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Gov. Bill Lee is inaugurated for a second term, Jan. 21, 2023

When I wrote about In-N-Out last week, I alluded to how it caught my attention that In-N-Out president Lynsi Snyder-Ellingson seemed to have not been appropriately prepped by Gov. Bill Lee's people. In the grand scheme of things, it’s not a big deal. But it stuck with me. If you’re bragging about how awesome Tennessee is and putting on media events designed to highlight how great you are at selling Tennessee to people who might bring business here, making sure your partner has a basic grasp of Tennessee geography is one of those minor things that makes a big difference.

So, it made me wonder who’s working communications for Gov. Lee. Per the state’s website, Lee’s director of communications is Casey Sellers. If you click through to learn more about her, I shit you not, it just says “Coming soon ...” I checked again today as I’m writing this, after Saturday's inauguration, figuring that certainly in the prep for the start of the governor’s new term, these kinds of minor things would have been fixed. But no.

This is mostly funny. No, I mean, it is 100 percent funny. For those of us who view Lee’s administration like the fake Rock Ridge in Blazing Saddles, these glimpses of the poorly nailed timber bracing the façades are wholly expected and wholly hilarious.

But then Gov. Lee was reinaugurated. And the feeling of, “Oh, no one over there knows how to deliver a coherent message” changed from funny ha-ha to funny Ralph Wiggum's “I’m in danger.” Y’all, in the future, if we are still allowed to learn about the past, Gov. Lee’s inauguration speech will be studied as a master class in odd choices in political messaging.

The governor’s speech, as released to the public, was roughly 1,800 words and 71 paragraphs. Twelve of those paragraphs, 280 of those words, were complaining about critics and calls to civility. Roughly 15 percent of a speech that was reflecting on the past four years and laying out his agenda for the next four years was devoted to talking about how he’s going to persevere against his haters.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s fine that the governor has a plan for how to deal with criticism. And I guess it’s helpful to know that he wants his criticisms to come in more civil tones. We can do that. Well ... I can’t. I’m genetically predisposed to being a contrarian asshole, but surely some of us can do that. And I can practice: Gov. Lee, please, pretty please, if it wouldn’t be too much trouble, stop warehousing children in office buildings.

OK, let’s see if that works.

But one particular sentence in the inaugural address stood out to me: “We can disagree and stand firm for our beliefs and our principles, but we should never forget the dignity of the other human being. We should never believe differences are a platform for demonization, or that one man has any greater value than another.”

What does this mean? Is it a wishy-washy attempt to kind of make a stand against racism? Is it a very oblique critique of the anti-trans Proud Boys rally a bunch of his fellow Republicans attended on Legislative Plaza? Or is it a subtle dig at people who’ve protested his administration, like the newly inaugurated Justin Jones? Without specificity, who knows if we agree with him or not? Who wrote this mess?

But that “one man” phrasing also stuck with me. Is there one man whose criticism of Lee might be making Lee uncomfortable? This is an interesting question, because it may inadvertently show a big fault line on the right. After all, can you think of one man on the left whose critiques would so get under Lee’s skin? Obviously not. He’s thoroughly insulated himself from the effects of any critique coming from Democrats.

But perhaps it’s worth noting that there was counter-programming to the governor’s inauguration that brought in people and political figures from all over the country: The ReAwaken America Tour stop out at Greg Locke’s Global Vision Bible Church. The ReAwaken event claims to have sold out its 3,000 seats. Gov. Lee’s crowd was anticipated at 1,500. This is such a jerk move on Locke’s part that I can’t help but admire it a bit.

But it also points to a major problem with Lee’s framing of history. He says: “Civility is not a weakness. In fact, it has been and it should always be the American Way. And I know it can be the way in Tennessee.” Ah, yes, that famous American civility. Just don’t look too closely at the piles of remains of Native Americans sitting in our universities right now. Don’t focus on the stories of Tulsa or Rosewood or countless other Black towns destroyed. Think not about the human rights abuses happening in our prisons. Disregard the whole war we had with ourselves.

It’s wonderful to aspire to civility, but it’s bullshit and hampering to insist that we have a history of it. If Lee’s hope is that he can just genteelly win over the right wing of his party with manners and make them behave themselves, he should be aware — hell, we should all be aware — that in the history of our country, that has never worked.

But even if hearts and minds can be moved with just the right amount of proper messaging, Lee should be aware that he’s not very good at said messaging, and he should get some help who is.

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