The Boy Is Coy 

Phil Bredesen keeps everyone guessing

Phil Bredesen keeps everyone guessing

To quote one of former Mayor Phil Bredesen’s Nashville intimates, “Anyone who says they know what Phil Bredesen’s going to do is lying.”

Bredesen, who’s lain pretty low since leaving the mayor’s office in the fall of 1999, is staging a comeback. His name keeps coming up during the shallow conversational foreplay that political types engage in when they light up each other’s phone lines. “Yadda yadda yadda...and he and Andrea are all but planning the redo at Curtiswood Lane, but then he probably wouldn’t move into the governor’s mansion...yadda yadda yadda.”

It is, of course, always amusing to discover how interesting someone else’s political plans—or lack of them—are to some people. There are those who can spend hours yucking it up about what someone might or might not do, even though, when you think about it, there isn’t that much to say.

A two-and-a-half-minute phone call to the guy who’s keeping everyone guessing doesn’t exactly clear up the murky picture of next year’s governor’s race, but neither does the former mayor take himself out of the game for the state’s highest political office.

“It is certainly no secret that I’ve had some conversations with some people about it, but I’ve certainly made no determination or anything,” says a cool Bredesen, clearly still a fan of “certainly” as a tool of articulation. However, he says, he and all the other potential gubernatorial candidates probably will put the political guessers out of their misery sooner rather than later. “I think whatever happens has to happen pretty quickly.”

Just how soon will we know the roster of candidates for next November’s race to replace outgoing Republican Gov. Don Sundquist?

“Oh, I think you’re going to have a very good sense at the end of this month where people are,” he says. “I think it’s a case where you need to kind of get started, and next fall is a little late.”

Something about Bredesen inspires people to talk about him. Relative to the born-and-bred Southern politicians who can’t help but reveal details about themselves, Bredesen is sort of the Boo Radley of Tennessee politics. Not only is he simply an interesting personality who is sometimes amazingly unaware of his own mystique—some of it created by wealth, some of it by his capacity for embracing, for a politician anyway, the unusual (painting, traveling, and even wildflowers)—he is also a marriage of the business and the political.

Candidates without a political lineage or a meandering résumé of elected service—in other words, those who come from the real world—are automatically given a certain credence, at least among the intelligentsia, over their political lifer counterparts. The contrast, pretty much everyone agrees, between a Bredesen candidacy and one by Congressman Bob Clement in the Demo-cratic primary is striking—the businessman-turned-mayor-turned-businessman-again against a man who has spent much of his adult life stagnating in Congress. The difference, of course, is that the congressman bears a family name known far more widely across Tennessee than Bredesen’s.

This is all by way of saying that Bredesen’s possible entrance into the gubernatorial race creates uncertainty in the minds of some political gum flappers that Clement—who’s been waiting in the wings for several election cycles now for his turn to follow in his late father Frank Clement’s footsteps—actually will seek the Democratic nomination. In a more diluted way, Bredesen is viewed by some on the Democratic side sort of like U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson was on the GOP side before he announced he wouldn’t run for governor. That is, as a political heavyweight.

The theory goes that Bredesen’s wealth and capacity for enlisting the deep-pocketed business types might preempt Clement from risking a safe seat in Congress for the job he’s always wanted.

More objective political prognosticators, however, don’t rule out Clement taking on Bredesen in the primary. For one, Clement has already beat Bredesen once, in a race for Congress in 1988. Two, they say Bredesen’s mystique would simply vaporize outside the comfortable confines of the midstate. That’s because, when you really think about it, not very many of Tennessee’s 3 million or so voters are part of the political intelligentsia.

More on that

It’s interesting to note that Business Nashville’s annual 100 Most Powerful issue listed both Bredesen and Clement in the top 10—fourth and ninth, respectively. The difference of five slots probably frustrates Clement, but congressman, the good news is that voters in Anderson or Grundy or innumerable other counties don’t care where you fall on the list, just so long as you stay away from gun control.

Bredesen, as former mayor, also ranked one spot ahead of current Mayor Bill Purcell. That may be a little humiliating for the reigning hizzoner, but imagine being the dejected Al Gore, who ranked 18th, behind Amy Grant, Vince Gill, and Jeff Fisher, among others.

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