Somewhere, in an alternate universe....
Confronted with the first major crisis of his second term, Gov. Phil Bredesen nimbly distanced himself from the incendiary remarks of his wife's priest, Father Tom O'Ryan, after a weekend of swirling controversy. In a well-received speech yesterday outside HCA corporate headquarters, Bredesen delivered a sweeping assessment of economic equality in America that was hailed as a stirring defense of the status quo.
Over the weekend, televised excerpts from O'Ryan's controversial sermons threatened to damage the coalition of Democrats and Republicans that Bredesen has helped build. The clips, which showed the grandfatherly O'Ryan urging his congregation—Bredesen attends mass with his wife—this Easter to show compassion to the poor, could have done serious damage to Bredesen’s image as a by-the-book number-cruncher, undoing all the benefits he accrued from removing thousands of low income citizens from the state's health-care plan.
“While I condemn the words of Father Thomas O'Ryan, I do not condemn the man,” Bredesen said, patting a parked Lexus for emphasis. “But let me be clear. While many of us understand that we live in a country of great economic opportunity, many others, for reasons that are not entirely irrational, hold no such faith. What I have done, and what I will always work to do, is to convince people that even if the poor will always be among us, they are not always deserving of our compassion.
“In fact, more often than not, they are worthy of our apathy, if not our ridicule...."
While Bredesen's speech was calculated to shore up support among conservatives, who have long viewed him as a post-big-government leader, aides say that the governor hoped at long last to put away some of the issues that have troubled his otherwise successful political career. Throughout his two terms in the governor's office, if not his tenure as Nashville mayor, Bredesen has positioned himself as a different kind of Democrat—one who believes that the poor have little recourse from the public sector. But with Ryan's sharply heated rhetoric on poverty threatening to weaken the governor's legacy, Bredesen stayed up until 2 a.m. working on a draft aimed at not only reviving his political fortunes but also at birthing a new view on public policy.
“This was clearly not a speech he wanted to give,” says senior aide Will Pinkston. “But once he realized that he had to address Father O'Ryan's remarks, which we all agree are incredibly divisive and unfortunate, he didn’t approach it as if it were just another plug to pull. I haven’t seen that kind of passion since he got the last update of Excel.”
It's been a difficult few days for Bredesen, who rarely has conservative critics. Once thought to be a politician who could rise above conventional political divides, appealing to both wealthy Democrats and wealthy Republicans, Bredesen has struggled to deal with the fallout from being linked to O’Ryan’s near-socialist welfare campaigning. At first, Bredesen made the news circuit touting his credentials: his tacit willingness to let likely innocent death-row inmate Paul House rot in jail, his consistent backing of lucrative tax breaks for well-heeled corporations.
But over the last 48 hours, talk show hosts like Steve Gill publicly lambasted the right-leaning governor, linking Bredesen's record to O’Ryan’s mad-dog ravings.
“So here we have a priest who once said—he once said—that as a society we neglect the poor and the sick,” Gill said on his influential radio show. “A man who actually opened up his church to the homeless! A man who has actually questioned, actually questioned, whether the modern corporate economy can lift all boats—and somehow our governor didn't know about this?”
“I find that rather improbable.”
In fact, a clearly tired-looking Bredesen admitted in his speech that he was present during some of O'Ryan's more divisive sermons, including one in which the priest even questioned the efficacy of capital punishment.
“Let me be clear, I do not in any way agree with those hurtful remarks, “Bredesen said, his voice rising midway through his speech. “But there are people in our society, they may be black, white, Latino, Asian and Native American, who still believe—and this is unfortunate—that our government has a moral obligation to its most helpless citizens. But what they neglect to realize is that our country is not static. It's not locked in history. We have made progress. We now sanction torture, for example, something that would have been unheard of when I was a boy growing up in upstate New York. So, yes, we can...move on from the false debate between compassion and efficiency. My career, as imperfect as it may be, is living proof of that. ”