It was sometime in 1987, and I was sitting in my cubicle up at the state Legislature, where I was a reporter for the Nashville Banner. Mike Pigott, also a reporter for the Banner and my official senior, was there too. Seeing as how I had already filed for the day, and seeing as how Mike ran such a tight ship, I had some time on my hands.
Which was propitious, because just at that moment, a Metro Courthouse troublemaker named Gene Johnson popped his head into our cubicle, which was something he did about every 48 hours. Rather than drop some gossipy item on us, High Pocketswhich was what everyone called Gene because he is a little challenged in the height departmentwas broadcasting a different message. For starters, he was wearing a navy blue, three-piece suit, with his hair all slicked back, and a sticker affixed to his lapel.
“I got a job,” High Pockets blurted out, which was such a shocker that Pigott and I nearly returned to work.
“Who you working for?” we managed to ask.
“Phil Bredesen,” High Pockets said. “He’s running for mayor.”
At the time, the newspapers were solidly behind mayoral candidate Eddie Jones. While Jones was favored by everyone in town with money, he ultimately found that he wasn’t favored by many others. The other candidates were Betty Nixon, Gale Robinson, and Bill Boner. Even though I wasn’t covering the race, the mayoral contest was all anyone was talking about. And this Bredesen thing was clearly a sizable development.
So I said to High Pockets, “Well, take me to meet this guy.”
And High Pockets said to me, “Sure. I bet he’d like to meet some reporters.”
We drove down West End Avenue, to a large office building before Murphy Road. Most campaigns operate out of falling down dumps, to save money, but Bredesen had rented out a massive piece of real estate. I guess he was still in HMO mode. High Pockets and I walked down several hallways, past vacant office after vacant office, until we came to the end, where an office door was shut. High Pockets knocked on the door timidly. And soon, a quiet voice said, “Come in.”
There was Bredesen, in a darkly lit room, hunched over a Toshiba laptop computer. He squinted up at us, and then High Pockets spoke.
“Mr. Bredesen, I’ve brought a reporter by to meet you.”
Bredesen got up, and as I recall, he wasn’t much for small talk. In fact, the conversation was pretty stilted. After three or four minutes, in which I remember him asking some questions about the newspapers in town, he returned to his office, and High Pockets and I went our way too. It was such a strange and curious visitI was used to back-slapping exuberance when it came to politiciansthat I became very intrigued by this new figure on the political scene.
Very soon, High Pockets would depart Bredesen’s campaign. He had considerable baggage; soon the papers were trashing him, and he had become a liability for his candidate. But Bredesen managed to do all right without him. In fact, it wasn’t long before the Bredesen mayoral campaign, assisted by an extraordinary personal fortune that the candidate was more than happy to spend, caught a little fire.
Bredesen’s first campaign was a lot of blast, anger, and righteous indignation. It had little grace or charm. He had very few actual supporters, but by saturating the media with a bunch of ads shot by a fire-breathing, East Coast, liberal political consultant named Joe Napolitan, he made headway in the city’s political consciousness.
Bredesen assaulted the courthouse crowd. He railed against the city’s political machine. Many of us questioned whether there even was a machine in the city. But by the time Bredesen was through, he had willed the machine, and its evil nature, into all our minds.
But it wasn’t just sound and fury emanating from Bredesen in that first campaign. It was also very high art. Bredesen was recruiting the disaffected, alienated, outcast citizens of the city who had long been abandoned by its leadership. The reality of it was that Nashville, in 1987, was under the thumb of a handful of rich businessmen willing to throw their power around, and an oily, infested, patronage-dispensing beehive of characters populating the dark recesses of the Metro Courthouse.
What Bredesen must have realized was that by the calculus of power in Nashville in 1987, just about everyoneincluding a lot of normal, decent, well-meaning peoplehad become outcasts. Put those people together, and you could win.
In 1987, however, Bredesen lost. I think it was because his message was so negative that he turned off a lot of people. The bad karma stuck around a few months later when he ran for Congress to succeed Bill Boner, who’d been elected mayor.
But by 1991, when the Biz Pigs, the Courthouse Crowd, and world-class lunatic Bill Boner had absolutely ground the city’s machinery to a halt, Nashville was ready for the man who had warned us about the perfidy of it all years earlier. By that time, Bredesen had morphed into the establishment candidate. Facing only an under-financed, yet well-meaning opponent named Betty Nixon, Bredesen won easily.
By all standardscommunication, negotiation, visionPhil Bredesen is a much improved politician than he was a dozen years ago. After getting elected, he figured out the job pretty quickly. That meant things came easily to him, and he will go down as an incredibly successful mayor. But because things came easily, the job sometimes seemed to bore him. Considering the talents of the man, he could have done more.
But few are complaining.
Drink Black Coffee, problem solved.
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