Translating Bob Corker

By Tom Lee


Once upon a time, my job was to get inside Bob Corker's head.

In 2006, I left my law practice to work for Harold Ford Jr.'s improbable run to become the first African-American Southerner to win election to the U.S. Senate. A four-term congressman, Ford was young, gifted, and black, holding both an Ivy League education and a lifetime of schooling in the hand-to-hand political combat of Memphis' African-American community.

We ran a campaign of confounding expectations. Harold would toss aside prepared speeches (I know, I wrote them) and riff on the tri-partition of Iraq to a catfish dinner in Henry County, Tennessee. He squeezed elderly women ("Baby, now, I need your vote") and shouted out the names of men in the crowd. Nothing made him happier than blowing up the campaign schedule to jump into in a rural bait and tackle shop — a gun shop, all the better. His favorite campaign anecdote involved one of those impromptu stops at the Li'l Rebel Inn in Jackson, Tennessee, a cinder-block roadhouse he would visit more than once, sporting a camouflage ball-cap adorned with the Confederate battle flag. You can Google Image it.

Harold was, in the best possible political sense, a moving target.

I got a graduate seminar in politics that year. And one thing I learned was that Ford’s opponent, Republican Bob Corker, was not without his own unexpected assets. After all, when he started his contracting business, he installed drive-throughs at Krystals. Now, he is one of three or four people in the country in a position to prevent nuclear war.

So when I read recently that U.S. Sen. Bob Corker had called the White House an adult day care center without a caretaker, I thought not of the senator.

I thought of his mama.

Small and white haired, Jean Corker gracefully uncoiled concertina wire along the top of Southernisms such as "well, bless his heart." She was equally effective with Republican women over coffee and muffins, as she was in Corker's television ads, or waving a sign at our campaign bus, daring us to disembark and speak poorly of her boy.

Corker inherited his mother's gift for the Southern idiom. With the race in the balance in early October, the Republican National Committee aired, over and over, the infamous “Call Me" ad (you can Google that, too). The 30-second spot featured a number of actors "interviewed" on the street, offering darkly humorous takes on Ford's record. The ad's star, for want of a better word, was an attractive white actress who cooed, "I met Harold at the Playboy party!" (yes, Harold had gone to a Playboy Super Bowl party once). She reappeared to close the ad, sotto voce: "Harold, call me."

Many of us thought the best word for the ad was race-baiting. Bob Corker called it "tacky."

Tacky was a word my mother used, and I bet Jean Corker used it, too. It has pungent meaning in the South. The Oxford English Dictionary notes that "tacky" came into use in the early 1800s to describe "a poor white of the Southern states." It was a cutting, class-based insult, suggesting lowbrow vulgarity.

In short, Bob Corker called out the Republican National Committee production as white trash. In retrospect, that was a pretty fair description.

Days later, surging into the lead, Corker flew into the Memphis airport to deliver a stinging news conference attack on Ford's father, himself a former Congressman and Washington lobbyist. Tipped off, Harold was there to meet him and offer what we had come to call "very rapid response." He was surrounded by television cameras and journalists, all expecting something out of the ordinary.

It was Corker who would give it to them. As his plane taxied, the welcoming committee visible, Corker decided he would not do the news conference first. He would walk right up to Harold. When he did, Ford strode to meet him. The cameras followed Ford, video rolling, giving the appearance that Ford was stalking Corker.

In fact, it was the other way around. The man whose mother dared a candidate to get off his campaign bus now dared the candidate to interrupt his presser — and the candidate rose to the bait. Today, we would cry "fake news." Then, too late. Tennessee and national media, defending us just days before as victims of an impermissible attack, criticized us for acting beneath our raising.

In a word, tacky. In a race between two strivers, we lost the high ground on class, and, soon, the election.

Lots of people in Washington have power. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, however, is possessed like few others of one distinct thing: class.

So when Bob Corker says the White House is an "adult day care center," a Northerner should understand what a Southern man is saying, that the White House is beneath its raising, which is not unlike tacky, not unlike low, and not unlike trash.

If the president of the United States understands Southern idiom, he would be well advised to be insulted.

If he does not so comprehend, I imagine Jean Corker could explain it to him.