One of the hardest things to get used to after being elected Tennessee governor, according to Gov. Bill Haslam, is not being able to ride in a car alone with his wife, Crissy. “Just think about it,” Haslam commented over dinner recently. “When you and your spouse get in a car to go to an event or leave an event, think of all the things you talk about!” As governor, though, Haslam and his wife have a driver and therefore are never able to have those candid and confidential conversations. Now I can’t get in the car with Alan without thinking about what Haslam said. And he’s right!
Several Knoxvillians were among the 32 guests gathered at the Tennessee Governor’s Residence for an event recently and were treated to a lesson on the interesting history of the Residence. Haslam, relaxed and comfortable, chatted during a reception and dinner about the two-story Georgian-style brick house on South Curtiswood Lane that has been home to Tennessee’s chief executives since it was purchased by the state in 1949 for a little over $100,000. The house, built in 1929 on 10 acres, is next door to the home of the late country music legend Minnie Pearl, also known as Mrs. Henry Cannon.
Haslam related how the painting above, hanging in the living room of the Tennessee Governor’s Residence, was purchased at an auction by former Tennessee First Lady Betty Dunn, wife of Governor Winfield Dunn. She wondered who kept bidding against her at the auction, running the price up. She was a little dismayed to discover that she was bidding against the White House, which was on a mission to collect paintings of former presidents. Only when the person from the White House realized the opposing bidder was the First Lady of Tennessee, did they drop their attempt and let her win the painting.
Similarly, in the dining room, there is a sterling silver punch bowl set that was recovered from the battleship U.S.S. Tennessee. (Apparently, many battleships have these beautiful punch bowls. Just Google “punch bowls on U.S. battleships” for more info on that. Who knew?) Anyway, the U.S.S. Tennessee was damaged during the attack on Pearl Harbor and when it was decommissioned much later, the punch bowl ended up at the Governor’s Residence in Tennessee. But during the Reagan administration, the Federal government made a claim that the punch bowl was U.S. Navy property and demanded it be returned to Washington. Lucky for Tennessee, however, President Reagan’s chief of staff at the time was Tennessee’s former U.S. Senator Howard Baker, Jr. Baker intervened and the punch bowl got to stay in Tennessee. The Navy had to make do with a replica.
First course was seared pear salad with toasted pumpkin seeds, gorgonzola cheese and roasted shallot vinaigrette. Second course was melt-in-your-mouth braised beef short ribs, truffle mashed Yukon gold potatoes and baby carrots and beets. (I watched to see if the Governor would eat his beets. He didn’t!)
The chargers at each place setting featured a beautiful iris, the state flower of Tennessee. They were purchased by donors and each one has the donor’s name on the back. Governor Haslam said he sat down the other day and peeked under his plate to see who had paid for it. It said “courtesy of James A. Haslam II” — the governor’s father.
After dinner, Governor Haslam made a few remarks and offered to answer questions.
Here are a few things Governor Haslam said:
- He was asked about a number of recent news items. Gov. Haslam and the Occupy Nashville protesters have since had a meeting of the minds, but at the time of the event, the protest was still fresh on guests’ minds. Haslam said the state was forced to take action after the group soiled the Legislative Plaza due to lack of bathroom facilities, two couples engaged in public sex and one person suffered broken ribs in a scuffle.
- Haslam said he worked hard to find a solution regarding the controversy over whether Amazon.com should be required to pay state sales tax. “What you learn is that by the time a problem gets to this level, it’s hard,” he laughed. “If the problem were an easy one, it already would have been solved!”
- He thought he would be going home to Knoxville more than he and his wife have been doing. And, when he goes home, he is a little surprised to find his house doesn’t feel very homey because all their personal belongings have been moved to Nashville.
Here are a couple more things he pointed out about the Tennessee Residence. Elvis Presley used to visit when Buford Ellington was governor in the 1960s. He played shuffleboard with the governor’s daughter.
President Polk, from Tennessee, was quite short in stature, so often people did not notice him when he entered a crowded room. It was during his term that it became a tradition to play “Hail to the Chief” when President Polk entered a room. That way people would know that President Polk had arrived. The tradition stuck.
On a personal note, I have to say that I have known Bill Haslam for about 20 years. I’ve spent time with him when he was at Pilot and when he was mayor of Knoxville. But never have I seen him so comfortable in his own skin as he is now in the Governor’s office. He is confident, thoughtful, easy-going and natural. He really seems to be having a good time. For the record, folks at the dinner table did ask him if he would consider being a vice presidential candidate to Mitt Romney. He laughed off the question as if it were a joke. But I don’t know . . .
P.S. This just in. First Lady Crissy Haslam and the Governor have issued an invitation for the public to visit the Governor’s Residence to see it decorated for the holidays. If you would like to go on a tour, just click on this link to make your reservation: http://tn.gov/firstlady/holidays.shtml