Globe-trotter Haslam Phones Home from Kuwait

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Tennessee governor Bill Haslam is clearly making an effort to step up his accessibility to the state media. For one thing, Haslam of late has taken to holding telephone conference calls with state reporters.

In one such last week, he and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman made waves with the news that the state was requesting a waiver from the requirements of No Child Left Behind, seeking to substitute instead the achievement standards of Tennessee’s federally supported Race to the Top initiative.

And on Tuesday Haslam’s staff invited reporters to call in for a mystery moment of sorts, not specifying what the governor had in mind but promising it would be worth the dial-up.

Indeed it was. When Haslam came on the line he promptly explained that he had left Washington on Monday morning with three other governors (from Kentucky, Utah, and Nevada, as it turned out) and was flown by the Department of Defense to the Middle East, where the group of governors had already been to “five or six” different military bases in both Iraq and Kuwait.

It was 130 degrees over there, Haslam explained, a little like “living all day with your hair dryer on, blowing right in your face.”

Among the governor’s discoveries: “I was surprised at how safe and under control Baghdad felt. It wasn’t what I was expecting.”

Haslam surmised that he had been invited to make the trip because of the relatively high number of Tennesseans in military service in the Middle East. Conversations with the troops (most of whom worked 12 hours a day, every day, and returned to the same base domicile at night, every night) had to do with homesickness of a sort.

“Every one of them misses being at home, as any of us would be,” Haslam said. (Indeed, the governor, who shared meals and living quarters with the troops, confessed that he, too, had begun to long for being back where he could go to restaurants with his wife Crissy or go shopping or experience the other pleasures of home.)

The troops wonder about the state of the American economy, Haslam said, but had not been able to follow closely the recent debt-limit crisis in Washington. They also are concerned with handing over control of t heir areas of responsibility to Iraqis when the current December 31 deadline for evacuating combat troops from Iraq occurs.

All in all, “an incredible, eye-opening experience,” said the governor, who won’t be returning to Tennessee until the weekend.

Before he left, Haslam had bared his soul somewhat in an interview published this week in Nashville’s City Paper with reporter Jeff Woods, a no-holds-barred iconoclast,

Woods states directly what many other journalists discuss in private but have danced around in their copy: “In last year’s gubernatorial election campaign, his opponents dismissed Bill Haslam as an amiable featherbrain incapable of leadership. He seemed to play the role with TV ads revealing the candidate’s love of hard work, nice-guy politics, chocolate pie and very little else. …”

Woods also takes note of a sense in the media and among Legislative Plaza adepts that, where legislation is concerned, the governor has deferred too much to his former rival in last year's Republican gubernatorial primary, Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville), who serves as state Senate Speaker and was the architect of many of the key bills, particularly conservative-oriented ones, that got passed in the 2011 session of the General Assembly.

Haslam is quoted as presenting this defense: “You see a governor’s role being a lot different than I do. I think you see a governor’s role as being one that’s about positions and influencing legislation. I see that as a piece but only a piece of the job. My much bigger job is helping drive a 43,000-employee organization and doing everything from taking care of folks with mental health issues to educating 4-year-olds and Ph.D. students and building roads and working hard to bring jobs to Tennessee and working hard to drag us out of the bottom when it comes to education.

“I see what happens on Capitol Hill as being a relatively small percentage of what I’m doing. It would be in my top five, but it’s not one, two or three.”

You had the feeling on Tuesday that, homesickness or not, the governor would just as soon have the opportunity to stay on his fact-finding tour a tad longer. There are ways other than the purely physical in which places like Baghdad might actually be a safer environment just now.

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