I woke up this morning, picked up my Tennessean from the front porch, and was suddenly reminded of the way newspapers behaved back in the day. The headline that inspired this rush of nostalgia: "Longtime legislator Garrett defeated."
When I was 26 years old, making $250 a week for the Nashville Banner, hoping to get the hell out of Nashville and be a foreign correspondent in some exotic, war-torn nation, the newspaper's publisher pulled me aside to say he had a job for me. This was the summer of 1984. "Defeat Jim McKinney," he said.
Irby Simpkins, an old-style publisher at an old-style newspaper in an old-style news city, wasn't afraid to throw ink at people. And McKinney was easy to dislike. He was an irascible, tough lawyer who was part of a North Nashville machine that included reprobates like liquor lobbyist Mack Smith. He had served one term as speaker of the state House, was tight with laborand hated Republicans. Irby, on the other hand, was close to the Republicans, many of whom, I suspect, thought McKinney wasn't being helpful to the cause. He was, after all, an obstacle for then Republican Gov. Lamar Alexander's school reform plans. He was scuttling GOP pro-business initiatives. And he was basically being a pain in the butt.
So Irby declared war. It was his nature. And I would be the grunt.
Why I got the assignment is anybody's guess, although I think it had something to do with the fact that I was dispensable. The other veteran reporters who covered politicspeople like Mike Pigott and Tam Gordonhad respectable careers already and were out covering other elections. I was new. I was green. Nobody knew me. I could take the hit and nobody valuable would get wasted.
To defeat Jim McKinney, it was made plain to me, I would be on the race full time. Every day, I was to write something. Every day, it was full-on outrage, collision and head-on tackling. And if I couldn't turn up venom every day, then my directive was to write something nice about McKinney's opponentabout his successful business career, details about his political rises and feature pieces on his wife and children.
Jim McKinney's opponent in the Democratic primary was Tim Garrett, who I actually came to like. How could I not have? I would report to work at the Banner every day at 6 a.m., write my story and, by 10 a.m. I would be driving in my Subaru wagon up north to Madison and Goodlettsville, the heartlands of the Garrett clan. There, I would greet Tim and his now-former wife, Pam. Soon we'd be discussing lunch plans.
It didn't take long for the Garretts to figure out that the Banner was engaged in a jihad against McKinney. It didn't take long for them to recognize I was their personal journalistic attaché. It didn't take long, either, for Pam to try to set me up with one of her friends, which I took as a sign that I was fully trusted. The relationship only grew more intensethe Garretts began calling me at all hours of the day and night to relate the skullduggery their opponent was engaging in.
"Bruce, the McKinney people are ripping up our signs on Trinity Lane," they'd say, and, before long, I'd have a photographer in tow and we'd be searching for the culprits. They leaked me stories of bad deals McKinney perpetrated, and told me he was buying votes. They told me stuff I couldn't prove, but that made your hair stand on end. Fact was, my own outrage began to grow.
The stories we published were out of all proportion to the importance of the race. The Banner's circulation probably blanketed some 20 state House districts, but in this one state House primary, the Banner was running stories, every day, on the front page above the fold. I wrote about McKinney's temper tantrums, his spitefulness, his ties to labor, his shady deals. All of it was true. My stories went through the hands of three editorseach on deck to make sure the language pounded with harsh, blunt force. What resulted was an ass-kicking of such crude strength that it's doubtful anyone could have survived it.
By the last two weeks of the campaign, I was calling McKinney every morning to get his comment on whatever the hell it was we had decided to write that day. I remember editors Bill Hance, Joe Worley and Bob Longino would hover over my desk as I did so. Invariably, in those last days, McKinney would just start screaming profanity as soon as I introduced myself. I would hold out the phone to my editors so they could hear the string of curse words. "Write it down," Worley would say. "I wanna run it." Which we did.
On the night of the primary, which, back in the day, were a big deal at the newspapers, the caterers were serving up food in the Banner newsroom and the TV newscasts were on. I remember watching the returns on Channel 4. Irby was next to me. John Jay Hooker, who had been Irby's business partner at the Banner before Simpkins tossed him out in a nasty dispute, was doing commentary for Channel 4, and someone asked him about the McKinney race. The numbers were showing that McKinney was going down hard.
Hooker didn't waste time in laying blame. I don't remember his specific words, but he accused his former partner, Simpkins, of irresponsibly using the power of the press to defeat a candidate, of being a jerk, of being a maniac. Hooker's words were harsh, so much so that we all fell silent around Simpkins as we listened to Hooker's tirade. Meanwhile, Simpkins turned to me without seeming to care much. "Bruce, this is a great day for this paper," he said.
Not long after the election, a present arrived on my newsroom desk. Opening it, I found a note from the Garretts thanking me for covering the race. The gift was a beautiful leather briefcase, inscribed with my name. The very wise Bob Longino then appeared, and, looking down at me, said, "I think it's best that I take that away." No truer words were ever spoken.
It would be easy to express nostalgia about those days. But they were venal, amoral and tough. The Tennessean was always more artful than the Banner, but equally vicious. Still, part of me prides itself on having seen it, lived it, survived it. Something tells me that as Tim Garrett went down in defeat this election cycle, no such antics transpired within the tame hallways of The Tennessean. Maybe that's as it should be. But a piece of soul has gone missing too.