Saturday, July 14, 2007

Hillbilly Deluxe: Could Fred Thompson be America’s First Appalachian President?

Historically, Appalachian America has often had strong ties to the men who’ve occupied the Oval Office. Before John F. Kennedy could become President he had to prove his vote getting mettle in the predominately Protestant state of West Virginia. Thanks to a terrific get out the vote campaign fueled by Joe Kennedy’s cash, he crushed the opposition and went on to become President. Jack’s brother, Bobby, planned on using Appalachia as his springboard to the Presidency also when he chose the region to launch his war on poverty.

When Richard Nixon faced Watergate and eventual impeachment, it was East Tennesee’s Howard Baker, serving his second term as U.S. Senator and the Minority Leader at the time, who asked the famous question: “What did the President know and when did he know it?” Later, Baker would serve as Ronald Reagan’s Chief of Staff.

In 1992 when Bill Clinton needed a young, articulate running mate to cement the ticket’s image as one of “New Democrats”, the future President turned to a Senator with an impeccable political pedigree from Tennessee named Al Gore. While Gore himself had spent most of his life in the beltway, his father began his political career in Appalachian Tennesse as a school superintendent. Gore Sr.’s eventual Congressional seat was anchored in Appalachia as was Gore Jr.’s, many years later.

Despite these connections, the only President with an actual Appalachian pedigree was Andrew Johnson, who was from Greene County, TN. But Johnson was never elected to the office. He succeeded Lincoln following the President’s assassination.

To be sure, many candidates with Appalachian roots have tried and failed to be elected President. Baker, Gore and Johnson were all three candidates for the highest office in the land. Baker’s other protégé, Lamar Alexander of Knoxville, made a go of it in 1996 and 2000, but never moved very far. And way back in the 1830’s Davy Crockett, who was serving in Congress, was considered as a potential candidate against the imperial Andrew Jackson.

Despite their many efforts, Appalachian candidates have never grasped the big enchilada and won the Presidency. But now, Appalachia has another shot. The latest candidate is Fred Dalton Thompson. Thompson was born in Appalachian Alabama in Colbert County. Sometime before he began elementary school, his family moved approximately 40 miles north into the Appalachian foothills of Lawrence County, Tennessee, where he would attend elementary and high school before moving back to Colbert County to begin his college career at the Teacher’s College then known as Florence State College. Thompson would soon leave Appalachia, however, as transferred to Memphis State College to complete his undergraduate studies and attended law school at Vandy in Nashville.

Following law school, Thompson returned to Lawrenceburg where he practiced law for two years before becoming Assistant U.S. Attorney in Nashville, 80 miles northeast. As an AUSA, Thompson prosecuted cases that sound quintessentially Appalachian such as the illegal manufacture of distilled spirits from corn: i.e. moonshine. Then Thompson became involved in politics.

In 1972 Fred Thompson managed the reelection campaign of U.S. Senator Howard Baker, Jr. Baker’s father had served East Tennessee in Congress and Baker Jr. was raised there. The Appalachian region had been Republican country since the Civil War and was Baker’s base. Baker won that race and became the first Republican Senator from the South to be reelected since reconstruction. (In 1966, Baker was the first southern Senator elected since reconstruction.) And of course Thompson represented all of Tennessee as a U.S. Senator, including that large swath of East Tennessee that’s been colored red on electoral maps since the 1860’s.

Today, Fred Thompson’s inner circle contains more than it’s fare share of Appalachian folk. There’s Chattanooga Congressman Zach Wamp, Lamar Alexander’s Chief of Staff Tom Ingram, and of course Howard Baker himself.

Looking forward, what role could Thompson’s Appalachian roots and connections play in the Presidential race? Will it help him in West Virginia? If Bush had lost that state Al Gore would have been President. You can make the case that it was Gore’s reluctance to embrace his Appalachian roots and get right with that area’s voters on issues such as mining that were dear to them, cost him the race. What of Ohio? In 2004 Bush beat Kerry there by slightly more than 100,000 votes. That was after some 300,000 votes had been disqualified for technical reasons. 29 of 88 counties in Ohio are considered Appalachian.

Obviously there are many regions in America that will be important to this year’s Presidential election. The mid-west, particularly in states like Ohio, Minnesota, and Iowa; the Rocky mountain region that shows disturbing signs of trending purple; and the sunshine state of Florida, which ultimately decided the race in 2000. These regions could swing the election either way. But don’t forget Appalachia. Its role in shaping the man who many think will be the Republican nominee in 08 and potentially in electing that same man shouldn’t be ignored.

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