Sunday Column: On the best and worst in TN Politics

About the same time that the most despicable figure in recent Tennessee political history was found dead in a prison cell last week, a small group of folks gathered in the state House chamber to remember a man they saw as one of the most admirable and respected figures in that history.
I never knew William L. “Dick” Barry, who during tumultuous times presided over 98 other representatives in that ornate chamber as House speaker for four years, from 1963 to 1967, then served as right-hand man to Gov. Buford Ellington and then as mentor and adviser — plus, at least once, also as a backstage organizer of an unorthodox bipartisan coalition. He died quietly, aged 88, in the town of Lexington, Tenn., where he was born and where — in accord with his instructions — no formal funeral was held.
But I trust the judgment of those who did know him, including members of the mostly gray-haired bipartisan coalition that gathered Wednesday. Based on them, and the commentary of others, he was a remarkable and insightful man of great intellect with perhaps even more remarkable modesty.

Barry was a Democrat and there were Democrats on hand, ranging from Sen. Douglas Henry, the General Assembly’s most senior member and arguably the most conservative member of his party in the Legislature, to Chip Forrester, a much younger and much more liberal fellow who stepped down earlier this year as state Democratic chairman.
But there was also a substantial contingent of Republicans. They included former Gov. Winfield Dunn, who recalled a man who put by-the-book professionalism above partisanship instead of a man who focused more on partisanship in those days of Democratic dominance.
And state Rep. Steve McDaniel, who holds the title of deputy speaker in today’s Republican “supermajority” House, served as master of ceremonies at the service. McDaniel was one of those folks mentored by Barry — they were neck-of-the-woods neighbors — despite partisan differences.
State Supreme Court Justice Bill Koch, who as a young lawyer met Barry when they both worked in the state attorney general’s office and who talked with him about politics and sushi two months before his death, used the word “subtle” several times in his eulogy. Barry worked behind the scenes in “an elegant and surgical style” to minimize confrontation between warring factions while still accomplishing objectives, he said, almost always striving to avoid any attention to himself.
“He told no tales. He left no footprints,” said Koch, conversationally, before the service began.
I did know Byron (Low Tax) Looper, at least insofar that he came by the cubicle to introduce himself as a candidate for the state Senate and subsequently talked with me over the phone a time or two. He struck me as the generic long-shot candidate, mouthing platitudes — he had his middle name legally changed to “(Low Tax),” you know — with a bit more goofiness and belligerent intensity than most. He was also one of those guys who seem incapable of looking you in the eye when talking.
The man he murdered in cold blood, state Sen. Tommy Burks, D-Monterey, would always look you in the eye. He was a straightforward, self-described “conservative country boy” Democrat — heck, he might have passed muster among many of today’s tea party types on matters of principle.
The word “subtle” was not one you would ever associate with him. But words he and Barry might share in common were “humble,” “honest” and “integrity.” By politician standards, both were low in personal ego and high on promoting public good as they perceived it.
Looper was the antithesis, so sick with self-importance that murder was a campaign tactic. As the Republican nominee, the death of Democratic nominee Burks would assure him of election, Looper assumed.
Thankfully, he was wrong. Rejecting initial resistance from the state GOP headquarters, several Republican senators joined in a bipartisan coalition to assure that Looper’s plot was foiled and Tommy Burks’ widow, Charlotte, was elected instead.
I wish I had known Dick Barry. I wish I had never heard of Byron (Low Tax) Looper, that other Tennesseans shared that status and that, in the hereafter, both get the recognition they deserve.

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