Tuesday, January 22, 2002

THE 'GOOD OLE BOY' STYLE IN TENNESSEE POLITICS

THE 'GOOD OLE BOY' STYLE IN TENNESSEE POLITICS

Posted By on Tue, Jan 22, 2002 at 4:00 AM

In January, it is difficult to tell what will ultimately matter in a November election. Yet, judging from the subtext of both frontrunning gubernatorial campaigns, laying claim to "legit" good ole boy status may be a fairly important battle.

It might seem a silly argument to some, but being able to appear "down home" means votes in a state like Tennessee. Truth be known, such authenticity matters everywhere with working people who vote - not just in the still rural areas of the South.

Running for statewide office in Tennessee requires a special blend of of country boy authenticity, and attempts by some politicians to peg it have become Tennessee political archetypes.

Sen. Fred Thompson is of course well known for criss-crossing Tennessee in his stick-shift, full size red pickup truck. Thompson, a former Hollywood actor, would cut commercial spots while driving the truck, shifting the stick shift - an uncommon feature in most late model full size trucks these days - for emphasis as he talked about the state's future.

Thompson's last opponent, Covington attorney and later state Democratic Party Chair Houston Gordon, had his own pickup, a mini-truck he too used to criss cross the state. The sizes of both men's pickups would later prove prophetic in terms of their respective political war chests and futures in politics.

Other good ole boy trappings have also been employed by Tennessee politicians and in one well-known case taken to the national political stage.

There is perhaps no other more well-known outward statement of country boy awareness than that worn by Ivy League educated Lamar Alexander - the black and red plaid flannel.

Alexander donned his trademark plaid in his first successful run for governor, or in Alexander's case walk for governor as he walked across Tennessee in his flannel, Johnny Apple Seed style to witness and connect with the down home folks first hand. He later wore the plaid in his two failed bids for president, making it a visual mainstany of the New Hampshire primary season for two election cycles.

There is also the example set by former Gov. Ned McWherter. McWherter's statement about politics in the state was simple - it is much easier to connect with the folks when you are actually one of them. McWherter, a rural state legislator to the bone, simply oozed countryside -from his lumbering walk to his portly build and his thick drawl. McWherter was an anomaly on the modern Tennessee landscape in that he didn't have to pretend to fit in with the courthouse crowd in any county seat.

This brief history lesson brings us to our current gubernatorial campaign, matching a Nashville millionaire against a career Congressman.

Of course, both former Nashville Mayor Phil Bredesen and 4th District Congressman Van Hilleary will tell you differently - and the spin to the state's political writers about each man's down home "cred" has already begun.

Bredesen has the most uphill battle in the country boy department, having already been typecast by many writers during his last run at the governor's office as a blue blood.

Bredesen is in fact a millionaire and actually is originally from upstate New York. However, his campaign is trying to balance that information with the message that Bredesen is from a small town in upstate New York - just like many small towns in Tennessee.

They are also quick to add in both conversation and bio material that Bredesen is an avid hunter and outdoorsman. Does this mean he likes to hunt fox and pheasant, or can he actually gut and skin a deer? We don't know yet.

Hilleary for all the income tax squabbling in his own party, has likely found at least one early advantage over Bredesen in the good ole boy department. Four terms in Washington DC did not rob Hilleary of his Spring City twang, something that will help Hilleary more than anything else during the retail end of the campaign at fish frys and county fairs in place like Paris, Lebanon and Lenoir City.

There is also a famous story in Middle Tennessee about Bredesen's failed 1994 campaign against now Gov. Don Sundquist. It is the painfully uncomfortable account of Bredesen in a suit attempting to campaign in the Watertown Farmer's Co-Op one weekday afternoon. It is said that Bredesen's suit, shoes and watch combined probably cost more than most of each farmers' take on that year's tobacco crop.

So yes, for simple down-home credibility and country charm, the advantage at present probably would have to go to Hilleary, though neither campaign will stop trying to best the other in seeking out the support of Tennessee's small town voters.

Perhaps Bredesen should learn to field-dress that prize buck if he doesn't know how already. It's probably easier than bagging campaign contributions. Dirty finger nails still win votes in some corners of this state.

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