A local evening in honor of the right venerable and right excellent Lewis Donelson is the subject of the Flyer's "Politics" column this week. Mentioned in passing in that article was the fact that one of the guests on hand to help with the celebration was an ex-Memphian who has had his own moments in the sun, at least one of them frighteningly Icarus-like in its proximity to the heat.
This was Don Sundquist, formerly a resident of the erstwhile middle-class (now "changing") East Memphis enclave of Fox Meadows and now, after eight years as governor, from 1995 to 2003, living atop a mountain in East Tennessee, on the very edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
We will review in miniature here what was said at length in a recent issue of Memphis magazine: After serving 12 years as a predictably conservative back-bench Republican congressman for Tennessee's 7th District, Sundquist, having achieved greatest active seniority among then-serving GOP politicians, was nominated by his party to run for governor. (That's how Republicans do things. Or used to, anyhow.)
His first term was predictable, workmanlike, and altogether by the GOP rule book. (Governmental economies, avoidance of tax hikes, out-sourcing of prisons and other governmental agencies, trimming the work staff, etc.)
In his second term, Sundquist discovered that none of these techniques nor all of them put together were likely, in either the short or long term, to maintain the state's basic services. He then put the rule book down and started reasoning from scratch. Tennessee needed tax reform, he decided — not just to raise money and to keep programs like TennCare afloat but because overreliance on a state sales tax had become regressive to the point of obvious unfairness.
He proposed a state income tax and undeviatingly pursued it, though in the process he became anathema to his party's hard-core right, increasingly the dominant Republican faction. By the time he left office, he was being shunned, not only by the Neanderthals but even by the GOP rank and file.
Sundquist's presence on the dais at an official GOP event Monday night at the Racquet Club was a genuine homecoming, one sufficiently potent in its emotional content to make his old friend and political ally Bill Watkins come close to breaking down in the process of introducing him. Granted, in his remarks, Sundquist may have tucked a little too close to the Obama-bashing rhetoric that is expected of Republicans on the cusp of a presidential campaign year, but his very presence, as one who, moved by principle, had dared break away from the mold, spoke for itself.
As we look at the current field of Republican presidential hopefuls, Sundquist's steadfastness makes us see someone like erstwhile GOP frontrunner Mitt Romney — that prototypical flip-flopping opportunist with the notoriously absent core — in a different and unexpected light.
We find ourselves actually feeling sorry for Romney — not only because it appears that his chosen party may reject him one more time but because, when he inevitably has to retreat within himself, he may find there is no home there to go to.