It was about the 15th stop of the day for Tommy Burnett's state House re-election campaign, and this time he was speeding through the front door of a Jamestown, Tenn., Laundromat, shooing flies and hugging a 50-something lady as she folded clothes. "I'll be right back," Burnett announced, doing an about-face on a heel and heading to the car. Moments later he was back with two plastic "Vote Tommy Burnett" fly swatters, and he presented the lady with both the yellow and orange model. They chatted a moment about the election, and then he was on his way.
"Out here in the country there are a lot of animals and thus a lot of flies," he told a reporter. "People love those fly swatters."
And Tommy Burnett knew people. He knew their habits and hearts, their inclinations toward mischief. Above all, he knew their capacity for forgiveness. He accepted and gave plenty of it over the 67 years leading to his death in Nashville last week.
Burnett was actually more of a city boy than a country lad, having grown up in Goodlettsville. For a while, he led an enigmatic double life, serving at once as both a Cumberland County Church of Christ farmer/preacher and a state House powerbroker.
He had a smile that entered the room before the rest of him did, always paving the way for him no matter what the room held. It was the first thing you noticed with him, and usually the last thing you saw. He entered that Laundromat searching for re-election support after serving almost a year in federal prison—an easy task for a guy who was re-elected from the prison itself.
His waterbug-like election flitting was typical of the life he led. An adult version of Dennis the Menace, Burnett was the consummate smiling-hugging-but-sometimes-naughty salesman-at-heart. A lawyer by training and practice until his second federal conviction, Burnett was always selling something—Oxford cloth shirts, fireworks, ceramics (which he learned to make while in prison), faux antique cars, oil futures, green beans, Indian jewelry, eggs—and most of all, himself.
Beneath the wheeler-dealer facade, though, Burnett had a kind heart. With his loyal behind-the-scenes wife Wanda Gail, he raised more than 15 foster children. He always found time to use his gifts for humor and public speaking as a frequent emcee and roaster at charity events.
Less well known was his streak of brilliance. The same man who would try to peddle you Jimmy Carter commemorative watches could quote large sections of The Canterbury Tales in Old English. He could turn an entire room to his side on an issue, with just a single speech.
But his insatiable craving for doing business of any kind meandered over the legal edge right at the height of his political heyday in 1983. Before the tax-related conviction, he appeared headed for at least the House speaker's chair, if not the governorship. Instead, he went to prison. His political career took a far more serious tilt when he was convicted in the federal Rocky Top scandal in 1990.
Almost all Capitol Hill reporters liked Burnett, and not only because he had a never-empty liquor supply in the cabinet in the majority leader's office. The suite was a round-the-clock social scene within the otherwise mundane Legislative Plaza, where the majority party staked out most of the offices. Constituents, lobbyists, reporters, other lawmakers—a steady stream of people made his office their second home back in the early '80s.
Reporters were perhaps too cozy with political insider Burnett, yet he maintained a high level of transparency in a day when that term applied only to windows. It was not uncommon for a reporter, armed with a drink of choice (commonly Donald Duck grapefruit juice and vodka), to sit and watch as lobbyists and legislators worked out seemingly insurmountable problems under Burnett's guidance in his office.
Those same reporters frequently gave him the journalistic equivalent of a bloody nose. The next day, though, he would walk up and say, "That's OK. I still love you. You're just doing your job." He gave and begged for forgiveness on a wholesale basis.
Released from federal prison for a second time, Burnett's reputation and career appeared over. But his ability to seek and get mercy won out again. He landed back in a government relations job while filling a regular seat on the much-missed Teddy Bart's Round Table radio program with Bart and Karlen Evins until shortly before its demise. Though his law license was stripped away after his felony conviction, he managed to get it reinstated about five years ago. He supplemented his income in customary fashion—selling roadside fireworks.
There was never a shortage of fireworks with Tommy Burnett around. He stayed involved in the political scene until his death at Summit Hospital.
Despite all his shenanigans, he died a man forgiven by most.
Mike Pigott covered Capitol Hill as a reporter and senior political editor for the The Nashville Banner for 12 years, including much of Tommy Burnett's career. He is a founding partner of the public-relations firm McNeely Pigott & Fox.
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