Capitol View Commentary: Friday, January 20, 2017


By Pat Nolan, Senior Vice-President, DVL Seigenthaler Public Relations, a Finn Partners Company

January 20, 2017



As I write this column today, I am reading my Facebook feed and listening to the radio coverage (NPR) of the inauguration of (now) President Donald Trump. The culture wars and battles from the presidential election wage on (especially on my FB feed).

I am reminded of my high school days (as a freshman) when I read the classic novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” by Charles Dickens. It begins with the words: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

And so it is for this country, and not for the first time.

In fact, we’ve experienced this kind of deep, public divide every eight years dating back to 2001 when Republican George W. Bush took the oath of office following the closest election in American history.

There were those in the opposition party (Democrats) who could not wait for the day when Mr. Bush would leave office. He did in 2009, replaced by Barack Obama.

Again the opposition party (Republicans) counted the days when his two terms ended, which occurred at noon (EST) today.

Criticism of our Presidents is nothing new in our 200 year plus history. There was even strong criticism of the Father of Our Country, and first President, George Washington during his time in office. But the demonizing of our nation’s leaders have become a full-time industry and occupation for some in the last 16 years.

And as we now live in our own social media bubbles and try to figure out what is “real” versus “fake” news, the challenge to maintain the respect for our political institutions, if not our leaders, looks even harder to achieve going forward.

Even for those in Congress and elsewhere who boycotted or shunned media coverage of today’s activities, I hope they can still take some heart in this. It is that something at once commonplace, but still historically miraculous. The greatest and most powerful nation on earth peacefully transitions its leadership every four to eight years and had done so since 1793.

As for President Trump’s inaugural address, it sounded a lot like one of his campaign speeches (dark overtones included). I do understand that President Trump is not the first chief executive seeking to come to Washington to radically change it. So perhaps he made his speech to make it clear Washington won’t change him. That he will go over and around Washington and its establishment to give “power back to the people”; to make “America First”; so “the forgotten people will be forgotten no longer.”

Exactly what that means remains to be seen. The speech is unclear and therefore subject to interpretation or even disappointment for some in the months to come.

The speech, and the tone in which it was delivered, does suggest that those who oppose the new President, in either party, will see the scorn of his Twitter posts (now under @POTUS not the REAL DONAD TRUMP). The new President might even go around the country to stage large public rallies to build support for his programs (and criticize his opposition) just he did throughout the campaign.

While President Trump said in his speech that he took the oath of office to represent “all Americans”, there was not much I heard in his remarks that would seem likely to bring any political healing to the country. He also lost that opportunity during the transition period since the November election. And so, while the President claims his latest approval numbers (the lowest ever for an incoming president) are “rigged” (as everything is, it seems in his mind, if it varies from his opinion), Mr. Trump’s approval ratings are also down from what they were on election night which I don’t remember happening much, if at all in the past.

Maybe President Trump is right and his popularity is much higher than the polls show. To keep it that way, he will have to deliver on all the promises his first speech outlines (no matter how vague or undefined some of them may be). In particular he will have to “bring back the jobs”; make America “win again” and of course, deliver on his campaign theme “Make America Great Again” a slogan his audience repeated with him as he ended his remarks (which at 15 minutes in length may have been one of the shortest inaugural addresses I have ever heard).

If President Trump can pull it all off, he’ll be like another “man of the people,” 1930s baseball star Dizzy Dean. He claimed “if you can back it up, it ain’t bragging.” If Mr. Trump can’t do that? Well those low current approval ratings could be the high water mark (not low tide) for his new administration.

While there has been some controversy about this, I hope lots of school children got to watch at least some of the swearing-in ceremony. I distinctly remember watching every bit of it when I was in 4th at St Bernard Academy in 1961. Now John Kennedy was the first Catholic to be elected President. So you know the Sisters of Mercy who taught me wanted their students watch this historic occasion. Little did they know what the future held President Kennedy would make an unscheduled visit to Saint Bernard a just few years later in May of 1963.

I am sure President Kennedy getting out of his limousine that day to shake hands with the Sisters as they stood along 21st Avenue was something they never forgot. I have never forgotten the day I spent out of regular classes watching his inauguration. In fact, I wish I remembered more of my school days that vividly. My memories of January 20, 1961 (56 years ago) include the podium catching fire while Robert Frost read his special poem for the occasion and JFK delivering his well -remembered inaugural address, reminding all of us to: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

I think what JFK said in that famous quote is something we still struggle with as a nation. As for Robert Frost’s fire, if it happened today, think of how many conspiracy websites it would launch about it being a terrorist plot or some other conspiracy. And the You Tube and Twitter videos. Well it was a different time in the early 60s.


I continue to be impressed by how well prepared and resourceful Nashville Mayor Megan Barry is. Without warning this week, she was handed a cell phone and asked to speak to then President-elect Trump.

What do you say, especially if you are someone like the Mayor who strongly and publicly supported Hillary Clinton? Well, what you do is talk about Nashville. Mayor Barry urged Mr. Trump to include our city in the funds that could be appropriated in the major infrastructure program he says he will be proposing soon to Congress. The new President reportedly said in response he “would not forget Nashville.”

There has been an ongoing controversy about how to interpret anything Mr. Trump says. Some think you shouldn’t take what he says literally. Others say you can’t go by his words, you have to look for what is in his heart.

Say what?

Bravo anyway, Mayor. You played to your strong suit which is Nashville…and that never hurts.

I just wish I was that quick on my feet if somebody handed me a phone with the President on the line.


While we are handing out congratulations, kudos to Governor Bill Haslam for his well-orchestrated unveiling this week of a long anticipated gas tax increase proposal along with proposed cuts in some state business taxes and the grocery tax.

The Governor also wants to give local governments and voters the right to increase the sales tax in their areas to fund mass transit improvements.

Surrounded by local officials and business leaders in making the announcement, the Governor’s plan got good early reviews, especially since it seemed to be in the “comfort zone” Mr. Haslam said he wanted to find with state lawmakers. Last week, new Lt. Governor Randy McNally told me on INSIDE POLITICS, his comfort zone is 8 cents or less on a gasoline tax hike. The Governor is proposing 7 cents with a 12 cent hike on diesel fuel. Legislative leaders also like the tax cuts the Governor is suggesting. House Speaker Beth Harwell said any has tax hike must be accompanied by other taxes going down.

But, a few days later, based on early reports from lawmakers who’ve held public meetings with voters following the Governor’s announcement, they may not be sold.

Here’s the details from Tom Humphrey’s political blog, Humphrey on the Hill.

Most lawmakers realize how much the state needs more funding for roads and transportation (the backlog of projects is now into the billions of dollars). The gas tax has not been increased since 1989. But some of legislators are now filing their own bills to use some of the state’s $2 billion surplus to use that for roads rather raise the gas tax.

In another interesting development, the Americans For Prosperity group which torpedoed earlier efforts by the Governor to move ahead on a gas tax proposal at first said it would not come out in opposition to the idea until the Governor announced more details. I am still not sure what AFP official position is now. But the comments I heard late week, in an AFP official’s interview on NPR (WPLN), did not sound very positive for Mr. Haslam’s proposal. Remember Americans For Prosperity also led the grassroots fight that killed the Governor’s INSURE TENNESSEE healthcare proposal a couple of years ago.

I am also hearing some Democrats don’t like which taxes are being cut (excise and the Hall Tax on dividends) under the Governor’s plan, as opposed to cutting taxes everyone pays like the grocery tax (although that levy would be cut a half-cent under the Governor’s plan). Some lawmakers are questioning as well why Mr. Haslam’s proposal only allows for local sales tax referendums for mass transit improvements and not for votes approving other taxes or means of transit financing.

Looks like the Governor has still more work to do on his IMPROVE ACT which stands for IMPROVING MANUFACTURING PUBLIC ROADS and OPPORTUNITIES for a VIBRANT ECONOMY. That’s quite a mouthful to cover a lot of details, I guess. The devil is always in the details. Or in this case, maybe it’s the surplus that creating the biggest rub on this issue for lawmakers.


Nashville State Representative John Ray Clemmons is my guest on INSIDE POLITICS this week.

He's been a leading critic of Governor Bill Haslam's efforts to privatize some state services and jobs in higher education and parks. Clemmons does not mince words on the topic during our interview.

The Democratic lawmaker also indicates he has mixed feelings about the Governor's proposed gas tax increase coupled with cuts in business and the grocery taxes. He has concerns as well about the proposal to give local governments and citizens the right to decide by referendum on how to pay for transit improvements.

Marijuana laws and the future of health care in Tennessee are also topics in our discussion.

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