Our Back Pages brings you tidbits of Nashville history from near and far, chronologically speaking. This edition: Election-eve chicanery in the Corker-vs.-Ford contest, cub reporter Seigenthaler's first major scoop, and Big Government wants to control who gets behind the wheel--if you can imagine.
2006: Spotlight on a push-poll
A scant three years ago this week, Tennessee voters were about to go to the polls to choose a new United States senator. The Republican candidate had outlasted two more conservative rivals. The Democrat was heir to a Memphis African-American political dynasty, though he did all he could not to appear as its champion. As best anyone could tell, the race was close.
Just before election day, an independent organization calling itself "Common Sense Tennessee" began sending automated phone calls into the state's households. Ostensibly asking polling questions, the calls clearly promoted the candidacy of Republican Bob Corker over Democrat Harold Ford Jr.'s campaign.
Push-polls, as such gambits were known, came in for a lot of high-minded criticism across the country during the 2006 election season--but usually in the abstract. When NashvillePost.com reported that its audio of an anti-Ford push poll was traceable to a Procter & Gamble executive with a history of political dirty tricks, the commentariat took notice. Along with Daily Kos, The New York Times and other media, National Public Radio seized on the recording:
Unidentified Man #1: On the issue of abortion, do you consider yourself to be pro-life?
MADELEINE BRAND: This may seem like a harmless survey question, but it could be an example of what's known as push-polling. Push-polls ask leading, loaded questions and are used to attack an opposing candidate.
So if you lived in Tennessee, let's say, and answered yes to that pro-life question, you would have then heard this.
(Soundbite of automated operator)
Unidentified Man #1: Fact: Harold Ford Jr. repeatedly voted to use tax dollars to pay for abortions in the U.S. and foreign countries. Fact: Bob Corker opposes abortion and opposes using tax dollars to fund abortions.
Mr. JOHN DICKERSON (Chief Political Correspondent, Slate): Hello there.
BRAND: Okay. This is the Tennessee Senate race between Democrat Harold Ford and Republican Bob Corker. And we just heard some so-called facts. Are these indeed facts?
Mr. DICKERSON: Well, they're facts in the context of a campaign, which is to say that you can mangle anyone's record any way. And in this case, pro-Corker forces have taken Ford's record and mangled it in such a way that they're pitching it to pro-life voters.
BRAND: And why did you single out this particular race as an example of push-polling?Mr. DICKERSON: Well, in part because the folks at NashvillePost.com were able to capture this audio, and also because this is the hottest most interesting competitive race of all the Senate races out there. The race has gotten vicious; and because the control of the Senate hangs in the balance, this is one of those states that may very well determine control of the Senate.
1953: The Tom Buntin manhunt
He was young. He was wealthy. And he was dead--in the eyes of the law, anyway.
This week 56 years ago, the news wires revealed that Thomas C. Buntin was in fact alive and well, 13 years after the state's Supreme Court had declared him dead once and for all. Buntin was an heir to what had been the considerable fortune of his grandfather, Nashville insurance, banking and telecommunications investor James C. Caldwell. But after marrying and starting a family, Buntin had encountered personal setbacks that were compounded by the Great Depression (in which the huge financial empire of Caldwell's son Rogers collapsed in spectacular fashion). One day in 1931, after threatening suicide repeatedly, he disappeared, leaving a $50,000 insurance policy to benefit his children.
Six weeks later, his former secretary, Betty McCuddy, also vanished.
Former Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler was a young reporter at the paper when news that Buntin was alive--and remarried--emerged cryptically from a local court proceeding. A source indicated he was somewhere in Texas. Publisher Silliman Evans, a well-connected Texan, dispatched Seigenthaler and photographer Jimmy Holt to the Lone Star State.
Madeena Nolan took up the story in a 1997 issue of Nashville Life magazine, interviewing Seigenthaler about his efforts to find Buntin:
It was on November 6, 1953, that a Chattanooga lawyer for New York Life announced to the court that Buntin had been found alive. New York Life, said Seigenthaler, persuaded Buntin to attest to his continued existence in return for keeping the secret of his present identity and whereabouts. The Davidson County Chancery Court closed its hearing about the rediscovery and then sealed documents presented by the insurance company. "I was furious," Seigenthaler says. "I raised hell. In a real sense, it was a legal fraud...."
With the investigation tallying up sizable costs and newsroom bosses growing ever more insistent in demanding results, Seigenthaler decided to break the law in the name of journalism. On a Saturday afternoon in Dallas, he posed as a New York Life employee and convinced a custodian to let him enter the insurer's offices, where he rifled through the files of the investigators who were in contact with Buntin. All he found was an empty folder labeled "Buntin," which he was guiltily grasping when the custodian walked in on him. The young reporter fled the building and got out of Dallas right away. Seigenthaler has since told the mea culpa tale of his trespass at many a seminar on journalistic ethics.
Seigenthaler eventually tracked his quarry to Orange, Texas and secured a doorstep interview. After the story broke on Thanksgiving Day 1953, Life magazine was among the national publications that followed it.
1930: Please regulate us.
Seventy-nine years ago, the subject for debate was whether Tennessee drivers should be required to have licenses. Ours was one of 31 states that as yet required no official sanction to get behind the wheel of one's Stutz Bearcat or REO Speed Wagon. (This laxity is one reason your grandparent used to reminisce about driving at 12 or 14 down on the farm.)
In its Nov. 3 issue, the Nashville Banner weighed in on the side of--perish the thought--government regulation. "It is simply a case of locking the barn before the horse is stolen, rather than lamenting the theft afterwards," the paper editorialized.