There are still plenty of people who remember Tennessee Gov. Frank Clement. When they listen to the late governor’s eldest son, Bob, giving speeches, some of Frank Clement’s associates say they can close their eyes and imagine that they were back in the the 1950s. They swear it’s as if they were hearing the voice of Frank Clement again.
There are even physical similaritiesdetails like the slight gap between two front teeth.
But there, the similarities end. Bob Clement’s voice may bear a vague likeness to that of his father, but his speeches never seem to be the glorious stemwinders for which the late governor was famous. Perhaps predictably, they lack the poetry and grandiosity that was still common in political speechifying of the 1950s. But Bob Clement, both as orator and politician, seems to lack his father’s persuasive way with wordsand his father’s presence as a public figure to be reckoned with.
In the very near future, Congressman Bob Clement, who represents Tennessee’s Fifth District, including Nashville, will make one of the biggest choices of his professional life. In the next few days or weeks, Clement must decide whether to try to fulfill a dream that he shared with his late fathera dream of maintaining the power of the Clement dynasty, a dream of yet another Clement in the governor’s chair.
For Bob Clement, at 53, it will be a tough decision. He has spent the majority of his life in governmentbefore he was first elected to Congress in 1988, Clement spent six years as a member of Tennessee’s Public Service Commission and several more as a director of the Tennessee Valley Authority. If Clement does run for governor next year, however, he will lose the comfortable congressional seat he has held for almost a decade. If he runs for governor and loses, he will be stripped of his very identity as a longtime public servant. It is pretty much the only identity Bob Clement knows.
The life of a congressman is not unenjoyable, but it can be somewhat anonymous. Only a few members of Congress get to chair the important committees; only one of them gets to serve as speaker of the House. It’s no wonder that Clement might be tempted by the powerful, high-profile job of governor. If that is his ambition, though, he is strained by a series of obstacles, not the least of which are Gov. Don Sundquist’s relative popularity and Clement’s own reputation for being more conscientious than talented.
Clement has his assets, and chief among them, insiders agree, is his wife, Mary, who is active in Washington and universally well-liked back home. What’s more, he has enjoyed some success as a businessman, particularly in the early 1980s, when he bought and sold real estate. Nevertheless, Bob Clement seems constantly to be in a battle to prove himself.
Few sons could live up to the legacy of Frank Clement, who was an immensely popular public figure with a vast following. As governor he created the state Department of Mental Health and made free textbooks available to all schoolchildren. Before Frank Clement, some mentally ill persons were even more ill-treated than they are now. And if poor children’s parents couldn’t afford textbooks, the children simply did without.
To some pundits, Bob Clement’s desire to be in politics seems only natural, a case of like father, like son. “I don’t think any son anywhere would not want to be like Frank Clement,” says Kendell Poole, a former Bob Clement aide who now works as an assistant to Metro Trustee Charlie Cardwell. Others say that Frank Clement’s overwhelming accomplishments created unfair expectations:There is no way, they say, that Bob Clement can fill his dad’s shoes.
According to some Clement associates, the congressman has made his peace with the reality of being his father’s son. “I think Bob has realized that he is not Frank Clement and that he’ll never be Frank Clement,” says Cardwell, a political friend and supporter. “He needs to be Bob Clement.”
Yet Bob Clement himself continues to bring up comparisons between father and son. He says openly that he would like to be like his dad, whom he admires more than any other person he’s ever met. Ask him who has influenced him, what historical figures he admires, and he names his father. Give him an opportunity to name any politician whose career he would like to imitate, and the answer is unfailing: Frank Clement.
Nevertheless, Robert Nelson Clement is no Frank Goad Clement. And now the younger Clement faces the choice of a lifetime. His decision could have a profound impact on the destiny of what is perhaps Tennessee’s greatest political family.
Frank Clement came of politically healthy stock. His grandfather, James Clement, served in the state Senate in the late 1890s and again from 1913 to 1917. As a boy, Frank’s own father, Robert, served as a Senate page for three years. Every day when the Legislature was in session, Robert Clement would take the train from his home in Dickson to Nashville, where he’d work into the night running errands for the politicos.
In 1919 Robert Clement, then 19, eloped with Maybelle Goad, thus uniting two of Tennessee’s most prominent Democratic families. Maybelle was six years Robert’s senior. They settled into a back bedroom of Dickson’s Halbrook Hotel, operated by Maybelle’s mother. The next year, their first child, Frank Goad Clement, was born at the Halbrook.
Robert worked as a bookkeeper and managed a drug store; eventually, he and Maybelle managed the hotel. All the while, the family grew larger. Frank’s sisters, Anna Belle and Emma Gene, were born.
In the 1920s, it only took a year to get a law degree at Cumberland College in Lebanon. So Robert borrowed the money to pay for his education and moved his family to Lebanon, where Maybelle operated a boarding house. After his year in law school was up, the family moved back to the Dickson area, and Robert hung out his shingle. Eventually, Robert too became active in politics and was elected to local office.
When Frank was still in his teens, his own political ambitions started to surface. “When Frank was a senior in high school, he told our family he wanted to be governor some day,” recalls his sister, Anna Belle Clement O’Brien, who herself ran an unsuccessful race for governor in 1982. “When I asked him why, he told me, ‘Because not all people are treated alike.’ ” O’Brien says her brother was particularly disturbed that poor children who couldn’t afford school books just had to do without them.
Frank Clement went on to Cumberland College and, later, to Vanderbilt Law School. He married Lucille Christianson, whom, the story goes, he had spotted at a high school basketball game years before. They were both 19, although their marriage papers said they were 21.
In 1942, with a world war under way, Frank finished his training as an FBI agent and proceeded to join the army. He did not see combat; instead, he was given security and police duties for which his FBI training had qualified him.
Ten years later, at age 32, Frank Clement was elected governor of Tennessee. He was the second-youngest man ever to hold the job in Tennessee. What’s more, he had never before held any public officenot in the state Legislature, not anywhere.
For much of his childhood, Bob Clement lived in the Executive Residence on Curtiswood Lane. In 1952 his father had been elected to a two-year term in office, but, by the time he won reelection in 1954, the state constitution had been revised to permit governors to serve four-year terms. Frank Clement sat out the 1958 election, since he could not succeed himself for a third term, only to run again, successfully, in 1962.
During his years in the governor’s residencethe Clements never referred to it as a “mansion”Bob Clement lived, by any standards, a charmed life. He had more than his share of pets, he met dignitaries such as former Presidents Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy, and he got his first outbreak of acne.
He was the oldest of three boysFrank Jr., now a Davidson County probate judge, is six years younger; Gary, a widely suspected alcoholic who died several years ago, was nine years younger. From an early age, Clement says, he knew he wanted to be like his dad. He wanted to run for public office, although it didn’t have to be the governorship. “When I was growing up, I was a fly on the wall,” Clement says. “I really didn’t have a goal on a particular office.”
Bob wasn’t the only one plotting his career. Frank Clement had singled Bob out to follow in his footstepsmostly because Bob displayed the most interest in politics, but also because he was the oldest of the three boys. “My father was always trying to promote me and bring me along, you know, rather than just shoving me in the corner,” Clement said during a recent interview at his Washington office. “My mentor, no doubt, is my father. I watched him, you know. I got a lot of on-the-job training. I made up my mind at a very young age that I wanted to go into politics.”
The Clement boys’ parents were a study in contrasts. Frank was gregarious and had the gusto of a fraternity boy, filling a room with his presence, laughing and joking all the while. Lucilleher husband and friends called her ’Cillewas shy. Bob seems to have inherited something from each of his parents. Like his father, Bob Clement seems to enjoy the mingling that accompanies most of his political appearances. But he does not have the sort of room-filling presence his father had.
“Frank Clement was the most effusive, outgoing, let-me-hold-you-around-your-shoulders-and-slap-your-back guy that I ever met,” says Eddie Jones, who served as gubernatorial press secretary during Clement’s last term and who is now editor of the Nashville Banner. “And it was natural. There wasn’t anything fake about it.”
By contrast, Lucille was never completely comfortable with the artificial grandeur that surrounded her existence as a politician’s wife. “Lucille, I think, preferred a more private life than she was able to have in the governor’s office,” Jones says. “She tried, I felt like, to keep herself divorced from as much of the public side as she felt like she could.”
Life at the Executive Residence was hardly private. State troopers came and went. Cooking, cleaning, and lawn chores were handled by inmates from the state prisons.
“I didn’t know who I liked the best for a long time,” Bob Clement says. “The prisoners would always play basketball and football with me because they had a lot of time. And my mother and dad were always traveling.”
If growing up in the public eye and having absentee parents was difficult, Clement won’t say so. As is his habit when he discusses almost any subject, Clement is completely positive in describing his early years:He manages to avoid any substantial discussion of the issue. “It wasn’t as difficult as you might think,” he says. “Mother and Dad let us be ourselves, so they didn’t have us in a straitjacket. We could run and play.”
Clement’s brother, Frank, is more candid about his own boyhood and its effect on him as an adult. “I like to come home after work and be with my daughter, because when I was growing up I didn’t have that privilege,” Frank Jr. says. “My father loved me very much, but when you’re governor of Tennessee you can’t come home every night.”
There’s no denying that the Clement boys’ home life had its negative aspects. Frank Clement, a handsome and outgoing man, had spent most his adult life in the public eye. After his last term as governor, he tried practicing law, but apparently he seemed unhappy. By all accounts, he missed the limelight of the office, the clicking of the cameras, and the glory of implementing sweeping, statewide initiatives. In 1969 Lucille filed for divorce. Later that year, Frank Clement, 49 and already three times governor of Tennessee, was killed in an auto accident on Franklin Road. His eldest son, Bob, was 26 at the time.
According to Lead Me On, the Clement biography written by UT professor Lee Seifert Greene and published in 1982, the former governor had spoken with his attorney, David Alexander, several times on the day of his death. They had discussed Frank’s possible reconciliation with Lucille. Clement was apparently headed for a dinner engagement at Alexander’s home when the crash occured.
The accident took place when Clement turned around on Franklin Road. In his book, Greene theorized what might have happened:
“Shortly after the fatal accident, Mr. Alexander went to Clement’s home in Brentwood to examine his desk, and there he found a small gift evidently intended for Mrs. Alexander,” Greene wrote. “It seems likely that as Clement drove north he remembered that the gift had been left behind and turned back south to get it. The tragic accident then followed.”
While he was governor, the media treated Gov. Clement according to the old rules, in much the same way that they treated President John F. Kennedy. Just as Kennedy’s extramarital affairs were known but went unexposed during his lifetime, Frank Clement’s heavy drinking wasn’t discussed in the newspaper or on the TV news.
Employees and associates of Clement confirm the alcohol abuse, particularly in the former governor’s last years, but they downplay any effect it may have had on his administration or on his family life. “Frank Clement’s use of alcohol in many cases was substantially magnified, but I think it had no impact at all on his leadership,” Eddie Jones insists.
Even Greene’s 383-page biography of Clement conspicuously soft-pedals any discussion of the governor’s drinking problems. During Clement’s third campaign, Greene writes, “One issue went largely unreported. It was widely known that the governor had been victimized by drink. In 1964, and before, addiction to liquor was not publicly attributed to candidates, even by their opponents, but rumors and stories always sweep through the state.” According to Greene, stories of Clement’s drinking problem were often “humorous, tolerant, and friendly” but still “damaging” and “tormenting” to friends.
“Some of them will speak with deepest regret of the tragic self-destruction that was unfolding,” Greene wrote. “Some may have reflected on the road that the American politician must travel through pressure, tension, disappointed hopes, and disillusionment.”
The subject of Frank Clement’s alcoholismor at the very least, his consistent dependence on alcoholhas been largely overlooked in the written accounts of the Clements’ family. What toll it took on the family is unclear, although one of the Clement boys apparently fell victim to the disease.
Bob Clement likes to tell stories about life on Curtiswood Lane. He is, in fact, working on a book of vignettes from his life as a governor’s son. One of his favorite stories concerns the menagerie he assembled while he was living on the governor’s estate. From the sound of it, the place was a veritable animal farm.
“I had 150 chickens and 50 turkeys,” Clement says with some delight. “I had rabbits. I had about 150 guinea pigs that I finally sold to Vanderbilt University. I had three guinea pigs in the bathroom.”
When the chickens started laying, Bob Clement sold eggs to state employees. “I didn’t even have to deliver them,” he recalls. “They just came to the residencefresh eggs from the governor’s residence.”
Among young Bob’s pets was a monkey that, on one occasion, bit Frank Jr. During the next Easter season, Brother Frank fed the monkey candy, and the monkey died.
Perhaps such antics could go on because Frank and Lucille Clement were preoccupied with the rigors of public life. Or perhaps they were just tolerant. “My father always said that the only scandal he ever had in his administration were his three boys,” Clement says.
But even if the Fifth District congressman has only pleasant memories of his petting zoo, a childhood in the Executive Residence had its disturbing side as well. Eddie Jones recalls people giving Bob animals in hopes of getting on the governor’s good side. “You had the highway patrolmen and the troopers doing security and driving cars and answering telephones and handling appointments, and prisoners cooking food and working in the yard,” Jones says. “You had all these people who were sort of serving at the pleasure of the governor, and all of them were currying favor with the kids to hope to get a kind word with the governor, to preserve their status, or get a promotion, or get a parole or whatever.” Bob Clement, Jones says, was “a kid living in this unreal world.” According to Jones, things happened to the Clement boys “that wouldn’t happen to your child or my child.”
Bob Clement has won six congressional elections with relative ease. And yet his detractorsand even some supportersdismiss him as something of a joke. Tennessee has nine congressional members and two U.S. senators, and Clement is, by far, the poorest speaker of them all. To make matters worse, even though he is consistently polite and congenial, he exudes a lack of complexity, perhaps even a lack of intellect. “Bob Clement is like going to Shoney’s,” one of his bemused supporters admits. “You always know what you’re going to get.”
Frank Clement was known for his spellbinding speeches, perhaps the most notable of which was his keynote address at the 1956 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. The speech may have garnered mixed reviews, it may have been too long, and it may have been a textbook example of the cheesy grandiloquence of the times, but it had its moments. Clement, whose name had been mentioned as a possible vice-presidential nominee, boldly declared, “You cannot judge the prosperity of a nation by the earnings of a privileged monopoly.” He had a knack for being simple, direct, and memorable.
It was not a gift that Frank Clement was able to pass on to his oldest son. Bob Clement is given to fumbling, even when he’s talking about the subjects he knows best. At times, his statements achieve an almost breathtaking level of weirdness. One of Clement’s strongest points is, by all accounts, his prompt service to his constituents. Nevertheless, he can mangle even the discussion of that positive attribute. Discussing his determination to supply top-notch service to his constituents, Clement suggests that desperate people who can’t reach their congressman or otherwise get help “have, I’m sure, taken their own lives.”
But maybe, after all, the congressman’s inability to express himself isn’t really a negative. At least one of his advisors manages to reinterpret it as a proof that he has the common touch. “There’s an argument that, somehow, [Clement is] not very smart,” says Bill Fletcher, who worked with Clement when he was president of Cumberland University. “I think Bob’s demeanor is a demonstration of the common man. I think he’s comfortable no matter where he is.”
Fletcher, now Clement’s political consultant, says the image of the congressman as a slow-witted, politician’s son with more ambition than talent is circulated by an “intellectual clique.” And that coterie, according to Fletcher, consists of “snobs who are uncomfortable with the fact that [Clement] beat Bredesen in the  congressional race. Most of them are Bredesen worshipers.”
To make matters worse, Fletcher says, the theory of Bob Clement’s irrelevancy is propagated by people who “tend to be influential with the media, and they also tend to be aligned with political opponents of Clement’s.” Fletcher argues that “Bob is what-you-see-is-what-you-get. He’s not trying to impress anybody with how smart he is. He’s just a very sincere person. Probably to his detriment, he doesn’t spend any time trying to convince the intelligentsia in Nashville that he’s OK.”
And Fletcher is convinced that the congressman’s speaking skills, among other things, are improving. “In a way, being elected to Congress has helped him emerge from the shadow of his father,” Fletcher says.
Even Clement’s critics concede that Clement is blessed with keen political instincts. Like his father before him, Bob Clement has a gift for predicting voter reaction and coalition splits. According to Fletcher, when Clement was considering a gubernatorial campaign in 1994, all the numbers indicated that he would be elected. But Fletcher says the congressman “had a gut feeling that the time was not right, and he felt the Republican tide when the rest of us didn’t.” Clement’s instincts proved to be right. For Democrats 1994 turned out to be the most damaging election year in decades. Tennessee elected a Republican governor and sent two Republicans to the U.S. Senate.
Clement has a reputation for political savvy, but he has a reputation also as virtually a do-nothing congressman. That may be a bum rap, but neither is Clement a big man on the Hill.
“All I know about him is that he has a safe district and he’s thinking about running for governor,” says Liz Wilner, managing editor of the Washington-based Cook Political Report, a newsletter that focuses on members of the U.S. House and Senate. “I’ve never had to write much about him because he’s so solid [in Tennessee], and he’s so popular he’s never had a tough race.”
Wilner says the fact that she and her publication don’t know much about Clement indicates two things: that his home district is poltically stable and that Clement has not sponsored the sort of high-profile legislation that could have gained him notoriety.
The walls of Clement’s Capitol Hill office are decorated with souvenirs of some of his accomplishments. A number of them seem inconsequential. For example, there’s a framed letter from then-President George Bush, saying he was happy to sign 1989 legislation proclaiming October “Country Music Month.” But among Clement’s framed memorabilia there is also a quote from Frank Clement: “In my opinion, there are three qualities we American people must require in our leaders. First is character. Without it ability may be misused. Second is ability. Third is diplomacy, without which character and ability might be wasted.”
Clement knows how to keep his constituents happy. He has a solid reputation for honoring requests for public appearances, for getting passports and other paperwork processed, and for handling other mundane constituent services. And he’s managed to bring some federal money home.
Several years ago, Clement secured federal funding for construction of a landport in downtown Nashville, a project that has earned mixed reviews from the general public. For years, Clement has attemptedunsuccessfullyto secure an Amtrak route through Nashville. And he has grand visions of light-rail and commuter-rail service here, a vision many say is decades from being realized.
There have been other legislative accomplishments. In his first year in Congress, Clement introduced and passed a bill requiring the federal government to reimburse Nashville and other municipalities for money spent on noise abatement at airports. Clement was also the Tennessee congressman who, several months ago, first sounded public alarm over TVA Chairman Craven Crowell’s proposal to revamp the huge utility’s basic mission.
Clement is a staunch supporter of campaign-finance reform. He has introduced one of many federal bills aimed at cleaning up the system, although he has no illusions that his bill, or any similar legislation, will pass during the current Congress.
As a potential gubernatorial candidate, Clement should have a vested interest in campaign-finance reform. But Clement says that, if he runs for governor next year, he won’t challenge Tennessee’s new campaign-finance law, which limits statewide candidates to using only $250,000 of their personal money in a campaign. Perhaps there would be little reason for Clement to challenge the law, because most of his family fortune consists of power, not money. But any Democrat who hopes to beat Sundquist may have to challenge the law. The Republican governor had raised most of his $3 million in campaign donations before the state Legislature set up the new restrictions in 1995.
“Running statewide would be a heck of a lot different from running in the Fifth District,” says the Cook Political Report’s Wilner. “As far as I can tell, Gov. Sundquist has raised a lot of money, and the campaign-finance laws have been rigged so that whoever runs against him is going to have a tough time.”
Clement says that, if he runs for governor he will probably use the campaign-finance issue against Sundquist. “[Sundquist] raised $3 million the first year in office,” Clement says. “That’s unheard of. Then he changed the law to make it much more difficult for anyone else to raise money. What you have is the governor realizing that this law was going to go into effect and then sort of circumventing the system.”
Money may very well turn out to be the factor that keeps Clement out of the governor’s race, even though the state Democratic Party is promising to back a single, consensus candidate in next year’s contest. Clement says that, as a possible candidate and as a leader in the state’s Democratic Party, he has grudgingly come to terms with the need for a consensus candidate.
“I don’t like consensus candidates,” he says. “I like an open primary and fight it out, and the best man or woman wins. I think that’s the best approach for the Democrats and the Republicans. The Republicans have always had sort of a closed shop anyway. The Democrats have always been able to fight it out among the primary elections.”
Meanwhile, neither Clement nor state party chairman Houston Gordon is divulging anything about who the Democrats’ consensus candidate might be. They will only say that intra-party discussions are being held at a furious pace because everyoneparticularly the usual candidate suspects such as Clement, Mayor Phil Bredesen, former House Majority Leader Bill Purcell, and health-care entrepreneur Clayton McWhorterrecognizes that the race for campaign dollars needs to get under way before long.
Monied candidates such as Bredesen and McWhorter could challenge the state’s new spending limit, which may turn out to be unconstitutional. But they would need some time to mount such a challenge.
In the meantime, Clement is faced with the decision of a lifetime. He’s lost one gubernatorial contest, in 1978, when Jake Butcher beat him for the Democratic nomination and went on to lose against Lamar Alexander. That year, Clement was 35 years old, three years older than Frank Clement was in 1952, when he ran his first race for the office.
Clement and Sundquist have been adversaries before. The year before he was named president of Cumberland University, Clement ran against Sundquist for the Seventh District congressional seat. It was the first congressional run for both candidates. The Clement name served Bob Clement well, but not well enough. Sundquist walked away the victor.
But Clement says multiple factors would work in his favor, should he choose to oppose Sundquist. For one thing, he points out that, at various times, he’s lived in each of the three “grand divisions” of the state. He grew up in Nashville, graduating from Hillsboro High School in 1962, but he went on to earn an undergraduate degree at UT. After that, he moved to the other end of the state, where he earned a postgraduate business degree from Memphis State University.
“I’ve done a lot of research about what my message would be, how much strength I have, and where’s my strength,” Clement says, declining to share his poll figures. “I’m fortunate that I’m strong in the cities and very strong in the rural areas as well. Vulnerability is there for Gov. Sundquist.” The congressman notes that Sundquist’s current budget proposes cuts in higher education and the removal of surplus money from the budget of the Tennessee Housing and Development Agency, which provides low-income housing.
“Is Gov. Sundquist vulnerable?” Clement asks rhetorically. “Yes. Do I think he could be defeated? Yes. Do I think it would be easy? No. But I’m in a very good position because of my name recognition and what we’ve accomplished and because I’ve lived in all three grand divisions of the state.”
Before he makes his decision, however, Clement says he will have to know how his family feels about the idea. Some of his family members remain among his closest confidants. Chief among them is his aunt, Anna Belle Clement O’Brien, who was Frank Clement’s chief of staff and who served for years as a state senator before her retirement last year. A powerful figure in her own right, she was to Frank Clement as Peaches Simpkins has been to Don Sundquist.
At the same time, Bob Clement may put some stock in the opinion of his cousin Sara Kyle, who serves on the state’s Tennessee Regulatory Authority. Clement’s brother, Frank Jr., is not particularly renowned for his political acumen, but he still may offer guidance to his older brother.
Then there is Mary Clement, who remains a major force in her husband’s life. The congressman and his wife have four children, two of whom are still in their teens. Clement must weigh the considerations of his family against his own raw ambition and the demands of the old-style Clement tradition.
At such a moment, the late Frank Clement would have known what to say. He would probably have come up with something like what he said in 1966, when he was faced with a particularly bloody battle with the state Legislature. “Let the political winds howl; let the election-year storm rage,” he told the lawmakers, who were balking at his request to expand welfare and mental health programs. “Let us...do those things which should be done.”
Bob Clement, scion of one of Tennessee’s greatest political dynasties, should be so lucky to have such a way with words.
AnglRdr, OH NO YOU DIDN'T. You are making grim references about the holy place where…
Yeah, this is great stuff but probably more appropriate for the Scene and then a…
I have lived in Edgefield for twenty years. Right after the tornado, a developer bought…
Diatribean, So are you upset that cab drivers are losing their monopoly or that minority…
Memphis is the obvious choice, starting with being the capital of the Delta. Which, I…