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That’s the Country’s Music Playing in Tennessee

THE WASHINGTON POST

He had the nerve and he had the blood. And there never was a hoss like the Tennessee stud.

--"Tennessee Stud” (1958)

*

Before all else, there was Tennessee’s landscape: cool lonely mountains in the east, muggy open flatlands in the west, temperate gentle hills in the middle. The geography, in turn, shaped the people--poor and Republican in the east, poor and Democrat in the west, prosperous and moderate in between.

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That’s why there’s a real chance that in 2000, both the Democrats and the Republicans will nominate presidential candidates from Tennessee.

If such a notion seems far-fetched today, well, who would have thought five years ago that a baby boomer from Arkansas would have chosen a baby boomer from a neighboring Southern state as his running mate? And that they would win election? And reelection?

Opposing candidates from the same state may seem strange, but not if that state is Tennessee. It’s a locus of irony, abundance, humor and variety, and Tennesseans believe that any politician who can make it there can make it anywhere.

Tennessee, you see, is the heart of America.

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It’s that 500-mile brush stroke in the center of the U.S. map. It’s shaped like a lopsided supper table, a wompy-jawed screen door, a wry grin, a diving board, the blade of a plow. It’s pretty much a parallelogram with two natural borders--the Appalachian Mountains to the east and the Mississippi River to the west--and two man-made borders north and south.

The Tennessee River, which provides electrical power to the state through the Tennessee Valley Authority, makes a U-loop through the countryside, cutting the state into three parts--east, middle and west. These are called the “grand divisions” and are recognized by the state’s constitution and by everybody who’s ever lived there.

East Tennesseans, for instance, have a long history of truculence, independence and a distrust of government. Mountaineers in and around Knoxville remained loyal to the North during the Civil War. Moonshiners, bootleggers, folks who fired at “revenuers” all figure into the East Tennessee mythology. Not surprisingly, Huntsville, the seat of Scott County, is the home of the late congressman Howard Baker Sr. and his son, former Sen. Howard Baker Jr. Baker is the political godfather of contemporary Tennessee Republicans--especially the ones being mentioned as possible presidents--former Gov. Lamar Alexander and the state’s two senators, Fred Thompson and Bill Frist.

Moving west, you come to the lovely rolling hills of middle Tennessee and Nashville--the crux of the country-music cosmos, the state capital, the banking center of Tennessee, the home of more than 15 colleges and universities and the headquarters of Columbia HCA hospital corporation and countless other entrepreneurial national health-care companies that spit out overnight millionaires like snuff juice.

South of Nashville is Lynchburg, where Jack Daniel’s whiskey is distilled; Smyrna, where Nissan operates a huge automobile manufacturing plant; and Spring Hill, home of General Motors’ Saturn plant. Opryland is on the outskirts of Nashville. So is the Hermitage, home of the first president from Tennessee, Andrew Jackson, not far from the ancestral home of Vice President Al Gore.

Farther west, the farmland levels out as it makes for Arkansas and Mississippi and all roads lead to Memphis, where Elvis lived, Martin Luther King Jr. died, the Mississippi Delta begins and Federal Express planes turn the sky purple every night as they come into their world hub.

West Tennessee is the cradle of the state’s Democratic Party.

The big daddy of Tennessee Democrats, Ned McWherter, has an interest in a trucking company and beer distributorship about 130 miles northeast of Memphis in the town of Dresden. He served two terms as governor from 1987 to 1995. He swells with pride when telling folks that as little as 10 years ago, Tennessee’s economy was dominated by agriculture. Today, the economy is thoroughly modern--manufacturing and service are just as important as farming. For those trying to imagine why the next presidential election may first be fought here, some other Tennessee tidbits:

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* Nine out of 10 Tennesseans consider themselves Christians, but sometimes elect politicians who don’t go to church.

* Overall, Tennessee students rank seventh in SAT verbal scores and 11th in math. But the state’s near the bottom of the list for percentage of population with a high school education.

* The state is a crossroads for European and African influences, filtered through pure-D Americana. It’s a jumbled-up jukebox of rock ‘n’ roll, blues, country and bluegrass. It’s a dieter’s nightmare, where grits are served at breakfast, blue plate specials at lunch and chocolate-covered peanut candies called Goo Goo Clusters for dessert.

It’s as rough and wild and bittersweet as any place in America. But most of all, the successful pols who bridge the grand divisions probably do have the nerve, and the blood, to run for president.

But they also need a few other things: hard work, money, charisma and a whole lot of luck.

Gore’s Home Stand

Favorite son Gore’s got the nerve. And he’s got the blood. His parents, Sen. Albert Gore Sr. and Pauline, live just outside Nashville and are much beloved figures in their home state.

Al Gore works hard. He can raise the money. And so far he’s led a charmed public life. But there is the question, even among his strongest supporters, about his lack of passion.

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Listen to him talk about the state he loves: “For anybody who has represented the state in Congress or public life, Tennessee poses a wonderful challenge of staying connected, a centrist approach to common sense because the state is so varied and, of course, was at one time in history sharply divided. The legacy of a Republican east and Democratic middle and west is also dominated by swing voters in every part of the state who insist that both parties do their best to put forward candidates to speak to the undecided, uncommitted voter who decides.”

“Sure, Al seems like a stuffed suit,” says his friend John Siegenthaler, the former editor of the Nashville Tennessean who hired Gore as a reporter in the early 1970s. “Who wouldn’t, next to Clinton?”

A true Tennessean is thought to always look comfortable under any circumstance, and be able to tell a story that’ll charm the devil. Gore usually fails both those tests. In fact, Gore looks so un-Tennessean that many say he’s not a Tennessean at all, but a son of privilege, private schools and, worst of all, Washington.

The vice president bristles at such accusations. “I represented the state in the House and Senate for 16 years. I worked as a reporter in the state’s capital for five years, and I went to school in Carthage, Nashville and Memphis.”

But Tennessee Republicans who have watched young Al for many years sense a weakness in the vice president. And that’s set tongues to wagging.

In the Long Run

All this talk about Tennessee comers reminds Lamar Alexander of another time in American history. “There was a moment,” he says, “I think it was about 1830, when Andrew Jackson was president, Sam Houston was the governor, Davy Crockett was the congressman from west Tennessee and James K. Polk was in Columbia, waiting in the wings.”

With that precedent, he says, “I think there’s enough room for Al, Fred and me.”

On this raw January day, he’s been asked to pinch-hit for an ailing Howard Baker at the Nashville Rotary Club, and he’s delighted. These are his people: the mostly wealthy, mostly white, mostly male, mostly Republican business leaders of Nashville, the denizens of ZIP codes 37205 and 37215, two of the top five ZIP codes in the country for giving in the 1996 campaign.

In the grand ballroom of the Doubletree Hotel, he’s introduced by one of the few women in the room, the dean of the Vanderbilt nursing school, Colleen Conway Welch. She is married to Ted Welch, Alexander’s rainmaker and the man Bob Dole has called the best fund-raiser in the country. Alexander passes along Baker’s regrets to the crowd. “He got married, went to Egypt and had both knees replaced in a month,” Alexander says. “He deserves a rain check.”

He speaks of American values. “Will the year 2000 be a dawn or dusk for this country?” he asks. He believes, of course, that it can be morning.

After all, Alexander is a morning person. He rises early every day and trundles off to work in a small gray building on Music Row. He is president of a growing company that manages child-care facilities for corporations such as Boeing and Citibank. Mostly he is a perpetual candidate for the presidency.

“Dangerous times create opportunities,” he says. But the people munching on fish and salad in this dull windowless room don’t seem endangered.

He says he’s very interested in what it’s going to look like on the other side of President Clinton’s bridge to the 21st century. Men nod, lean back in their chairs, stick their hands under their belts.

The finish is not strong; it’s straightforward and earnest, like Alexander. The crowd’s response is friendly. There is only polite applause--no whooping, no hollering. In private conversations around the room, there is whispered doubt.

“Is he used merchandise, is the question,” says one Rotarian. Another Rotarian chimes in that Alexander is missing something. “It’s what you need to be elected. Bob Dole didn’t have it.”

Total Commitment

Ted Welch believes Alexander’s got it.

The Nashville real estate wheeler-dealer also believes he knows exactly what it takes to be president of the United States. He just might. A former finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, he raised money for Ronald Reagan in 1980, and for Howard Baker, Bill Brock, Bob Dole and others.

“Lamar is not as dependent on Tennessee for financial support this time around,” he says. “There’ll be some people who supported him who may not the next time.”

But Alexander, he says, is indefatigable.

“I love Fred Thompson,” he says. “But I’m totally committed to Lamar Alexander.”

When pressed about Thompson’s chances, Welch says, “Does he have the time to do it? Is he willing to take off the time it takes?” Welch, like many other Tennesseans, believes Thompson is too laid-back to run for president. He’s not an early riser.

Next go-round, Gore will be the one to beat, “unless . . ..” Welch’s thin voice gets soft and ominous as he looks off into the middle distance. “Unless he has the same malady Lamar had in 1974. We were coming off Watergate, and no Republican could get elected to anything. Al Gore could find himself in the same situation.

“If you sleep with the dogs,” Welch adds, “you get fleas.”

Bar Exam

Any fleas at the Wildhorse Saloon would get stomped flat by all the fancy dancing. Step into the Wildhorse and you’ll meet wood-burning, pickup-driving, frog-gigging Americans. This is just one swinging club in a town full of them.

David Rankin, his wife, Sandra, and her mother, Ressie Paul Levan, are watching the line dancers. Rankin, 46, fashions pine and mahogany patterns for U.S. Pipe and Foundry in Chattanooga. He exemplifies the independent Tennessean.

“The best governor we ever had was Ray Blanton,” Rankin says. It doesn’t bother him one bit that Blanton, a Democrat, went to jail for selling liquor licenses in the mid-1980s. With Republicans running Tennessee, Rankin says, the state’s gone to seed.

He’ll probably vote for Gore in 2000. “I think Clinton’s done an excellent job,” he says. “The best president we ever had was Jimmy Carter. The Republicans talk about all these moral issues, yet they voted Jimmy Carter out. He was probably the most moral president we’ve ever had.”

Memphis’ Man

“Bill Clinton is just another movie-star president,” says Lois DeBerry, a Democratic legislator from Memphis who is in Nashville for the opening of the 100th general assembly. She’s been representing District 91 for 25 years. For several years, she has been the speaker pro tem. She’s the only woman in the 99-member legislature elected to a leadership position and one of 12 African Americans.

She pooh-poohs the idea that Fred Thompson--and Bill Frist, the other Republican senator from Tennessee--represent the state’s diversity. “They don’t have to appeal to the diversity in the Memphis community,” she says. “They don’t have to try to represent us. The less they think about the African community, the better off they are.”

But when it comes to Gore, she gets emotional. “I believe Al Gore is a born leader.”

Looking toward 2000, Gore will only say, “‘It’s a little too hypothetical for me to wade into. I haven’t announced anything. I have no idea what’s going to happen in the next few years or what the Republicans are going to do.”

Thompson’s Tact

Fred Thompson knows exactly what he’s going to be doing--weighing his options. He’ll be in the limelight as chairman of the Governmental Affairs Committee that’s going to be “investigating alleged improper or illegal activities growing out of the 1996 presidential campaign and related matters.”

Thompson is already famous for his role as counsel in the Senate Watergate hearings and for his roles in movies including “The Hunt for Red October. In 1994, he captured Gore’s old seat with 61% of the vote, and was reelected in 1996 by the same margin.

It’s cold in Thompson’s Nashville office building. It’s true, he says, “Tennessee is a border state, a diverse state within itself. There are lots of crosscurrents--politically and in every other respect.”

But, he adds, “happenstance has a bigger role in life than people would like to believe. And coincidence.

“I’ve made it a point not to think about running for president,” he says. “I’ve just been handed the keys to the Governmental Affairs Committee, plus the investigation. I’m just not thinking about it.”

At Home With the Gores

Eyes dancing and white hair flowing, Albert Gore Sr. shuts the front door of his house on the Caney Fork near Carthage. He moves slowly around the house, speaking occasionally to wife Pauline. Everywhere there are photos, mostly of Al Jr. and of Nancy, the daughter who died of lung cancer in 1984.

“It’s the people of Tennessee that make it so wonderful. All different kinds of people. And the land, the beautiful land,” he says. He slides open a glass door and stands on a balcony looking out on the river and the hills beyond.

He points out his property and the land he once owned and the land he gave to his son across the river. That’s the farm where Al Gore Jr. says he will go when he’s ready to retire from public office. It’s a brown green hill set against the swift-flowing Caney Fork. Smack in the heart of America.


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