Purcell: In difficult, baffling times, remember where we have been


Bill Purcell, former mayor of Nashville, Tenn., speaks in the Amphitheater Tuesday. Photo by Ellie Haugsby.

Nick Glunt  | Staff Writer

Bill Purcell remembers the first debate he experienced in 1986 as a member of the Tennessee House of Representatives.

“Mr. Speaker, I rise to observe that the snack bar, which has for so long stood in the area outside this great chamber, has been removed, and I now call upon you, sir, to explain, ‘Where is our snack bar?’” a senior member of the legislature said as he stood.

“Mr. Speaker,” the chairman of the Finance, Ways and Means Committee stood and said, “as the chairman of the Historical Renovation Committee of this great house, I can report to you that we determined during our work this past year that there was no snack bar in that area during the construction of the capitol, and so, in the interest of historical preservation, we have removed the snack bar and moved it to another space. And there it is and can be found. Thank you.”

The first man stood again.

“Well in that case, Mr. Speaker,” the man said, “if that’s the rule we’re to apply, then I make a motion that we shall remove the electricities — the electric lights, the telephones and everything else that was not in this building at the time of the construction of the capitol, and that is my motion.”

And it was seconded.

“I’m not sure I’m cut out for this,” Purcell said to his wife that night.

And while his wife insists she said, “I told you so,” Purcell insists she said, “It’s OK. It’ll get better tomorrow.”

Purcell shared this story to great laughter and applause from his audience during his lecture at 10:45 a.m. Tuesday in the Amphitheater. He was the second speaker during Week Two’s theme “Government and the Search for the Common Good.” This is Purcell’s second time speaking for the Chautauqua Institution’s morning platform.

Though Purcell has spent more than two decades as a politician, he is most notable as a former mayor of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County. He won his second-term election with a nationally record-breaking 84.8 percent of the votes. Today, he serves as special adviser for Allston at Harvard

‘Happy Days Are Here Again’

Throughout the entirety of his speech, Purcell continually referenced 1929’s “Happy Days Are Here Again,” a song written by Milton Ager and Jack Yellen but more commonly known as President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s campaign song.

After quoting several historical figures — from Aristophanes to Davy Crockett to Harry Truman — on the matter of politics, Purcell said Americans have learned from and been uplifted by politicians.

He spoke of the ethical problems and political devastations Americans faced in decades past, most notably Watergate and the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

It was his friends and neighbors, Purcell said, that led him on the path of politics. They approached him and asked him to run for the legislature.

“And like hundreds, indeed thousands, of young men — and thankfully, increasingly, women — I set out,” Purcell said. “I thought that perhaps it would be a place where I could make a difference.”

Purcell said a common trend today is that Americans sometimes forget where politics has been or believe that today is somehow entirely different than years past. He attempted to disprove that belief — specifically using taxes as an example — by quoting Luke 18:11, in which a Pharisee thanks God that he is not like evildoers, including tax collectors.

He said politicians all over the country have stepped down from their posts for ethical or legal reasons. Americans need to understand, Purcell said, that leaders are flawed too.

“People, individuals fall from grace,” Purcell said. “They always have; they always will. The question becomes, though, what then happens?”

He said Americans must decide the answer to this question before moving on, but had no answers aside from analyzing the past.

“In difficult and baffling times, I argue it is critical to remember where we have been, how we got there and that we have ultimately always sailed the worst storms imaginable and unimaginable.”

Since the Declaration of Independence, he said, every day has been the day after Independence Day. It is up to Americans, he said, to decide the future. But looking to the past is important in deciding that future.

He said that because of that cycle, happy days are indeed here again. They’ll keep coming, he said, as long as Americans aspire to them. Belief and hope is what makes them happen.

“As always,” Purcell said, “these issues of governance and the common good remain the work of each of us, of all of us.”

Q: Do you think it’s possible to instill in young people a passion for plentiful service?

A: I absolutely do. One of the proofs of this isn’t some polling data that you can access. I talked briefly about youth participation, and I told you that the high-water mark for youth participation in America was 1972. What’s interesting about that is it falls off almost in a straight line to the year 2000. There’s a small blip in the year 1992, but it goes on down to 2000. What’s interesting is that it picks back up in the year 2000 and continues up. Many people believed that it was the 2008 elections, but actually at the 2004 elections, it had begun to turn considerably back up, and ultimately we reached the levels that we had reached in 1972. We don’t fully know what happened, but I can give you the initial observations. This research is done in a variety of places — the polling is at the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School. What we believe is that the combination of 9/11 and (Hurricane) Katrina focused young people on the reality and the fact that they were part of a larger world, and they had to be engaged in that world. Otherwise, their lives would be changed for the worse. There is more going on in that time period, but the combination of understanding where you are in the world and your place in it, which is part of my argument. The leaders who have reached out and touched and inspired those young people in our lifetimes give me incredible hope. And I will say one more thing. Into these voids young people have always strode with our encouragement, with the encouragement of the people in this room who can help make that happen. So although there has been a decrease in interest and the most recent polling is reflective of that, young people are still very strong about community service but less convinced at the moment about their own service. That can and will change based upon the leadership and the opportunities that are provided.

Q: What’s happening in the Allston community and exactly what are you up to?

A: The Allston community, for those who are not from Boston, is one of the very special neighborhoods inside the city limits of Boston. It adjoins the city of Cambridge, where Harvard obviously was begun. In Allston, however, Harvard has had a presence now for more than a century — the business school, as well as all the athletic facilities of Harvard, the football stadium, are in the neighborhood of Allston. Over the course of the last generation, Harvard has acquired land within that area, and a number of different proposals and projects were both made and undertaken. Over the course of the last year, I’ve been part of a group of Harvard faculty deans as well as alumni and led in so many ways by the office of the executive vice president, Katie Lapp, to think about what Harvard can and should do within the area of Allston going forward. The good news is the recommendations were made two weeks ago. They are all online if you go to the website, for those of you who are interested, to the office of the executive vice president at harvard.edu. You will find a set of recommendations and there’s an opportunity to respond and provide your own suggestions and comments as well.

Q: How would you draw the line between holding to core values and beliefs and avoiding the “my way or the highway” prevalence in today’s politics?

A: I think that question is at the core of the discussions that will take place throughout this week here at this platform as well as monitoring the special programming that I understand was announced earlier. Jim Leach and others will be participating in a terrific panel, I think Thursday afternoon, involving former leaders from the region or current leaders, former elected officials, from the region as well. And the answer is that the way you avoid it is you don’t stand for it. You just don’t stand for it. You just say it’s unacceptable. When candidates and elected officials perceive that you are unhappy, you will be amazed how they move. There was an article three days ago in the Los Angeles Times that is observing that even within the current partisan primaries for president of the United States, there is a sudden change in tone, a sudden change in approach. Take a look at the article; think about it as you go forward. At the end of the day, when the people who are in control ultimately say to them, to each other and out loud, “That’s unacceptable,” then this complete inability to compromise, in my opinion, will change. Now, it doesn’t mean that there’s not matters of principle upon which we stand. Those are key and core to our own values and we stand on those, and people in this room understand for themselves what those may be. Those are not things that we give up because we’re elected in governance from a range of issues that are not within that category. They’re within this other category. And when you demand that they be resolved, oddly enough, they are.

Q: Do you think that there are too many politicians that are lawyers? America has 98 percent lawyers, China 90 percent engineers.

A: This is an easy question to answer, actually. As a lawyer, I think there are too many lawyers. There just are. It’d be better for me if there were fewer lawyers, don’t you think? Here’s the good news about elected office. Take a look at it in your own local government and in your own state government. There are many fewer lawyers than you thought. When you do the count, you will find typically that there are just enough. I would argue that whether or not you think it’s just enough, you will find many fewer. In fact, there’s a lot of growth in funeral directors in our state governments. They’re very good at it. They deal very well with difficulty, trying times; they’re able to break bad news to people, especially the cost of things. Funeral directors do very, very well; you find growth in that, retired people — retired teachers, especially — who have time. What cuts against lawyers particularly in the part-time of public service is the amount of time that it consumes. I think when you actually look at the raw numbers wherever you are from, you’ll sleep much better. There’s just not as many lawyers as you thought.

Q: We the people have always solved the problems, but the way the people are getting their information has changed. How do you see this issue?

A: As I mentioned briefly, it’s a real struggle for us. Although I think we were probably wrong in believing that everyone in the whole community read those two newspapers and were fully informed on all the issues, there was at least a chance — and in fact, among the leadership, there was shared information across the whole community. Now it’s pouring in. The arguments that are frequently made and the early research shows that among young people, they are receiving as much or more information from a variety of different sources. And there is in this, I’m told, reason for optimism. I’m frankly unsure at this moment whether optimism is warranted. But I think for the long term as we increasingly figure out how to sort what is valid and what is invalid, what is true and not true, as we figure out how to sort what is valuable to our own lives and our work that this fact of more information more easily accessed and more broadly shared is a positive for all of us.

Q: How can any one of us or any few of us or many of us support concern for the common good? How can we few influence the definition of the common good?

A: In the way that you always have. The reason this space is so special is that it’s been devoted to that from the beginning in a wide variety of different ways — matters of faith as well as matters of politics. I understand that this is a place that I think is the living embodiment of all the ways that you do it — as individuals sitting alone and thinking and receiving, as individuals in dialogue and debate with leaders and others, as people who are part of groups who on this campus gather together and further refine their own thinking, as people who go back out from here into the world and change the world in which they are. I think this place is as good an example and model of all of the different opportunities that you have and the critical piece, I think, is to not let the headlines, the disaster, the disappointment of the day make you forget how far you and the people who came here before you and the people before that — even back when the mayor of Jamestown was promoting the place, if wondering what was happening here, and indeed moved on and changed the world. That is the strength of our world and it remains so. Of that, I’m confident.

Q: You spoke in your speech about people of ability and merit. Are they in politics, and do you find them more in the city, the state governments or the national government?

A: On this I used to say we had, where I come from, a truly representative government, and that meant we had one of everything. Just about the smartest person that ever had an idea on any particular day and the person on the other end of that particular spectrum as well. And there is actually some power and strength in having one of everything within the body. You’d prefer that everybody at least remembers why they came. That would be helpful, but overall, the presence of a wide variety of people in the room is not problematic. The question though goes to whether or not we are advancing in this, much like the first question, the opportunities for all. I think about that, there is always reason to be concerned and vigilant. There’s always reason for people like the people in this room to go find people, if not like me, at least positioned as I was in 1986. Maybe I was naïve; maybe I was overly optimistic, but I was encouraged by my neighbors. That sounds so simple, and I know you doubt when you hear it sometimes from politicians who say, “Well, if my neighbors want me to run again, I will. If the people insist, I would be happy to serve a 32nd term in this position.” I can tell you if your neighbor, your friend, your family member, comes to you and says, “You should run,” it transforms your view, and you have an ability and a strength and a power in that way beyond anything that you know. I leave you with that thought, because you can in that way make greater changes than you ever know.

Q: What’s happening in Nashville today; how is it progressing?

A: Well, I just came from Nashville. Actually, I would have been here yesterday on the Fourth (of July), but we were celebrating our nation’s independence as well as the Hot Chicken Festival, which is one of my favorite things, and I recommend it to you. If you cannot for some reason be at Chautauqua on July Fourth, the Hot Chicken Festival occurs every July 4. This was our fifth, and I hope you can join us there, and going forward, I have other materials I can hand out and give you. Nashville went through a great challenge a year ago, as you know: A flood that was not just a 500-year flood, maybe 1,000-year flood, not anticipated in that way ever. Nashville has recovered from that flood and has, in all one hopes (with) such recoveries, is not just strong, but in many ways, stronger. The city itself has progressed in its educational systems; it’s continued to focus on its public safety as well as its quality of life, and I feel very good that in the four years since I’ve been there, the city’s progress has been sustained across all categories.

Q: Are you willing to comment on the actions of governors or mayors taking over failing school systems and dismissing elected officials in those systems? Is this ethical? Is it democratic? What value trumps kids’ education or the democratic process?

A: The overall question until the part about the trumping is a very critically important question that is not for every city but could be and is now for, I think the first time in American history, at least on the horizon for every mayor and elected official. Let me explain what I mean. For the longest time, there was a deliberate, conscious, some thought constitutional division between public education and general government. Let me put it another way. Most mayors worked very hard not to be dragged into, engaged and involved in matters of schools for a variety of reasons. I think there is a larger consensus now that unless, and until, everybody in the community believes that schools are the most important thing that we do and then everybody in the community is involved and all political leaders are perceived to have at least a role of some kind, and until that happens, there is a much more limited opportunity for progress in the ways that we have come to believe it should be made. So I would argue first of all that now this consensus does direct mayors and everyone else to be involved in some fashion. In my city, we did not control the school system, but we funded it. The argument is, what level of control does funding the budget of the school system provide? Actually, considerable — particularly if one understands the importance of resources to both capital and operating expenses with school systems. In the cities of Chicago, Cleveland, Boston, New York, there has been a move along the line of the question which was done through the democratic process by and large through actions in state capitals by state legislatures. Typically, that process provided control in the executive. It was done, in my opinion, after it was perceived that the existing system would not meet the needs of the children and the communities they were a part of. I don’t recommend that for everyone; I don’t suggest it as the solution for all places, and we in Nashville did not pursue that at the time that I was there, but I recognize that in the cities that I mentioned, it was perceived to be required. It was, in those cases, proceeded appropriately under the law, and I believe to the betterment of those school systems. But in the long term, the underlying issue will return. And that is governance in those places and other places, and you need to be vigilant about that as well.

Q: Will you address the appointment of a city regulator in Benton Harbor, Mich., usurping the power of the mayor and the council?

A: I’m afraid I don’t know about that particular case. I can tell you that at the core of the debate back 100 years ago, was this notion of city government being one of city managers or elected officials. And a part of the progressive movement believed that elected officials could never deliver a fair, unbiased, honest government in that context. The argument on the other side was, in fact, that was the only way that progress would be made. In this particular case, we’re talking about a regulator stepping in, and I can’t respond.

Q: How can you deal with the impasse on the entitlement issue?

A: I think that we in this area facing one of the great and large problems of our federal government and of our time do not even now have enough information about which we can agree. I don’t mean there’s not enough information in the world; I mean, there’s not enough information in front of us, before us, between us, about which we can agree or if necessary, disagree. This is the debate that is that important and should continue in as many places in as strong and clear a way. I won’t ask for a show of hands, but on an issue that important, you would think that everyone in this room would have at least an opinion. I hazard to guess that that is not the case. There ought to come a time when you do, when you’re clear, when you know. When that time comes, in my estimation, there will be a result in Washington as well.

Q: What is the deal with male politicians and sex?

A: You know, that’s just funny. When I was here four years ago, I wasn’t going to share this, but this is toward the end of the question period, and I think it’s just worth sharing. I wasn’t sure how (my speech) had gone, and I had been honored and touched to be here and to be in this space, but I needed some reassurance, and I talked to Tom Becker. Tom Becker is really an incredible combination of people all in one, I believe. He just is, Tom Becker really is. But as an aside, when I look at this week and what we’re talking about this week and the weeks that follow and remember that Tom Becker came to Harvard more than a year ago and sat down with me, and I know with others, to think about what should be in this space the year hence and once again, he hit it just directly. It’s exactly what we should be thinking and talking about at this time, and our history is incredible. I got on the phone with Tom Becker about how things had gone, and he said, “Well, it went fine,” and I said, “Well, how can you tell?” and he said, “Well, actually we rank them, the presentations, in certain ways, and you did fine.” Then I didn’t say anything, and he didn’t say anything, and he said, “Well, you know, you weren’t No.1,” And I said, “Well, OK,” and he said, “But remember, Dr. Ruth was on the program, and you know, really there was no chance for you.” That’s my answer.

Q: What are you doing now? We need you in Florida.

A: You know, it’s too hot in Florida. No, it’s not. Florida is a special place going through its own period of reflection and reconsideration and evaluation, and I know that. And it’s one more example of the way in which this process works all the time. Not in a pendulum swinging one way or another but moving, we hope, ultimately always forward. Right now, I just completed my work at Harvard. It’s been a terrific opportunity for me, especially this last effort with the work team to envision this campus in Allston and make recommendations to the president. I obviously leave that work incredibly optimistic about the future of us all. That is the way I am as I head back to Nashville, Tenn., to continue on with my career and my life, and that’s where I am.

Transcribed by Elora Tocci