(Note: This is an unedited version of a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel.)
Gov. Bill Haslam last week declared that he is “never going to be part of the name-calling deal,” which may be seen as turning the other cheek after he had been called a name.
The name was “Mister Rogers.” The calling came from Raymond Baker, a veteran conservative activist from Franklin, during a speech to a tea party gathering at the state capitol last weekend. A direct quote:
“Bill Haslam, where are you? Wisconsin got Scott Walker; Florida got Rick Scott; South Carolina got Nikki Haley; Arizona got Jan Brewer and we got Mister Rogers… You cannot govern Tennessee like it’s Mister Rogers Neighborhood.”
To which an appropriate Haslamic response might have been, “Well, why not?” Instead, our governor chose an indirect response, a plea for more civil discourse.
“We really don’t want to get where Washington is, where good people don’t want to get there to serve,” Haslam said. “If you asked me kind of what my concern is over the past two or three weeks, it would be that.”
The other Baker-referenced Republican governors have, indeed, have adopted a substantially more confrontational approach in dealings with Democrats, teacher unions and other evil-to-conservative-eyes organizations and individuals.
No one has accused them of being like Mister Rogers, namely the late Fred Rogers, who for years the gentle, soft-spoken host of the public television children’s show, Mister Rogers Neighborhood. He was, incidentally, also Presbyterian minister – a calling that Haslam considered as a younger man.
Now, as the governor noted, there has been an escalation of belligerent rhetoric in our state’s body politic recently. But most of it has not been personalized toward any individual. Calling someone a name, by name, is still an unusual occurrence and Baker’s anti-Haslam harangue may be seen as a bold new step.
Then again, there’s only one governor, so it’s kind of hard to avoid mentioning his name. And there are a lot worse insults than being called Mister Rogers.
Recent caustic commentary has included, for example, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner lamenting “terrorism against teachers” by unnamed conservative Republicans. Actually, he was calling on Haslam to stop the said terrorism, not accusing him of being a terrorist.
There was also Sen. Jim Summerville, R-Dickson, who stood on the Senate floor last week to warn teachers against trying to obstruct Republican education initiatives.
“Make no mistake, the final responsibility is ours – and we are warriors,” said Summerville, adding a paraphrased comment from a Shakespeare play.
“We will bend public education to our awe, or break it all to pieces,” he said.
Now, in political rhetorical terms, “break it all to pieces” can be translated as “terrorism against teachers.” And Turner’s remark, as a matter of fact, was translated by Republican Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey as “calling us all terrorists.”
And so on. The combatants seem ready to escalate the shouting match. Except for Haslam who — perhaps as Mister Rogers would explain to listening children – is telling us that things are best when people are nice to each other.
With rare exceptions, the governor has studiously avoided controversy in most of his dealings. Even when he stirs up a bit, as with a bill to revise teacher tenure for teachers not already tenured, he tries to be pleasant – refusing to join Republican legislators raging about the teachers union and even refusing to take a stand the anti-collective bargaining bill.
As a candidate last year, he made a campaign theme of being “a good man,” “the real thing” and enjoying a piece of chocolate pie. Rather like Mister Rogers?
Maybe our governor should not take the comparison as an insult but embrace it as a compliment. Millions of children, after all, grew up loving Mister Rogers.
For his Monday night state-of-the-state speech, Mister Haslam could stride slowly into the House chamber wearing a cardigan sweater, smiling gently, take his place at the podium and begin:
“Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, it’s a wonderful day in the Tennessee neighborhood. And I want to be your friend.”
Maybe followed by a little song, such as “It’s You I Like,” made popular by Mister Rogers.
That beats terrorism and breaking things to pieces, right? But maybe not chocolate pie.