The Wallflower

Why nobody's noticing our pretty dress this year

The McCain campaign is so confident of Tennessee's electoral votes next month that his statewide campaign appealed to Tennessee McCain supporters to leave home and campaign in states that really matter, like North Carolina and Florida. If they're asking local campaigners to leave town, don't expect any candidates to come here.

This is the first election year in at least 60 years that our choice is between two guys who've neither one visited Knoxville recently, or ever.

You don't have to be a Democrat to wish the race for Tennessee were closer. There was a time when, in an average presidential election, both major-party candidates expressed some polite interest in how Knoxvillians were going to spend a particular Tuesday in November. They'd make at least one appearance in Knoxville, and we'd have a chance to see them in person, and size them up for ourselves. Most of us grew up in a two-party state, where both candidates were considered to have at least a long-shot chance. East Tennessee's Republicans kept Tennessee iffy in the Solid South, back when the Solid South was Democratic. So everybody came to Knoxville.

I remember 1968, when my parents took me to see both the major-party candidates in Knoxville: Richard Nixon, outside the Civic Auditorium, and Hubert Humphrey, at McGhee Tyson. Both gave stump speeches to cheering crowds. It was all very exciting to a kid. I was only 10, but by then, I was already accustomed to seeing famous people in my hometown. I'd already seen President Johnson, parading down Cumberland Avenue, before the '64 election, to give a speech about the War on Poverty that made national headlines. Barry Goldwater campaigned in Knoxville, too, and drew a big crowd.

Four years before that, in 1960, John Kennedy had made a stop here, as did his running mate Johnson, as well as Nixon's running mate, Henry Cabot Lodge. Four years before that, in '56, Adlai Stevenson came to town. Of course, his running mate, local-boy Estes Kefauver, was kind of a regular hereabouts. In '52, both Eisenhower and his shaving-challenged young running mate, Richard Nixon, had made separate in-person appearances in Knoxville.

Over the years, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, both Bushes, Walter Mondale, and Al Gore campaigned here, as did several primary candidates like George Wallace, Jesse Jackson, Gary Hart, and Ross Perot.

During his campaign in 1980, Reagan paraded down Gay Street, and spoke to a big crowd on Market Square. I was there, if only because it was lunchtime and I'd been thinking about a Blaufeld's hoagie. We were getting used to seeing him around. Reagan had been to Knoxville four years earlier, and even that wasn't his first big speaking visit here.

Sometimes running mates came by, too. Dan Quayle got to be kind of a regular for a while. As did spouses, like Joan Mondale, who campaigned here in both '80 and '84; and children, sisters, kids, and, in at least one case, a mother. George H.W. Bush's mom, Dottie, stumped for her son's ticket in Knoxville in 1980.

This year, not so much.

Some races have been slacker than others, obviously. I'm not sure we got any major-party nominees in 1972, for example, during the campaign season—but Nixon had been in town as president just two years before, speaking to about 70,000 of us at Neyland Stadium.

This may be the first election since 1948 that we haven't seen at least one major-party nominee in the flesh in the year or two before the election. And I'm not even sure about '48; I just wasn't able to find any clipping at the library of a Truman or Dewey visit. Truman's secretary of state, George Marshall, did campaign in Knoxville that year.

Now, Knoxville's much bigger than it used to be, and more presentable—Market Square looks a whole lot better than it did when Reagan or Mondale spoke there. But neither nominee, not John McCain or Barack Obama, not even Sarah Palin or Joe Biden, not even any of their various spouses—and their spouses are extremely various this year—sees much point in coming to Knoxville.

The fact is, nobody's courting Tennessee this year, and you and I both know why. Talking to perplexed friends over the years, I've had a lot of occasions to try to account for the puzzling ways of men. I'm not sure I've ever explained, to any worthy and undervalued woman's satisfaction, why men find unpredictability to be such an irresistible trait. Judged by its power to attract attention and favors, unpredictability can outrank looks, poise, education, accomplishment. It's certainly much more important than loyalty.

A similar dynamic applies to politics, and through all those years, Tennessee was as unpredictable as any coquette. And we were often the belle of the ball.

No longer. It's 2008, and Tennessee is considered a lock for the Republicans. Even though Knoxville, the city, votes Democratic, we're in a state that's solid red now, and can hardly even aspire to battleground-state status, thus one of the states candidates and their strategists care about.

Truth be told, Tennessee's been considered sewn up for the Republicans since about 1984—with the exception of a pretty close one, when a Tennessee Democrat was the presidential nominee, in 2000. The first time in history that Tennessee ever voted against a native son—and a future Nobel laureate, at that—it turned out to be in favor of a guy named George W. Bush.

I just don't know what to say about that. If we'll throw over a smart Tennessean we had twice elected to represent our state in the U.S. Senate in order to put George W. Bush in the White House, they figure, it's proof we'll vote for Joe the Plumber, or his favorite monkey, if the Republicans nominate him. That may have been the decisive blow that ended presidential candidates campaigning in Knoxville in our time.

After a century and a half as an interestingly divided state, we've become predictable. We are Tennesseans, therefore rip-roarin' Republicans, and a chicken that can be counted before it's hatched.