In the past decade, Tennessee has yielded a good crop of politicians who became nationally known for their ability to speak.
Many remember Estes Kefauver campaigning in his Daniel Boone coonskin cap. or Frank Clement, whose 1956 condemnation of President Eisenhower "peering down the green fairways of indiference" in the keynte speech at the Democratic National Convention is still talked about around here. Howard Baker, who Time magazine calls one of the "most facile tongues in the Senate," insured his political future with his forensic skill during the televised Watergate hearings.
But now it appears that the Volunteer State has produced a politician who may be remembered for, if nothing else, his communications problems.
Gov. Ray Blanton last week capped a growing feud between himself and the local press by announcing that henceforth, he would refuse to answer questions addressed to him by reporters who "fail to present thee positive side of the story," while firing off a telegram to President Carter suggesting that he do the same.
"Every time I visit a foreign country," said Blanton, "I am asked 'Why does your press try to tear down the greatest country in the world?'"
But the fact that he has taken the state Lear Jet at taxpayers' expense to as many foreign countries as he has - including a $38,000 trip to the Middle East - is one of the stories that the governor feels have been negatively dwelt on.
Other such reports include his promise to pardon a double murderer who is the son of a political ally; his refusal to fire his state transportation director after the man's double indictment in the midst of a state surplus property scandal (the secretary was recently acquitted of the charges): and hs lavish use of taxpayers funds on travel and living arrangements, including $300-a-night hotel bills, monthly charges on the state's American Express card ranging from $2,000 to $6,000, $2,000 for souvenir pins, over $2,000 for chauffeur-driven limousines in Washington, and a $10 massage in Tokyo.
"I have never gone over my budget," protests Blanton. "And the cost of travel has gone up astronomically. And you don't entertain prospective businessmen at a flea bag hotel. I've been very active in keeping our economy growing. I've brought millions of dollars worth of business to Tennessee and kept unemployment down to 4 per cent. And the bottom line is that I've lived within my budget."
But this has not prevented the opposition Republicians from having a field day ridiculing the party in power.
In fact, three years after winning the governorship largely by striking anti-Watergate themes, Blanton finds his opponents are mounting a barrage of charges that the 45-year-old governor has flagrantly abused his power, brought shame to his office, perverted the system of justice, responded to the attacks with a stance they term "Nixonian stonewalling," and ought to resign or be impeached.
But Blanton responds, "A good portion of the criticism is fear. Fear of the Democratic Party in this state. A good 82 per cent of the news media are owned by Republicans and they are still smarting over the defeat of Bill Brock [in the 1967 U.S. Senate race] which I had a very credible handin. I've had practically no newspaper support, but I've learned to live with it."
Yet his promised pardon of Roger Humphreys, who has been convicted of murdering his wife and her lover and who now serves as a photographer on the governor's staff, has even had the Democratic Party in a quandary.
"I don't know why he's going to do it," said Speaker of the House Ned McWhirter, referring to the Humphreys's pardon. "I just differ with him on that matter. There's no way I can support that one."
Senate Minority Leader Tom Garland is also concerned over the governor's actions.
"I've served under four governors and I can't recall anything quite like this," said Garland. "At some point the governor is going to have to change. At the present he thinks he's above it all. He's just doing what he wants and says 'So what?'"
Blanton's strongest critic has been state Sen. Victor Ashe, a Republican from Knoxville, who has asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate the governor's expenses.
"Ray Blanton is not typical of anyone but himself," said Ashe from his law firm in Knoxville. "He's a below-average courthouse politician who's way out of his league."
Blanton's rise to the highest office in the state was from meager beginnings "As poor as they come," said Blanton. Born and reared on a farm in Hardin County, Tennessee, his father often had to borrow money to start a crop and Blanton recalls that his house was so ramshackle that he could reach beneath the floor boards to get an egg for breakfast.
He often blasts the big monopolies, i the "regressive" sales tax, and the "rich politics" of Republicans like Bruck and Baker, drawing attention to what he calls the neglected blue-collar worker.
But one of his main campaign targets was wasteful spending, and this issue is one his critics harp on, pointing out that Blanton promised to do away with the state Lear Jet. But Blanton now says his decision to keep the jet has been a good one.
In 1964 Blanton ran unopposed for a state House seat, his first service in public office. In the 1966 U.S. House of Representatives primary race Blanton pulled a surprise upset of fellow Democrat Tom Murray, a 12-term incumbent, and went on to win the seat in the general election. He easily won re-election to two more terms in Congress. In 1972 he lost a bid for the U.S. Senate to Howard Baker before his successful governorship bid in 1974. Billiong himself as "a combination populist and conservative," Blanton has cultivated the image of the hard-working farmer turned politician when he works the county catfish fries and barbecues.
"I think the benefits have clearly outweighed the liabilities," said Blanton. "I have brought a German company here with a $10 million investment and a Japanese company here with an $8.5 million investment. That means an extra 2,000 jobs for Tennesseeans."
But flow of "negative" stories hit flood tide after the governor left for a week in Jamaica, in the state Lear Jet, unannounced, taking friends along, just before Christmas. When he returned, he spurned suggestions that he reimburse the state for the use of the plane, saying he was on a special trade mission to the Caribbean island, about which he could not discuss details.
But the governor's biggest problems have come since he wrote his letter to President Carter proposing "unprecedented guidelines" for the Tennessee press. "These guidelines state simply that if members of the media fail to present the positive side of the story," wrote Blanton, "I will decline to entertain any questions pertaining to the negative aspects of the state news."
Some members of the Tennessee legislature feel that the governor's actions were not warranted. "He basks in the glory of the good, but resents criticism to the point of arrogance," said Minority Leader Garland. Speaker of the House McWhirter, who sponsored the sunshine act (open press policy) in Tennessee, admits the governor has severe problems with the press, while saying, "All in all, they knock us around, but they haven't treated us unfairly."
The political upshot of this clash may come on March 7, when Tennessee voters will vote in a referendum on whether to change the 105-year-old law which prevents Tennessee governors from succeeding themselves.
Blanton, who once said he was not going to run even if he were allowed to, now says he "will cross that bridge when and if there is a bridge to cross." But Tennessee Republicans, who would like to see the new law passed, fear that the threat of Blanton running again will cause people to vote against it.