Tennessee headed for embarrassing Senate representation

By Bo Roberts

A long, impressive era of noteworthy U.S. senate representation in the Volunteer State is hurtling headlong towards its demise, as was illustrated so pointedly over the July Fourth weekend.

It is the end of literate, ethical, non-partisan strain of politics that began with and encompassed the essence of the brilliantly diplomatic Sen. Howard Baker. Three recent occurrences slapped me (figuratively) right in the face:

–The state’s senior senator, Lamar Alexander, had a thoughtful, reasoned op-ed about why former President Andrew Jackson of Tennessee should be honored despite a litany of faults. Sen. Alexander had his start in politics and government on the staff of Sen. Baker.  His announced retirement means he will be the last of the Baker legacy come January.

–Junior senator Marsha Blackburn also had an op-ed published on Sunday, which was a xenophobic attack crafted to instill fear. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was actually written by someone on President Trump’s staff.  The column was a perfect reflection of a career dedicated to divisive dogma. 

–Senate GOP-candidate/wannabe Bill Hagerty had a television commercial that I saw several times over the weekend jumping on the divisive team. He had the gall to oxymoronically use “rule of law” as a belief while touting Trump’s endorsement. I didn’t happen to see any of Dr, Manny Sethi’s commercials over the weekend, but previous ones, though a little slicker, were mainly promoting his stringent divisive credentials, as well. Even though military veteran James Mackler is an attractive and well-qualified candidate and will be the Democratic nominee, one of the two Republicans will likely bookend the Howard Baker era.

I had the good fortune to get to know Howard Baker early in my career while editing the newspapers in Sevier County. My next door neighbor, Johnny Waters, was Baker’s campaign manager the first time he ran, and lost, and the second time when he was elected to the senate.  Though of different parties, there were no barriers to communication and I learned he had two main considerations in exercising his duties:  What’s best for the country, and what’s best for Tennessee?  The two rarely conflicted.

Later in my career as Chief of Staff to a Democratic governor and CEO of the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville, I had multiple opportunities to work with this charismatic, effective and powerful lawyer from tiny Huntsville, TN, who, in just my interactions with him, was so helpful and produced such positive energy and results. I know I’m prejudiced, but if there were a Mount Rushmore of Tennessee’s outstanding contributors, Howard Baker would be on it.

His “strain” produced reasoned and reasonable leaders like Winfield Dunn,  Lamar Alexander, Bob Corker, Fred Thompson, Don Sundquist, Bill Frist, and Bill Haslam.  All of them worked across the partisan aisle to shape our exceptional state. While I, and others didn’t agree with everything, anyone who knew them knew they were going to try to do the right thing for Tennessee.

I also know the many Democratic senators and governors who worked with Sen. Baker over the years held him in particularly high esteem. And, though I disagree with many of their policies, I am optimistic that our current state leaders have the core values that reflect some of the Baker approach

For the sake of the children and grandchildren of all of us, I truly hope the next Howard Baker is now emerging somewhere. We have never needed them more.

Bo Roberts is a Nashville-based marketing consultant, bo@robertsstratgegies.com