The Tennessee Touch 

From Kefauver to Corker, the state's politicians keep reaching upward.

Bill Frist, Bob Corker, Howard Baker, and Lamar Alexander

Bill Frist, Bob Corker, Howard Baker, and Lamar Alexander

In presidential politics, there's a good deal of political activity going on right now, some of it half-way interesting (another former target of Herman Cain tells all; Newt Gingrich takes his turn as the anti-Romney; the Iowa caucuses are but a month away, among other circumstances).

Next year looks to be one of the few leap years in a generation without a major state or regional figure involved, although who knows? Arguably, Mid-Southerners already had one dog in the hunt in 1992, when Arkansas governor Bill Clinton was making his move. Clinton's surprise addition of Tennessee senator Al Gore to the ticket put an out-and-out SEC stamp on things. (Coincidentally, that was the year that the Razorbacks shifted out of the SWC.)

Of course, the prominence of Mid-Southerners as presidential hopefuls — and of Tennesseans in particular — had for decades been something of a given: In 1952, the Volunteer State's junior senator, Estes Kefauver, mounted a serious race for the White House. At the Democratic convention of 1956, he and the other Tennessee senator, Albert Gore Sr., as well as the state's governor, Frank Clement, had all been put in nomination when presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson left the choice for vice president to the convention. (Kefauver won a cliff-hanger victory over a young Massachusetts senator named John F. Kennedy.)

All of this prominence doubtless owed much to the fact that Tennessee had become something of a bellwether state, as Republicans began to challenge Democrats for statewide prominence, and another Tennessean, GOP senator Howard Baker, would mount his own serious bid for the presidency in 1980.

The Clinton-Gore combine would finally hit pay dirt. In 1996, the Democratic duo were still around, and a former governor of Tennessee, Lamar Alexander, got closer than most people realize to gaining the Republican nomination for president. How close? Alexander, campaigning in New Hampshire with the same plaid shirts he won a gubernatorial race with in 1978, actually led Kansas senator Bob Dole by a point or two in the polls with a day or so to go in the crucial first-in-the-nation primary.

I was on the scene for that one. I remember shaving in my Nashua hotel room the morning of election eve. From the TV set I could hear a Dole ad blaring out an attack on Alexander as having been something of a mad taxer in Tennessee. (Hmmmm, I thought: Really?) I jumped in the shower, and a few minutes later was drying off when I heard the same ad. By the time I had my clothes on and was out the door, I'd heard it two more times.

It was overkill, but it was also kill. Arguably on the strength of this massive last-minute barrage, Dole would shade the candidate who ran as "Lamar!," a dark horse who never got his nose in the lead again. The late pundit Bob Novak wrote in the memoir he published a year or two before he died that if Alexander had won in New Hampshire, he would have gone on to be president.

In 2000, four years later, a Tennessean rather famously got even closer. In all fairness, if there had been no butterfly ballot in Florida, or if Ralph Nader had written another book instead of running as a third-party gadfly, or — face it — if Al Gore had not somehow worn out his welcome in home-state Tennessee (maybe it was those traffic-snarling motorcades, the main evidence for most folks of his all-too-occasional visits home), there would have been a President Gore. Alexander had given the GOP primary race another brief look-in but could never attract attention away from the burgeoning Bush-McCain showdown and dropped out.

2004 was an oddity: no Tennesseans with eyes directly on the prize. But, by 2008, actor and former senator Fred Thompson had a ballyhoo moment as the GOP's potential rescue from a weak field. Thompson missed his moment, though, and he and others succumbed to the ultimately unsuccessful comeback effort of John McCain. Senator Bill Frist, another presidential wannabe, had been in the running a year or two earlier but flamed out when his service as Senate majority leader during the George W. Bush presidency proved something of a trap.

It remains to be seen whether Tennessee can reassert itself as a potential springboard to national office. It is an open secret that former Memphis congressman Harold Ford Jr. harbored presidential ambitions, but his narrow loss to Republican Bob Corker for a Senate seat in 2006, followed by a move to New York, seems to have made his ambitions moot.

No recent Tennessee governor has been seriously considered for the presidency, though Democrat Phil Bredesen, who left office in January of this year, floated a balloon for a cabinet position under President Barack Obama. (His chances would have been better if Hillary Clinton, whose candidacy he seemed to have favored, had bested Obama for the Democratic nomination in 2008.)

So who we got now? Republican governor Bill Haslam is a likable presence, and it is not difficult to imagine him as a vice-presidential prospect sometime soon, and maybe more later on, depending on his track record in office. But that, as they say, is a ways off.

Lamar Alexander is still around, having settled into the role of distinguished elder statesman, but the Senate, where he currently resides, would seem to be his final posting. (Would he, in a pinch, accept a draft for higher office? Do cats have tails?)

Ironically enough, the state's best bet right now for future-tense national prominence is a victim of the electoral calendar. This would be Bob Corker, currently Tennessee's junior senator, who is up for reelection in 2012 and would be loath to give up his seat, even should lightning strike in the remote event of a GOP convention deadlock, and even should he want to be president, which he has never indicated he does.

Still, it is Corker, a thoughtful maverick in both domestic and foreign affairs, who, for better or for worse (depending, of course, on one's political bias) is forever on the cutting edge of things. His knack for getting involved materialized in three different ways just this past week.

On Monday, Corker came in for serious booing when he and Alexander spoke in Spring Hill at a ceremony to announce that the town's General Motors plant, dormant for two years, would resume making cars next year. Corker had opposed the federal bailout of the domestic auto industry in 2009 and had pushed for major concessions by the United Auto Workers union, which represents workers at the plant.

This was in the immediate wake of another controversy involving Corker, who authored an op-ed in The Washington Post last week conferring substantial blame on governmentally eased lending criteria and on the quasi-public entities Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae for the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008 and the resultant economic crisis.

And on Saturday, Corker made waves with a public statement on last week's failure of the bipartisan congressional debt-reduction committee to reach agreement, saying it was "nothing short of an embarrassment, an absolute national disgrace and failure of leadership that we cannot agree on even a paltry $1.2 trillion in deficit reduction over that time frame."

The senator, who has spoken tirelessly in favor of reducing federal spending and has proposed the pending CAP act which would mandate an annual ceiling, said, "... [B]ut Washington's lack of discipline and unwillingness to make decisions that we all know must be made may cause the world to question the American exceptionalism that has been a beacon for the world for generations."

Given all that, and the fact that Corker was an early advocate of downplaying the Afghanistan war and of the U.S. distancing itself from Pakistan, the ever-turning gyre of political realignment may have reached the point at which his brand of maverick politics, which includes some bipartisan outreach, may actually be the message his party is searching for.

And, speaking of Tennessee politicians who have made their mark, 9th District congressman Steve Cohen is another such. Cohen, whose three terms to date have generated impressive national attention, is apparently not going to avoid challenge in the Democratic primary from local Urban League head and school board member Tomeka Hart.

Hart, whose announced campaign has been dormant, is finally on the move. She was the beneficiary of a Monday night fund-raiser at the Joysmith Gallery on Huling, and she had plans to open her campaign headquarters near the Hollywood/Chelsea intersection on Thursday.

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