Politically Incorrect

With his early stand against the Iraq War, Rep. Jimmy Duncan took the greatest political risk of his career. So why does his GOP district still love him?

Feature Story

by Barry Henderson Photos by Sheena Patrick

If there was a defining moment in U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan's public service, it came on Oct. 11, 2002, when he voted against Joint Resolution 114, authorizing the use of U.S. military force against Iraq. He was only one of six Republicans in the House who voted nay against President George W. Bush on the advisability of the Iraq War.

â“I wondered at the time I pushed the button whether I was ending my political career,â” Duncan recalls. But, at the same time, he says, he was confident it was the right vote, a sentiment that may bear out soon. Duncan is preparing to seek his reelection next yearâ"but even in this reddest corner of Tennessee, he's seen as invulnerable by fellow Republicans and leading Democrats.

â“I can't think of a viable candidate, Democrat or Republican, who could run against him on his record,â” says Dennis Francis, the lawyer and political commentator who embodies the Democratic Party in Duncan's district, â“unless it were a Peyton Manning or a Bruce Pearl.â”

Francis says Duncan's votes against the war don't hurt him at home because â“People see that Jimmy votes the way he believes. If they thought it was hypocritical or politically motivated, it would be different.â”

This bit of political analysis can be put to the real-world test at Barnes' Barber Shop in the heart of Knoxville's Burlington neighborhood. It's one of only two of the dozen businesses that remain open along the south side of Martin Luther King Drive in its 3900 block. The rest are shuttered and dismal. But the Barnes' shop is a working, wondrous anachronism. It boasts four old-time barber chairs, real wood paneling, lots of mirrors, photos and clippings on the walls, semi-cathouse wallpaper, ceramic tile floors and real people, the kind only Burlington Boys lay claim to. It's where Duncan had his first haircut, almost 60 years ago, and most of his haircuts since.

The Iraq War issue hasn't come up in his barber shop visits says Roy Berrier, who's been with the shop for 47 years and who has cut Duncan's hair countless times.

â“We never did discuss it, but he knew how I felt,â” Berrier says. â“I could have told him, â‘I'm on your side. We've got no business over there. We're not going to win nothing,' but I didn't have to. He knew that.â”

Berrier says Jimmy and his barbers don't talk politics much, unlike the shop's patrons, but he adds, â“When I call him â‘Congressman,' he knows I've got a hard question.â” The Iraq War wasn't in question to Berrier, and to Duncan, it was a matter of measuring his own experience, his conscience, and his conservative principles.

"We knew well in advance we were going to have that vote,â” he says, â“and I'd read everything that I could about [the situation].

â“I'd voted for the first Gulf War, and thought at the end of that war we'd been over-briefed, that the threat [to us] had been exaggerated.â” What he was reading in '02 were warnings of the same thing.

Duncan says he was called to the White House, along with other GOP members of the House who were leaning against the war, in the days before the Iraq vote. They were briefed by the president's then-National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice, and then-CIA Director George Tenet. Duncan says he listened to the briefing, and posed his argument:

â“I told them that if I could get past the traditional conservative positions against massive foreign aid, deficit spending, and being the policeman to the world, I could maybe side with them.

â“I asked what Saddam Hussein's military budget was and was told it was less the two-tenths of one percent of ours.

â“I remembered then that Lawrence Lindsey, chairman of the president's Council of Economic Advisors, had said a war with Iraq would cost us $100 to $200 billion, and Condy said, â‘Oh, no, it won't cost us anything like that.'â”

â“They fired Lindsey,â” Duncan says, for suggesting that kind of potential war cost. He quickly points out that the war's cost is now well past $700 billion and growing, solidifying his sentiments against it.

Duncan stuck with conservative traditions as he saw them and has kept to his word, voting against the war and its funding on a regular basis, despite accusations from some quarters that he fails to â“support our troops.â” Duncan bristles at that claim. Support of the troops, he says, meant never sending them into Iraq and now means bringing them home.

â“The admirals and generals always give us glowing reports. You know what Gen. [David] Petraeus is going to say. They've been saying, â‘We're making progress over there,' all along, while the situation has been deteriorating, all along,â” Duncan says. He says that's what he expects in Petraeus' long-anticipated war status report to Congress, due Sept. 15.

John J. â“Jimmyâ” Duncan Jr. has served Tennessee's 2nd District in Congress for 19 years, following his dad's nearly 24 years in Congress. It's a Republican District and has been for almost a century and a half, since Reconstruction. But Duncan has heard little criticism of his anti-war stance against a Republican president around here.

He's been reelected three times since that precipitous-seeming vote, and his stances against the Patriot Act, for its cost and its threats to Americans' liberties, have had little local effect. Though he's had no major opposition, his Democratic opponents have been serious in their runs against him. Still, he is sent back to Congress with overwhelming vote majorities, up to 82 percent.

Rep. Lincoln Davis, who represents the vast 4th District, which extends well into East Tennessee, calls Duncan â“one of the best members of Congress,â” despite their party difference.

â“I'm not as much of a libertarian as Jimmy. I voted for the Iraq War funding and the Patriot Act [and its extension],â” says Davis, â“but I believe he looks at an issue and debates that issue in his own mind, not on the party line or its ideology.

â“Jimmy Duncan is one of the members of Congress who truly works in a bipartisan way,â” says Davis, who acknowledges his own conservative leanings as a member of the Democrats' Blue Dog Caucus, an organization of congressional Democrats who tend to think and vote the less liberal side of many issues.

Rep. Zach Wamp, Duncan's Republican colleague who represents the adjoining 3rd District, says, â“Every vote [Duncan]'s ever made is a vote of conscience. We very much overlap. We vote together on many issues, but not all. He's a humble man, and he's respected for following his principles. He's so consistent in his stands for limited government.

â“In or out of government, he's one of my best friends,â” says Wamp, who calls the Duncan vote against the Iraq War â“a painful vote for him.â”

Likewise, Rep. Jim Cooper, the Blue Dog Democrat who represents the 5th District, around Nashville, and has opposed the war, calls Duncan a close friend from the time when Cooper served the 4th District, before his run against former Sen. Fred Thompson.

â“He took a huge risk, opposing the war and his president,â” says Cooper, the grandson of former Tennessee Gov. Prentice Cooper. â“I wish there were more members of Congress like himâ"so calm and so fairâ. First, he's a gentleman, and second, he works his heart out for his district.â”

The latter is a legacy of Duncan's father, one on which the son has built, in providing comprehensive constituent services. But Duncan Sr. was more of a low-key congressman, less likely to sign onto controversial legislation and more of a party man.

â“I think he's more courageous than his dad,â” says Cooper, who knew the elder well.

Duncan might argue with that. He modeled himself after his father, a former Knoxville mayor who served in Congress from 1964 to 1988, when he died in office. The elder Duncan was a conservative on many issues, including his hawkish stances in favor of the Vietnam War, but he was a champion of civil rights and many progressive local issues.

When Jimmy ran for his dad's seat in '88, when his father was gravely ill, he was a little reluctant. â“I'd been groomed to succeed him in Congress,â” says Jimmy, â“but he was still in office.â” It was awkward, he says, but it wasn't a reluctance to serve.

Tall, trim, with a snowy shock of hair and an image and demeanor that can be called â“congressional,â” for lack of a better description, Jimmy Duncan both looks and acts the part. He shows well in the cheap clothes he brags about, though he says, â“â‘You're not going to wear that, are you?' are words I hear a lot.â” His shirts are always well-pressed and his ties are models of inside-the-Beltway accessorization. The conservative shoes are shined, too.

Although he can be a bit halting in his speech patterns and is not often mistaken for an academic-style intellectual, Duncan has become an effective, confident public speaker and proponent of his positions when he takes to the lectern of the House, usually to complain about some government expense that he sees as excessive.

A former Knox County Criminal Court Judge who is remembered for his compassion on the bench and reluctance to sentence convicted criminals to lengthy prison terms, Duncan was elected and reelected handily to the judgeship.

Jimmy graduated from UT in 1968 with a degree in journalism and worked as a reporter for the Daily Beacon and the old daily Knoxville Journal before heading to law school at George Washington University in D.C. He even taught journalism for a year at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., while in law school.

But before all that he was brought up in politics. â“My dad became mayor when I was in the 6th grade. I worked for my dad, but I didn't really like politics until I got into my later teen-age years,â” Jimmy says.

â“My brother Joe and I really liked the idea of our dad being a full-time baseball man,â” he says, â“Dad and four others bought the minor-league baseball team in Montgomery [Ala.] in 1956 and moved to Knoxville as the Smokies.

â“I was batboy, ball-chaser, scoreboard operator and p.a. announcer at one time or another, and the family was involved in the ownership until the late '90s. I still love baseball.â”

Jimmy's dad was a native of the Huntsville area, where the family of Howard Baker Sr. and Jr. formed a formidable political base. John J. Sr. was born on a Scott County farm. Among six children, he hitchhiked to Knoxville with $5 in his pocket, Jimmy says, to enroll at UT. He married Jimmy's mother, whom he met at a YMCA dance here while still in school, and he served in World War II. Jimmy's dad was in Cumberland Law School at Lebanon when Jimmy was born. At 4 lbs.-6 oz., Jimmy spent his first few weeks in an incubator, but the family moved to Knoxville when he was seven weeks old. They lived in Holston Hills, and Jimmy grew up there, graduating from Holston High.

In college, Jimmy moved into journalism and then the law, returning to Knoxville and joining in a law practice with the late Zane Daniel, a charismatic courtroom defense lawyer who was legendary around here for chuckling a lot of defendants out of convictions and prison time, according to Daniel's contemporariesâ"including Duncan, who named his first son John III and his second Zane, saying those were the two men who influenced him most.

Zane Daniel introduced Jimmy to his wife, Lynn, who was a waitress at the time at Regas Restaurant, where the lawyers often lunched.

Lynn says it took Jimmy several months to get up the nerve to ask her out on a date. â“He was very shy when we first met,â” she says. But when they did go out there was never any question about whom he wanted to spend his life with, Jimmy says.

Lynn says their eldest daughter, now Tara Richardson, was not yet three when Jimmy resigned from the bench to run for Congress, and it was difficult going for almost a year with him not drawing a salary. â“He loved that judgeship, and it was hard to leave it, but we knew he had to do it [the congressional run] then or never,â” she says.

Besides Tara, 36, and John III, 27, and Zane, 21, the Duncans have daughter Whitney Brown, 28, and four grandkids. Zane's a senior at L.M.U. in Harrogate, and the other three live in Knoxville.

â“I chose to stay here and keep them in public schools,â” Lynn says, â“and I think our children have had the best of both worlds,â” she says of their experience in their hometown and the nation's capitol. â“It's been worth the stress and strain,â” she says.

For her, personally, constituent services are a part of her partnership, she says. â“We can hardly go to dinner without someone coming up and asking for help with something. And if they can't find him, they call me,â” she says.

A woman of her own mind, Lynn says, Jimmy was furious at her when she campaigned for City Councilman Ivan Harmon in his race against Mayor Victor Ashe in the Republican primary election for Knoxville mayor in the mid-'90s. â“I didn't get along at all with Victor then; it's much better now,â” she says.

Knoxville is home for both Lynn and Jimmy, who live now in Farragut.

â“I've got a group of about 35 or 40 close friends. They're all right here. That's why I come right back as soon as a session's over,â” Duncan says. â“Zane [Daniel] was the first of that group to die, and it hit me really hard,â” he says.

â“These are my kind of people. I've always been turned off by the elitist types. I always root for the underdog. And I'm a localist. That's a word I've been reading about lately, and it describes me.

â“I'm for small government over big government; small business over big business. I hate to see a small business go under or a big business grow wild through tax breaks and favorable regulatory rulings. We see that so much in the military/industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned us about more than 50 years ago.â”

Jimmy Duncan's record has left him with the endorsements of the various conservative and taxpayer-rights organizations that follow congressional voting patterns. Just last month, the Council for Citizens Against Government Waste (CCAGW) named him a Taxpayer Hero, saying he scored 86 percent in the group's 2006 ratings, while the average for the entire House fell to a new low of 29 percent. But at the same time, his votes against the war and against Homeland Security expenditures have endeared him to some liberal organizations.

For a while, he was among the GOP darlings of liberals nationally. The October 2002 vote made a pretty big splash, but the attention level died down quickly at home as well, and Duncan resumed his pattern of quietly voting against government spending while keeping his staff busy with constituent services.

Dennis Francis, the Knoxville Democrat, says Duncan or his staff responds to all requests, returns phone calls, and offers and provides assistance to voters and non-voters alike across his district. â“I find him to be the finest example of a public servant the 2 nd District could hope for in terms of his integrity and honesty and helpfulness,â” says Francis. â“I don't agree with everything he says or doesâbut I've never cast a vote against Jimmy Duncan.â” That's the political opposition talking. It's an example of the seeming Teflon coating he's acquired in his home district.

Even the congressman himself says he's unsure how he attained that status.

â“I'm probably as politically incorrect as it is possible to be in some ways,â” Duncan says. â“It's not just Iraq and the Patriot Act, I voted against the No Child Left Behind Act. Teachers and principals are intelligent enough to run their own schools.â”

His votes have been anti-abortion, pro-women's rights, pro-civil rights, pro-Social Security and Medicare, and against a host of government projects, particularly government buildings he is wont to call â“Taj Majalâ” structures.

One such Taj Majal, in his words, is the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, whose cost is approaching $600 million. â“It's just that we've never even come close to spending that kind of money on an embassy anywhere in the world. And there's a $545 million contract with a British company to provide security. That's a real gravy train. If the country [Iraq] were stabilized tomorrow, it still wouldn't be worth what we're spending there,â” Duncan laments.

Opposing that embassy cost this July 27 on the House Floor, Duncan said, â“It never ceases to amaze me how the federal bureaucracy can rationalize or justify the most wasteful or ridiculous expendituresâ. The easiest thing in the world to do is to spend other people's money.â”

He never would have put up with the government's construction costs for its current Howard H. Baker Sr. Federal Building in which he has his Knoxville office. Were it not for the bargain the government got for the ornate brick quadrangle when Whittle Communications went broke, Duncan would have railed against the purchase. The lavish buildings still make him a little uneasy, he sometimes admits.

When Duncan looks back at his years in Congress, and particularly at his last four terms, he sees that if he'd gone along with party lines, he might have improved his standing on committees, even acquired a chair, but it wouldn't have gone down well with his personality and philosophy to have kow-towed.

He says the chair of the House Resources Committee was about to be handed to him several years ago, before his Iraq defection, but then-Speaker Tom DeLay quashed the maneuver by other Republicans.

â“Nowâwell, really since Newt Gingrich [led the House], your committee chairs depend on how much money you rake in for the party and whether you turn your voting card over to the [party] leadership,â” Duncan says.

After the Iraq vote, he says, â“I did suffer in the first term, but I had enough friendships up there that my constituents didn't suffer.â” With the majority flipped to the Democrats after last year's elections, he still has good committee assignments, he says, and touts his positions in the Transportation and Infrastructure's Highways and Transit Sub-committee, the Committee on Natural Re-sources, which retains jurisdiction over national parks and natural resources, and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, as especially good for East Tennesseans' concerns.

Intra-party politicking is still not how he seeks to tailor his positions on issues, though, he says, declaring â“I have to vote my mind.â”

â“There's always been an independent, contrary streak in me I might be better off without,â” Duncan says.

A lot of what stretches behind Jimmy is embodied in that 60-year-old barber shop that serves as the liver of old Burlington, where the neighborhood's blood is cleansed of modern-day impurities. He stays loyal to that heritage.

There may be no Fitch Rose or Kreml hair oils around anymore, but Roy Berrier, who's giving a flat-top to an older, regular customer, a retired truck driver, makes an admission: â“We still use a little osage rub now and then.â”

Ernie Barnes, whose father. R.C. Barnes, founded the shop in 1951, has worked there since it opened. His brother Bob is semi-retired now after 55 years in the shop, and his daughter, Debbie, has been cutting hair there 27 years. â“We're pretty well experienced,â” says Berrier, and turns around to laugh into the mirror.

Ernie Barnes is not as talkative as Berrier, and neither will give their ages out of vanity or inability to count that high. Both are graying, needless to say, but in their clean, white smocks and with their upright posture they look downright tonsorial. Barnes is dead serious when he voices the opinion: â“I bet Jimmy learned more in here than he has in Washington.â”

Informed of that bit of barbershop banter, Jimmy Duncan doesn't deny it.

â“I always say it's where I've always gotten some of my best advice,â” the congressman says.

â“The longest haircut I ever got was a few years ago when the state income tax came up, and there was a crowd in there, and every one of them had to tell me why they were against it, even though I had no vote on it or anything,â” Duncan says.

Still, you learn a lot in a barbershop, and Jimmy says he's grateful that it's been there for him all these years and that it doesn't hold his independent streak against him.

In fact, you can't get the barbers there to utter a single negative word against Jimmy Duncan.

â“He's a real good tipper,â” Berrier says.

Columns

All content © 2007 Metropulse .