n politics, sticks and stones may break your bones, though they rarely do in the literal sense these days. But words, especially your own, can really harm you.
Or so it sometimes seems.
Whether you’re a Republican congressman who mentions “legitimate rape,” a Democratic president remarking “you didn’t build that” or a vice president speculating on people being “back in chains,” national political news seems dominated by exaggeration and extrapolation of rhetorical missteps made by those who stray from scripted talking points prepared by well-paid public relations professionals.
Here in Tennessee, we have a long history of entertaining, controversial and seemingly impolitic utterances. Say, for example, Davy Crockett’s famous statement: “The hell with you all, I’m going to Texas.”
Yours truly suggested in this space a few months ago that Sam Houston made a similar remark as governor of Tennessee before going to Texas. That, as promptly pointed out by people more knowledgeable in history than I, was a stupid mistake based on an apparently faulty memory of a conversation with a couple of politicians years ago. Fairly extensive research — yes, I sought to justify my error before officially correcting it, just like many politicians would — shows zero indication that Sam said any such a thing. But Davy did and, in fact, there’s discussion of the words, their background and the context in the book “Journey Into the Land of Trials: The Story of Davy Crockett’s Expedition to the Alamo.”
The author documents that Crockett actually said this repeatedly, initially as something of a joshing campaign promise as he was running for re-election to Congress. When he lost, he kept his promise — repeating the phrase in a farewell to his native state.
A recent example of a Tennessee politician being taken to task for an impolitic utterance is state Sen. Jim Summerville, R-Dickson, who declared via email: “I don’t give a rat’s ass what the black caucus thinks.” And he added a line asking the remark be forwarded to all members of the Black Caucus.
The email was in response to the Black Caucus offering critical commentary on a report by a Senate subcommittee chaired by Summerville on a grade alteration scandal at Tennessee State University, which is a historically black institution. A simple, “I disagree with you,” would have been universally deemed appropriate.
As it was, singling out a group for a “the-hell-with-you” insult on the basis of race, the words were universally deemed inappropriate. Officials of the Democratic and Republican parties, remarkably, found something to agree upon in condemnations. (Well, the Republicans had to be asked; the Democrats volunteered.)
In an even more remarkable response for a politician, Summerville, who is otherwise an atypical political figure, was unapologetic. He basically said he didn’t give a rodent’s posterior about the reaction. Removed as subcommittee chair by a Republican, he thereupon resigned from the full Senate committee.
At one level, Summerville is refreshingly honest. Ditto with Knoxville Sen. Stacey Campfield’s reaction — that while he probably wouldn’t have sent the email, he still thinks the Black Caucus is segregationist in that it refuses to admit white members.
It’s somewhat understandable that the Black Caucus turned down Campfield’s request for membership a few years back, given that his views on some matters are hostile to those of most members. Less understandable is the Congressional Black Caucus’ rejection of U.S. Rep. Steve Cohen, whose Memphis district is predominantly black and who probably is compatible in approach to most issues.
Rep. Larry Miller, the chairman of the Legislature’s Black Caucus, roundly condemned and criticized Summerville and Campfield in a recent interview, tossing out a few insulting words in the process. But he also said that he’d like to sit down with these fellows and try to understand where they’re coming from. He and other Democrats have subsequently told The Associated Press they’d like to have legislators go through diversity and sensitivity training.
That ain’t going to happen. But an honest exchange of words probably wouldn’t hurt anyone. Better than sticks and stones or maybe even scripted rhetoric.
It’s a shame nobody does that anymore.