In what was unquestionably his best State of the State speech ever, Gov. Bill Haslam announced last week that “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” is one of his favorite movies. He especially liked the scene where the Butch and Sundance jump off a cliff.
There were a lot of other announcements in Haslam’s third State of the State (SOTS) speech, enough to make your head spin if you try to keep track of state governmental doings. That was part of the beauty of the 43-minute rhetorical ramble through dozens of topics, many the subject of proclaimed new attention by our state’s benevolent, business-loving chief executive.
It was, in a word, substantive. If you follow this newspaper, or most any other media outlet, you will see multiple follow-up reports on the various initiatives launched or issues raised in SOTS III (and some the governor didn’t mention — strategically, one suspects) that are quietly buried in his package of 59 administration bills or advanced by legislators.
Beyond that, however, the speech had just a touch of mystery — strategically, one suspects. Then, again, maybe not. Could be just weird.
But it made things interesting. In the first and second SOTS, Haslam had fairly trite slogans to recite as a theme, doubtless the work of public relations consultants. Tennessee faced “a new normal” in the first SOTS, a need to “believe in better” in No. 2.
This year, the proclaimed theme line was “Tennessee is different.” The refrain was repeated, in various versions (“Tennessee is unique in so many ways”) throughout the speech and sounds like a yawner on first blush. Ah, but think about it.
The message, easy for Tennesseans to embrace, is basically that we’re not like those idiots in Washington and elsewhere — a subtle and clever appeal to offset the general citizen dislike of government that polls show everywhere, surely including Haslam’s own state political surveys. He emphasized good things happening in our fair state, where we do things “in a thoughtful, strategic manner.”
Basically: Don’t hate us. We’re not like those other guys. Instead, warm and fuzzy things are happening here — including a bunch of those new initiatives.
An example of eloquent indecision articulated in SOTS, contrasting with locked-down-no-compromise Washington, was Haslam’s mention of Medicaid expansion. While “hesitant to commit additional dollars to Medicaid when it’s already eating up so much of our budget” and cognizant that “most of us in this room (the Legislature’s Republican ‘supermajority’) don’t like the Affordable Care Act,” Haslam declared the decision “isn’t as basic as saying, ‘No ObamaCare.’ ”
For mystery, though, it’s back to the movies. From Haslam’s speech:
“One of my favorite movies is “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and one of the most memorable scenes is when Butch and Sundance are trapped on the edge of a cliff” with a river below. And the characters debate jumping.
Sundance says he can’t swim and, the governor noted, Sundance replies: “Are you crazy … the fall will probably kill you.” And, if you’ve seen the movie, they then jump together, yelling an expletive that our governor would never use in public.
Haslam wisely analyzes the situation: “Sundance was caught in his own issues and missed the big picture.”
Now that’s a head-scratcher. Is the hesitant Haslam counseling that nonswimming state government should just jump off a cliff into a river? It would seem so, at first blush.
The passage is reminiscent of former Gov. Phil Bredesen’s odd SOTS commentary — most famously involving metaphors for ships at sea, but ranging into a declaration that he sometimes talked to the state Capitol, a building most of us thought inanimate, and that the building talked back.
Suggested interpretation of the fundamental message in Haslam’s first speech to the new Republican supermajority: Don’t jump off the cliff until I, like Butch Cassidy, make a recommendation considering the big-picture alternatives (like being hanged by a posse of angry voters?). Instead, let’s jump into the middle of Moderate River.
Bold Bill leaves us with the mystery of when he will put the spurs to that horse and leap, perhaps shouting a political-position expletive that would make many unhappy. In the big picture, maybe never.
Note: This appears as a column in Sunday’s News Sentinel. For fellow Sentinel columnist takes on the SOTS, see Greg Johnson on the”pragmatic path,” Pam Strickland, who thinks the speech “a little out of focus.” And, from the other end of the state, Jackson Baker saw a display of Haslam’s adeptness at walking the political tightrope.