I n the part of the country where I come from, most people are proud of their hometown. Folks in Linden, Tennessee, are a good example of that. Situated in rural country in Middle Tennessee, about fifty-seven miles from where I grew up, Linden had about a thousand residents. One day during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the coffee drinkers at the drugstore on the town square noticed out the window that one of the local good old boys had his pickup truck loaded with what appeared to be his worldly possessions. As he walked into the drugstore to buy supplies, one of the coffee-drinking busybodies said to him:
“Lem, looks like you’re moving out. What’s up?”
“Ain’t you boys heard about the missile crisis?” Lem replied.
The fellow answered, “Yeah, but what makes you think they’re gonna bomb Linden?”
Lem said, “It’s the county seat, ain’t it?”
Well, Lawrenceburg is a county seat, too. This meant that Lawrenceburg had a courthouse with a square. Every courthouse in the state was located to be not more than a half day’s horse ride from any part of the county. It also meant that Lawrenceburg was the location of the county fair. As the center of county culture, it had a movie theater. And it had an organized Little League. In short, growing up in the county seat was pretty much a privileged situation.
Like thousands of little towns across America, it was populated mostly by folks who had grown up on the farm and come to town to enjoy the fruits of a better life. Usually having little in the way of a formal education, a man’s reputation for hard work and keeping his word were his most valuable assets. That’s the way it was with my people and just about everybody they knew. It’s not that our town didn’t have its share of scalawags. As one old-timer put it, “We weren’t big enough to have a town drunk, so a few of us had to take turns.”
What we did have for sure was more than our share of characters, used-car lots, and churches, all of which were an important part of my years growing up.
Some time ago I decided to write my story—a story that began in Lawrenceburg. You know, the obligatory autobiography, written by anyone with the necessary fifteen minutes of fame or success. It would be about how I left Lawrenceburg and, over the years, had some very interesting adventures. There were the early days when I was a federal prosecutor. Then there would be a part about my role as counsel for the Watergate committee, and my part in revealing the taping system in the Nixon White House. Then, of course, I would relate some of my experiences in the movie business as well as on the TV show Law & Order. And there would be the eight years I spent in the U.S. Senate (which made me long for the realism and sincerity of Hollywood). Naturally, I would also talk about my presidential campaign (described by one of my comedian friends as probably the most stressful three weeks of my life).
Finally, there would be the concluding chapter that we are all too familiar with, wherein I would give my instructions to a waiting America as to what must be done to meet the “challenges of our time.” It’s amazing how brilliant and insightful a fellow becomes when he leaves elective office and can’t do a thing about all those problems.
I even had a title for that book picked out: Why I’ve Had Such a Hard Time Keeping a Job.
In all seriousness, that book I had in mind was going to be more than just old, warmed-over “war stories.” I was going to write about opportunities presenting themselves and why I took some and not others. There’s a lot to be said for seiz- ing the moment, and I thought a book about the remark- able interconnectedness of the experiences I’ve had—how a decision I made has so often seemed to lead inexorably to consequences and opportunities that I never foresaw—might be somewhat instructive.
Well, this is not that book. As I got into the process, I discovered that what I was writing about was what happened before I left Lawrenceburg, not after I left. The thought of those times didn’t necessarily make me nostalgic, but they did make me feel good. I was revisiting and laughing with some of the most interesting characters and funniest peo- ple you’d ever hope to meet, not the least of whom was my own dad.
The fact is that the people I knew and the experiences I had in that little town formed the prism through which I have viewed the world, and they shaped the way I have dealt with events throughout my life. Those growing-up years in Lawrenceburg left me with a particular take on life. A saying I often heard sort of typifies it. Usually said with a smile, it is “Ain’t nobody gonna get out of this old world alive anyway, son,” often said to put things into perspective when times were getting rough.
And, perhaps not surprisingly, I heard sayings like that more than a couple of times from more than a few people. From the girl I married as a teenager and her family, to the teachers, coaches, preachers, and most of all my mom and dad, they encouraged and tolerated this young ne’er-do-well kid with no apparent prospects. They cajoled me, inspired me, and shepherded me from childhood to manhood. It was not an easy trip for any of us, but by the time I left Lawrenceburg, I had learned some valuable lessons and had the confidence to take on the world. (Of course, the world had the confidence to take on me, too, but that’s another story.)
There’s another old saying that comes to mind: “Life is a comedy for those who think and a tragedy for those who feel.” I can add to that. Where I come from, tragedy and comedy were often served at the same table. But the lessons that grew out of those experiences were grounded in the kind of commonsense view of life and living that today is, unfortunately, all too uncommon.
So I decided to write about what I wanted to write about. Stories about growing up—in every sense of the word. Stories about Lawrenceburg. It’s about time Lawrenceburg had the recognition. After all, it is the county seat.
The Tree the Acorn Fell From
I suppose everyone remembers where they were when they realized they were not going to be the leader of the free world. I know I do. It was on January 19, 2008, in the back of a bus rolling down a road just outside of Charleston, South Carolina, when early exit-poll results started coming in from the South Carolina presidential primary. I had edged out McCain in Iowa and come in ahead of Romney and Giuliani in South Carolina. The bad news is I came in third in both places. Not good enough. In presidential primary politics, many are called but few are chosen. I wasn’t, and it was time to hang it up.
I had walked through many doors of opportunity in my life and was used to finding something good on the other side. In fact, for me the 2008 primary season was officially the first time in my life I had proven (in a most public way) that I couldn’t accomplish something I had set out to do. It was a rather humbling experience. It occurred to me that, to paraphrase one of Churchill’s comments, perhaps I had more to be humble about than I had realized. It also occurred to me that this was a pretty doggone expensive way to achieve a little humility. Maybe I needed to be reminded of what an old-timer told me years ago after I’d had some success: “Just remember, son, the turnout at your funeral is still going to depend a hell of a lot on the weather.”
Yeah, yeah, I accepted all that, but for some reason the immortal words of Dick Tuck seemed more appropriate. Tuck was a Democratic operative famous before and during Watergate as a political prankster. When President Nixon adopted the campaign slogan “Nixon’s the One,” Tuck had several women boisterously show up at a Nixon rally in pregnancy costumes, waving signs saying “Nixon’s the One.”
Tuck finally ran for office himself—for the state senate in California. On Election Night, when it became obvious he was receiving a drubbing, he went before his supporters and the media and said, “The people have spoken . . . the bastards.”
By the morning of January 20, I had other things to be thinking about. By then, I was at the bedside of my mother at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville. At eighty-seven, she was enduring her latest and most severe bout of pneumonia, compounded by several other ailments. She did not look good at all. In fact, the doctor and the head nurse privately talked to me in very somber tones, uttering “We’ve done all that we can do”–type comments. Of course, they didn’t take into account the fact that “Mrs. Ruth” was tough as a pine knot. She hated hospitals with an extraordinary passion and was totally exhausted from the constant visits by hospital personnel. For the next twenty-four hours, I camped outside her room in a chair and made the medical staff justify their admission before I would let them in. She got some rest and soon was improving, just as she had many times before. She and I have concluded that most people who die in hospitals flatline from aggravation and lack of sleep.
Literally, almost overnight, I had gone from the most public, intrusive, self-centered existence known to man to the exact opposite—the quiet of my mother’s room late at night. It was a quick journey from manufactured reality to reality. I smiled as I remembered her telling me when I was a kid: “Freddie, you can be anything you want to be, but please just don’t be a lawyer or a politician.” Over the years I think she changed her mind about my becoming a lawyer, but I don’t think she ever quite fully bought into the politician pa...