor Purcell and Metro Council later agreed to participate in the project, including the gift of land at the intersection of Fourth Avenue and Demonbreun.)

But David was always a hard sell. And a hard sell is precisely the type person that a state and a city (and a governor and a mayor) most need in the jobs that David Manning held, over so many years, with such distinction.

We Need to Talk

Now that our mayor’s race in Nashville is down to just two candidates, there’s one big improvement to our public process that I’d like to see in the next five weeks.

We obviously don’t need another full-stage candidate forum, or any comparable such format. What we do need is a conversation, not a debate. It would make the city’s runoff decision a lot clearer-cut for the rest of us.

So far we’ve been treated to what I call the “cattle-call” mode of candidates forums. Of course, it was made necessary by the very large number of candidates. Blessedly, we are past that point as the September 12 runoff vote draws closer.

In staging the 2019 forums to date, all the good moderators – David Plazas of The Tennessean and the TV anchors Tracy Korbet, Bob Mueller and Rhori Johnston – all have done commendable jobs of managing platforms full of politicians. (The many other non-televised forums, helpfully organized by various community organizations, have also soldiered through their own cattle-calls.)

But no more of those Busby Berkeley productions are necessary now. Good for the candidates, and good for the rest of us.

More important, it isn’t what Nashville voters need at this precise stage of this particular election. The choices our city government faces are not binary “yes” or “no” in nature. Issues of governance, like taxation and justice and basic service capacity, are complex and difficult. full of policy choices in which a mayor’s must grasp and sort out the typically many moving parts, on different subjects, often at the same time.

Now that there are only two contenders – both of them bright and accomplished public officials – there ought to be more air-time pre-structured for explaining how they think, what they believe, and where they intend to steer the government of Tennessee’s capital city.

I’m more curious how their minds work than how their speechwriters wordsmith.

What we need now are not stilted debates but (one or more) managed conversations where both the host and the candidates have a fighting chance to shed more light than heat, to present less blocked stagecraft and more revealing discussion, and fewer inane “gotcha” moments with the kind of cute zingers that chiefly entertain their own donors and thrill the consultant.

We need a simpler mode, in which a skillful moderator can press more deeply to enable a listener’s genuine understanding of contrasts. This would be a much better use of air-time and voter attention.

So how might this work? I think of a couple of models from Nashville’s own recent past.

I remember – and personally I miss – the interviews that Teddy Bart used to conduct with his radio guests. An even better model for modern television was how the beloved Channel 4 anchor Dan Miller used to host his Saturday evening show “Miller & Company.”

Dan never had more than two guests. His set, as I recall, was arranged more like an intimate banquette or settee at a private club. The studio lighting was always subdued.

No one shouted on Dan’s show, except for the occasional belly laugh when he or his guest said something funny. Importantly, no one was able to slip out of answering a tough question with the lame, “Sorry, my time is up.”

It was always just you and Dan and his guests, and the host knew what to do with any slipperiness. The infrequent guest who brought only hot air was easily revealed for the folks watching at home. The camera could move in close, and the audio was always crisp.

I hope whichever TV producer or newspaper editor is making the decisions for the next “candidate forum” will think hard about what Nashvillians need to make a smart choice in the election coming up. I hope they chose to present, like “Miller & Company” did, an intelligent hour (or two) of conversation with Mr. Cooper and Mr. Briley. This would help us all manage our own understandings about leadership for the next four years.

The choice of moderator now will likewise be a special decision. Not everyone can do what Dan or Teddy did, rest their good souls.

And remember this: Dan Miller’s show became a piece of our civic furniture. It was enormously popular, and ran for seven years. For a good reason.

Election Night & Morning After

Family names matter, especially in politics, and especially around here.

So no one should be surprised this morning that a guy named Cooper and a guy named Briley have wound up in a runoff as the top two vote-getters in Nashville’s race for mayor.

If you’re feeling that all we do in Nashville anymore is hold municipal elections, you can be forgiven. It does seem so. (And I will spare you one more repeat of the tired boilerplate on how we got into this mess. You’re welcome.) Neither CM John Cooper, in spite of his 10-point lead at the end, nor Mayor David Briley polled strongly enough yesterday to win the thing outright, so essentially we will do it again on the night of September 12.

Cooper and Briley come from two distinguished political families. Each is kin to successful political leaders, and at some level the famous family name boosted opportunities for name recognition and positive responses in the voting booth. In Tennessee, this has been true for people named Clement and Gore and McWherter, too.

But a good name only gets you so far.

While local pols will be stirring through the tea leaves of last night’s results for weeks to come, the more urgent business for this Cooper and this Briley begins this morning.

One task, of course, is to reassess their own respective campaign organizations, messages, and themselves, and to re-calculate how they are thinking about the next six weeks in a much less crowded field of candidates. For Briley, in particular, how hot does the ‘fire in the belly’ burn now?

But the heavier burden this morning, for both but especially for Briley, is to find new friends among the many Nashvillians who voted for someone else – either for Carol Swain or for John Ray Clemmons – and also among the even greater number of registered voters who just stayed home.

Cooper’s strong finish last night with a 10,000-vote margin was impressive, and so too has been his enthusiasm. For this next period, he is unlikely to tweak his message much because it has served him well so far. The heavier lift for him too now will be to draw into his column what support he can among the many voters who did not choose a famous name – either his or Briley’s.

Re-aligning for a run-off is more complicated now than it used to be. In 2019 the dynamics are different than back in the middle of the last century when political leaders could hope to “deliver” their primary voters en bloc to a general election candidate.

Today no politician tells anybody how to vote. There’s too much communication at play for that, way more welcome daylight, way more voter independence – and also a sizable quotient of citizen non-engagement

Even organizational endorsements - for example, those of teachers and firefighter and other city employees – are in a different posture this morning. While nice to announce, they just are not moveable groups as in the earlier time. They didn’t count for much yesterday.

And that is not how the new Nashville works. Not anymore.

What starts today is a new race that will test both Cooper and Briley and their teams. The next six weeks will require money, yes, but also shoe-leather, a bounce in the step, solid outreach, and a strong spirit for real engagement.

And, more than the interests of any one candidate, all that is what our city needs now.

Those Democrats in DC

The main complaint I have with how the Democrats in DC are handling this impeachment question is that they just don’t seem to be very good at it.

Of all the cities of the world, you would think in the political/media bubble we call Washington they could find better help. 

As it is, we’re having difficulty perceiving a strategy with a clearer and more compelling message. All that might help the real decision-makers (meaning U.S. voters) better understand what Trump has done to the presidency.

“Strategy” means having a coherent game-plan that helps you see further than the end of your own nose. “Message” is about helping regular folks (outside DC) understand the complicated details. None of that seems to be happening, nor apparently has the need of it occurred to anyone in the party’s leadership.

With all that Trump has done and failed to do, this should not be as hard now as the solons are making it seem. I have concluded that if there’s one organization in America completely capable of blowing a golden opportunity, it is the Congressional Democrats. They are giving us a new appreciation for what Will Rodgers said, a hundred years ago: ‘I belong to no organized political party – I am a Democrat.’

Just one example: Take the Mueller Report.

Raise your hand if you’ve read the Mueller Report. Raise your hand if you know three people on your street who have. Anyone? See, that’s the problem at present. The problem with approaching the 448-page Mueller Report is exactly that: It’s 448 pages. I suspect few Americans have had the time or inclination to consume such an intimidating brick of a book, what with work and family and car-pools and all.

But Mueller’s report is, in fact, a masterwork of investigative details about Russian meddling in our 2016 election (see Volume 1) and the extent of brazen White House attempts to cover it up (see Volume 2). It’s all there, never mind the blacked-out lines the lawyers call “redactions.” It is quite clear and quite damning: The Russians meddled. The Trump campaign operatives, wanting dirt, eagerly worked with those Russians. And, afterward, a cover-up was attempted.

Back to my point: With the magnitude of 400-plus pages, you don’t actually educate anybody by dumping it on newsstands and bookstores. What you do (normally) with such heft and complexity is extract the main take-aways, show the key message points, and print them onto big posters. You take all that to coordinated presentations across America, and go through them clearly and patiently. Like smart communicators do. (Ross Perot was better at this, rest his soul.)

But no. On Wednesday last, the Democrats on the House committee relied on a TV show. They seemed to bank on one-off stagecraft, hoping for snappy sound-bites, and imagining that regular Americans looking on at home would put it all together in their heads. Not likely.

(Note to File: Forget the Republicans. They were playing their own game. GOP committee members seemed less troubled by what the Trump campaign had done with Russians than by any authorities having the audacity to look into it.)

It was not Mueller who stumbled on Wednesday. It was the Democratic majority that blew an opportunity for national clarity. They squandered hours of priceless national TV coverage that actually could have helped the American people understand this mess.

They gambled that Mueller would make it easy for them. They anticipated he would deliver them helpful quote lines into the television cameras and microphones. He preferred not to.

It’s not that easy. None of this should ever be that easy.

Refuge and Sanctuary

Just minutes after dawn yesterday, while most of Nashville slept, ICE agents blocked a man and his young son in the driveway of their home in Hermitage.

The flashing lights on the ICE vehicle aroused neighbors, who quickly surmised what was happening. Soon the city was aroused to the proceedings in the peaceful hamlet with the famous name on the far east side of the county.

And soon after this, neighbors were literally linking arms with neighbors, Metro police officers and at least two Metro Council members, CM Fabian Bedne and CM Bob Mendes, arrived on the scene. (The police had been instructed to observe but not engage.) Immigration advocates also arrived.

Four hours later, shielded behind a human chain, the man and boy dashed inside their home and shut the door. The frustrated ICE agents, who had brought no warrant with them, gave up and departed the scene.

“We stuck together like neighbors are supposed to do,” one neighbor told a reporter. At this address, the Trump administration’s announced policy of ICE raids to capture undocumented residents ended in failure at the hands of documented American citizens. No doubt, all this that happened down in Nashville 24 hours ago is being discussed at the White House today.

Hermitage, the word, literally means the dwelling of a hermit living in isolation. But today in Nashville the word has a broader and opposite meaning: Neighbors showing defiant solidarity in the face of official lawlessness.

This morning the rest of us are left to ponder the meaning of sanctuary and refuge, due process of law, and the danger to everybody when federal agents bypass any judge and write their own warrants to arrest and search and seize.

The Moon & the Country I Came From

So tomorrow will be Moon Day, the anniversary of the moment Neil Armstrong put a human bootprint in the lunar dust.

I remember the night. A half-dozen of us were standing in the old Tennessean newsroom on the third floor of the building at 1100 Broad (yes, the one they’re tearing down as you read this). Our eyes were trained on a small TV screen behind the city editor’s desk.

We would read later how a half-billion pairs of eyes around the world – maybe as many as 600,000,000 of our fellow Earthlings – had been watching along with us in that same ethereal moment.

The Moon landing of July 20, 1969, became many things to me.

It was a moment in my youth (I was barely 21, still in college). It was an instant of silence and awe in a normally noisy room, and the grainy images on the small screen halted all the routine chatter and clatter of typewriters and newswire machines.

All that seemed to stop. And for an instant so did the echoes of the street, the noise of the world, of the social eruptions over war and race and demagogues. Those external realities did not stop, to be sure, but for the world over there was an interval that brought thoughts of excellence and achievement, of science and of spirit, of perseverance and pride, and of hope and our common future.

The Moon landing made real all those preceding years of imagining and hard work in the space program – the important work of dreamers and doers. Of how JFK, back in 1961, had put a target on the Moon and the nation on the path to this audacious moment. And of how Congress had shared the same dream – and how the dream came true.

So today, thinking back through the layered lens of fifty years, my memory of the Moon landing reminds me how important it is to persist in a goal bigger than oneself. That tradition is also the country we come from.

In the summer of 1969, there was plenty of trouble around: President Kennedy had been murdered six years before the landing. The awful assassinations of Dr. King and Bobby Kennedy were only one year past. War in Vietnam still ranged on, rending the nation, dividing generations, pitting hard-hats against hippies, and dividing all the rest of us with them. (“America, Love it or Leave It” was a thing then, too.) The Vietnam War would not end for six more years. Watergate was still five years away. The political “Southern Strategy” of racial division had already worked for Nixon in 1968 and was well on the way to giving Tennessee and the South the deep red cast we now know so well.

Yet, underneath all that, there was still the hope and promise of a still-youthful nation. And that scratchy broadcast from the Moon reminded humankind that hopes and dreams can also triumph. And how, when viewed from the lunar surface, our Earth is a small blue ball – one medium-sized planet – on which billions of striving souls had better get along.

This week, reading the pathetic political news out of Washington and North Carolina – the news of hate and racism revealed, of chronic division and political fear – I am reminded that the country I came from was a place of hope and striving, not hate.

Now, nostalgia isn’t enough. I don’t want to go back to 1969. Likewise, people you may disagree with should not be told to “go back home” because, in truth, they are home. What’s called for now is much harder work than insults and epithets and snappy news-bites: Our national task now is to double-down and refresh our democracy.

What will sustain us yet is our memory of the pioneering country that you and I came from, with its essential dreamers and scientists and creators – and leaders who connected us to the future with hope and not anxious fear.

We must hang on to our optimism now. Our role models now should be Washington (the man, not the woebegone government in DC), and Adams and Jefferson, Hamilton and Paine, and all the suffragists and Dr. King, and that flickering image of Armstrong on the Moon.

Each of their families came from somewhere else. So did mine. So did your own.

Reviving our spirit through this angry age is the hard but hopeful work that we Americans are all called to do now – to help not hurt each other, to perfect not punish our nation, and to save not sour our country from fear.

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.