Wednesday, December 06, 2006

December 6, 2006 Nashville Scene

Give Him a Garden Trowel...
…And Do Wilder—and All of Us—a Favor: Send Him to Pasture

by Liz Garrigan

There’s nothing more sad than seeing the ravages of time make someone a laughingstock. In Lt. Gov. John Wilder’s case, he’s guilty of aiding and abetting his own buffoonery. It’s not entirely clear whether his waning capabilities are linked to his advancing age (85) or whether he’s just always been on the loony side, with no apparent interest in leading but every interest in the world in being named a “leader.” What is clear is that he refuses to step aside.

He’s less sympathetic that the average old man who doesn’t know when to quit, though, because his firm and selfish hold on power affects not just the 33 members of the Tennessee Senate but all Tennesseans. By virtue of his position, he isn’t just a benign character we can all be amused by until he finally goes away. The man who has led the state Senate for 35 years—starting when Marvin Gaye, Carole King and Don McLean were all on the Top 40 charts—has not once advocated for meaningful legislation or public policy. He doesn’t make anyone angry because he doesn’t believe in anything. Or, if he does, no one knows what it is—besides of course that “the Senate is the Senate.”

That he’s old and has been around for a long time are not what make him a worthwhile target for vilification. It’s that he has about as much interest in improving the state as Gaylord has in seeing Nashville build a new city-owned convention center.

As if this state of affairs weren’t bad enough, state Republicans actually have a 17-16 majority in the Senate, as they did two years ago when the Democratic Wilder was given the nod as speaker and lieutenant governor just as he had for more than three decades before. Certain GOP members have voted for the crusty pol—and threaten to again—because he has been relatively evenhanded in dispensing committee chairmanships to both parties over the years. (During the election season two years ago, one Republican senator, Curtis Person of Memphis, even stood in for Wilder during what was supposed to be a “debate” with Wilder’s Republican opponent.) Such bipartisanship is an admirable practice, but not when the casualties of such delicate pandering, dating as far back as the heyday of platform shoes and shag carpeting, have been leadership and vision.

Take the raucous income tax debate during Gov. Don Sundquist’s second term as an example. For a long time, Wilder was silent on the question. When he finally did formulate some thoughts on the matter, he met privately at the governor’s mansion to go over his own income tax proposal. When word of this leaked, he lost his backbone and denied altogether supporting an income tax.

Last year, when a handful of state lawmakers were indicted on bribery and corruption charges, Wilder condemned not the behavior of profiteering and unscrupulous public officials but instead the federal government for offering “bait to get someone in jail.” His interest is with the small cadre of those who have embalmed him politically, not with the millions of Tennesseans who count on sound policy regarding health care, taxes and other state issues.

We frankly find it troubling that, during 35 years of power, Wilder has yet to risk his hide over any meaningful principle, issue or ideology. As a speaker with nothing worthwhile to say—and, we might add, a tenuous grasp on both standard methods of communication and basic English grammar—his greatest political accomplishment is self-preservation.

He’s so perfectly awful that even Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen has offered him only tepid support. Wilder, mind you, would become governor should anything—God forbid—happen to Bredesen.

Two years ago, U.S. Sen. Bill Frist made it his business to figure out why some GOP members in the state Senate planned to keep an ineffectual Democrat in that chamber’s top job. Frist called Republican state senators, presumably urging them to oust Wilder. As the highest-ranking Republican in the state, Frist was right to query lawmakers on this issue—and not just because Wilder hails from the other party. Ultimately, Frist failed.

We’d urge party elders to try again in the upcoming legislative session. Keeping a cartoon character behind the Senate podium is a good way to get Tennessee on The Daily Show, but that’s about it.


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home