NASHVILLE —When Tennessee Democrats met in the state capital on Saturday for the party's annual Jackson Day Dinner, there were the usual exhortations to the faithful, the mantras to past glory, the paeans to hope. State party chairman Roy Herron made essentially the same speech as last year — and from the same stage (or a facsimile thereof) in the same venue, the expansive interior concourse of the Musicians Hall of Fame building, fitted with chairs and tables and made out as a ballroom venue.
As was the case last year, Herron boasted the fundraiser's gross receipts — the affair should net a half million dollars, he said — and, as before, he insisted to his audience that the Democratic Party's current low estate in Tennessee was temporary in the same way that a political downturn in the late '60s and early '70s had been. That was a time frame when the Republicans had won the state's two U.S. Senate seats, had captured the governorship for a term, and had even briefly won a majority in the state House of Representatives.
Yet Tennessee Democrats had managed to take it all back, he said, and, as further historical inspiration, he went through the litany of improbable triumphs by the party's national icons— the "crippled" FDR (using the antiquated adjective for effect), the failed haberdasher Truman, the Catholic JFK, the Southerners LBJ and Carter, the dalliance-prone Clinton (who would spawn "the eight most prosperous years in American history"), and, finally, a president descended not from African Americans but from bona fide Africans.
In 2013 Herron had arranged, as further proof of ultimate redemption, for the four Democratic mayors holding sway in Tennessee's largest cities to appear in the flesh, along with the then freshly elected Senator Tim Kaine from the fellow border state of Virginia.
This year he offered as prime exhibit someone seeking an office not yet won — a youngish woman with the unprepossessing name of Alison Lundergan Grimes, currently serving as Secretary of State of neighboring Kentucky but attempting to unseat one of the symbols of GOP congressional power, Senate minority leader and Filibusterer-in-Chief Mitch McConnell.
Memphians in attendance at the state Democratic event had special reason to be curious about Grimes, inasmuch as she is a graduate of Rhodes College. But all Tennesseans were made aware of the fact that, astonishingly, Grimes has, as she noted in her speech, run neck-in-neck with McConnell in all the polls taken so far and had led in the last one by a point or two.
Her challenge to the Republicans' main man in the Senate had, indeed, as Grimes also pointed out, become the "Number One" Senate race in the country this year. In her speech, she hit McConnell on his obstructionism and his apparent statement that it was "not my job" to make a dent in the Bluegrass State's ominously high unemployment rate.
Nobody would deny that Grimes has an edge on her entrenched opponent in youthfulness, vigor, and — face it — attractiveness. How did she sound? The excerpt below, showing her close, gives an indication:
Not too shabby. In fact, numerous Jackson Day attendees went fishing afterward for an analogue to Grimes. The name most often mentioned: Clement — as in Frank Clement, who won renown for his oratorical skills when first elected the state's chief executive in 1952 at the tender age of 32.
Only four years later, Clement was the keynote speaker at the Democratic national convention. and he was widely considered to be vice-presidential or even, down the line, presidential timber. The South's segregationist stigma at the time aborted those possibilities (though Clement was well known to be a closet moderate on the issue of race).
Going forward, Grimes may be luckier. If she wins, that is. First things first.