Monthly Archives: January 2015

Mr. Huckabee’s Adventures in Bubba-ville

Mike Huckabee, the former governor of Arkansas, was reportedly here in town early this week with his new book, “God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy.” In his book’s introductory essay, he draws what he thinks is a clean line between “Bubba-ville,” by which he means middle America, especially the South–and “Bubble-ville,” by which he means the three liberal epicenters of New York, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C.

As they say, there are two types of people, those who divide the world into two types of people and those who don’t. Mr. Huckabee is a member of the former group.

Of course, the book is published by St. Martin’s Press, in New York, which may explain why it’s not perfectly edited, with infelicitous syntax and excessive quotation marks. His liberal publisher obviously sabotaged it by running it as the author intended.

As a 10th-generation Southerner, I was a little perplexed by his central premise. But I admit I tend to resist regional generalities. I know many others are very fond of them.

On the one hand, I’m a typical denizen of what he calls Bubba-ville. Like Mr. Huckabee, I grew up with guns. From the age of 9, I played with pellet guns, and had two shotguns hanging on my bedroom wall—though I admit I’ve never owned a handgun. And I do have “three or more Bibles” in my house, as people in “Bubba-ville” are supposed to have. I also have two different translations of the Koran, or Qur’an, as one version prefers it, and a Book of Mormon, and somewhere a Bhagavad Gita, though I haven’t seen it lately.

“So let me make it clear,” Huckabee writes. “I’m a proud son of the South, but I can easily relate to folks from the Midwest, Southwest, and most of rural America. I feel a bit more disconnected from people who have never fired a gun, never fished with a cane pole, never cooked with propane, or never changed a tire.”

The changing a tire reference comes with some ironies, concerning the fact that automobiles were slow to catch on in the South, 80 or 90 years ago. Southern conservatives, among them the Vanderbilt Agrarians, suspected automobiles were a Northern plot to enslave the Southerner, not just to the big-city auto industry, but to the big-city banks and insurance companies—and, of course, the big-city tire companies.

But for better or worse, I’ve fired guns, fished with cane poles, and changed tires, more than a few times each, and each frankly more than I care to. Of those four, the one I’m not familiar with is the cooking with propane. I cook with charcoal, and on rare occasions, with wood. Last weekend, as my neighbors will attest, I cooked a couple of pans’ worth of Benton’s bacon over an open wood fire in the backyard. It was fun. I’m not sure why people ever cook with propane, or why that practice might make them trustworthy to Mr. Huckabee.

Many of his distinctions have to do with cooking in general. “Have you ever tried to order grits in a fancy Manhattan restaurant?” Huckabee asks. “Good luck. Not even for breakfast!”

Never mind New York: have you ever tried to order grits in a fancy Knoxville restaurant? Well, I take that back. Grits were rarely encountered in fancy Knoxville restaurants until recent years. But the fact is, grits have become nationally trendy, haute even, as a droll addition to shrimp and truffles and goat cheese and scallops. Now you can get grits in any number of upscale fusion restaurants across the nation.

Therein lies an interesting paradox.

Grits are much more common in East Tennessee today than they were to our great-grandparents’ generation. As I’ve noted a few times in newspaper columns, based on interviews with local folks much older than me, including the late historian Ron Allen, grits were rare in Knoxville restaurants before the 1960s, on hardly any local menus–with the exception of a couple with a “Southern Manor” theme, that catered to Northern motorists on their way to Florida.

The theory we developed is that Knoxville restaurants began serving grits because Northern tourists began demanding them. Then the rest of us got used to it. I can’t prove it, but I strongly suspect that a Hollywood product called “The Beverly Hillbillies” introduced grits to mainstream America, and, indirectly, to many restaurants in my home town. Then, in the 1970s, the Carter candidacy as an emblematic Southerner gave grits a second boost, aligning with that other odd cultural developments, like the “Kiss my grits” retort of another Hollywood product. References like that at least make you curious. When a Northerner takes the trouble of driving across the South to Florida, he wants to be able to report something distinctive about his adventure to his chums back in Boston. “I went to Tennessee and I actually tried grits, and let me tell you–”

Of course, the sad fact is there’s really no adventure there. Pull back the curtain, and grits just aren’t that big a deal. Grits represent mainly a texture. If you pureed grits to remove the pebbly texture and ate them blindfolded, with no seasonings, would you have any idea what it was? By comparison to grits, skim milk has a rich, hearty flavor.

Grits take on the flavor of whatever they’re served with. What do grits taste like? Butter and salt, of course. Or garlic and cheddar cheese, if you use that popular magazine recipe, which swept the region in the late ’60s. When I order grits, it’s most often because I’ve ordered a fried egg, and I need the grits to sop it up. Therefore grits taste like eggs.

Some people claim they love grits, some claim they hate them. Maybe they’re all lying. There’s just not enough there to love or hate. We use grits to express a loyalty. Which may be the same reason most people arrive at their political opinions: to find an identity, a sense of belonging in a welcoming group.

Huckabee makes fun of Los Angeles residents for eating kale. “I thought only North Koreans ate lawn clippings,” he says. I first grew kale in my sunny Knoxville back yard when I was about 10, from a packet of seeds from around the corner at Mayo’s. I didn’t know it was fancy. I don’t grow it anymore, but I still cook kale, grown by local farmers. To me, kale still doesn’t seem urban or bi-coastal or Communist. It’s greens.
“If people don’t put pepper sauce on their black-eyed peas or order fried green tomatoes for an appetizer,” Huckabee writes, “I probably won’t relate to them without some effort.”
Although I’m lock-step with Mr. Huckabee on the issue of pepper sauce with black-eyed peas, that line confounded me on several levels. To begin with, there’s his choice of terminology. He keeps using the term “relating to,” which sounds to me like old-school liberalese. Did anyone ever “relate to” any other human until about 1967, the Summer of Love? Then there’s the phrase, “for an appetizer”? Do they serve fried green tomatoes as “appetizers” in Bubba-ville? I’m old enough to remember when the very concept of appetizers seemed fancy and urban.
But more to the point is his second culinary example, and it raises another interesting paradox, too.

Fried green tomatoes is apparently a 20th-century invention. According to the Google research feature Ngram, the phrase “fried green tomatoes” didn’t exist until the era of the motion picture and radio, and it remained rather obscure, in print at least, until the 1980s. Then it boomed. Most of the references to the dish in history have come in the last 25 years or so.

I’d grown at least a dozen summers’ worth of Tennessee tomatoes before ever heard of fried green tomatoes. It would have seemed such a strange thing to do, to fry any sort of tomato, and to consider eating a green tomato at all. Aren’t ripe, fresh tomatoes always better? Fried green tomatoes seems like a fall-back tactic, a graceful way to deal with a mistake, a tomato that falls off the vine before it’s ripe. The only time I ever have enough green tomatoes on hand to consider making a dish of them is right before the first freeze, when I go out and pick them all, no matter what they look like, because if I don’t, the next day they’ll be bags of goo.

I have a bunch of old Southern cookbooks, several from my grandparents’ generation and even before. Only a couple of them mention fried tomatoes as one of several options for cooking tomatoes as a side dish. They don’t make any big deal of them, describing them alongside fried ripe tomatoes, which are a bit more of a challenge, because if you don’t do it right, they fall apart. My late friend John Egerton’s definitive 1987 book “Southern Food” briefly notes “fried tomatoes,” both green and ripe, as a sometime accompaniment with breakfast, preferably with bacon gravy. The “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture,” published in Chapel Hill in 1989 after years of work by contributors across the South, weighs about 10 pounds and describes dozens of signature Southern symbols and staples, but it does not acknowledge any familiarity with the existence of fried green tomatoes.

I first heard of them around the time that big encyclopedia came out. I grew up knowing about crawfish and chitlins and gumbo and dirty rice and red rice and cornbread and molasses. By the time I was a teenager I could easily tell the difference between red-eye gravy and sawmill gravy, and Memphis barbecue and Carolina barbecue. But I never heard of “fried green tomatoes” until the release of a very funny and popular Hollywood movie by that name, in 1991. It was based on a recent novel by Fannie Flagg, who was my favorite contestant on “The Match Game” and “Hollywood Squares.” She’s originally from Birmingham, but has spent much of her life in Los Angeles. And though she didn’t invent fried green tomatoes, she’s responsible for about 98 percent of the recent hubbub about them as a Southern symbol. Fannie Flagg made them a Southern icon.

Suddenly fried green tomatoes were a thing, and you saw them everywhere. I learned to fix them, myself. By now I’ve had hundreds of fried green tomatoes. But Southern as I am, most of the fried green tomatoes I’ve enjoyed are the ones in the Eggs Chesapeake, the brunch favorite at the British gastropub the Crown & Goose. That dish also includes a poached egg, a fine crab cake, and hollandaise sauce. And truth be told, it’s not the fried green tomatoes that you notice.

I have come to like fried green tomatoes well enough, about as much as I like whole-wheat toast. Like grits, they’re best when they’re served with something else, and what you notice is the something else.

Southerners are a lot like grits and fried green tomatoes. We take on whatever flavor the whimsical chefs on the coasts apply to us. If we’re noble and gallant and soft-spoken and well-mannered, as Hollywood said we were in the ’30s, we become Ashley Wilkes. If we’re rip-roarin’ rednecks, as Hollywood has said we were in the ’70s, we’re become Smokey and the Bandit, both.

We were once the one part of the country that stubbornly resisted national trends like college football and the automobile lifestyle. But then we made up for it by outdoing the rest of the country in those regards. Maybe because we’re still not quite sure what to make of ourselves, we soak up nearly everything, and you just never know what they’re going to serve us with next.

Mad Pilgrimage: the new biography of Tennessee Williams, and the unfinished project of Lyle Leverich

John Lahr’s new biography is called “Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh.” It’s a pity Lahr chose that particular subtitle. Now, when I write my autobiography, I’ll have to come up with something else. The book’s a personal portrait of a complicated man, an interesting and well-written biography for a popular audience of America’s greatest playwright. Lahr notes that Tennessee Williams is the most autobiographical of all major playwrights, and to some extent he proves the truth of that observation.

It’s a fine book, by the well-known “New Yorker” drama critic who knows Williams’ work better than nearly anyone alive. Of course, as he may tire of hearing people note, he’s also the son of Bert Lahr, who immortalized the Cowardly Lion.

Tennessee Williams had some interesting and significant Knoxville connections—his father’s family lived here for more than a century before his was born, and were one of the most prominent families in 19th-century East Tennessee. The new biography mentions Knoxville a few times, but there’s one line, concerning the death of Williams’ father, Cornelius Coffin “C.C.” Williams, that suggests Lahr didn’t do much research here.

“CC was laid to rest in ‘Old Gray,’ as the Knoxville Cemetery was called.”

Never known as “the Knoxville Cemetery,” capitalized, Old Gray was never “the Knoxville cemetery,” either. When C.C. Williams died here, Old Gray was one of dozens of Knoxville cemeteries, and most of the newer ones were bigger and easier to get into. By 1957, few were buried in Old Gray unless they were members of old families who still had space in old plots, and moreover old-family members who felt obliged to be buried there, rather than in one of the newer, larger, safer, cleaner, suburban cemeteries. Tree-shaded Old Gray was falling on harder times in the 1950s. This once-famous Victorian cemetery was neglected in an ever more ignored inner city, and isolated by the highway, often overgrown, losing some of its most notable monuments, occasionally subject to exhumations for reburial elsewhere, and forgotten, like a metaphor in a Williams play.

It’s a minor thing, and we can’t blame Lahr for shortcuts. Lahr has a full-time job and splits his time between New York and London.
There’s a universal scholarly astigmatism concerning Knoxville, which gets blurred out of nearly every biography, our details misunderstood, scrambled, or omitted altogether. Authors on deadline don’t like to visit Knoxville, or at least they don’t think they’d like to, and almost every time the city gets mentioned in a biography, some detail or other is at least a little off. In fact, it’s hard to think of exceptions, biographers who took the time to visit and get to know the place.

One was Lyle Leverich. As good a read as Lahr’s book is, it leaves me wishing fate had allowed Leverich, a more comprehensive biographer, to finish his major two-volume biography of Williams. A few years before his death in 1983, the playwright had designated Leverich, a San Francisco theater producer, as his authorized biographer, to the consternation of some who envied the honor. Leverich’s first volume, “Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams,” came out in 1995, to the general astonishment of critics who might not have expected much from a first-time author. It says something that two of its many raves came from America’s two playwright legends: Edward Albee called it “extraordinary and invaluable,” and Arthur Miller called it “a rare work of the greatest importance.”

Many have considered “Tom” the first half of the definitive biography of Williams. It closed with the playwright on the brink of stardom, at age 34, at the time of the debut of “The Glass Menagerie.”

Ever since then, we’ve been waiting for Part 2.

In the preface of his new book, Lahr explains that this new book is what we get instead. He says Leverich requested that “should anything happen to him,” Lahr should take up the project. Leverich was already grateful for Lahr’s help. Lahr’s “New Yorker” story about deliberate attempts to impede Leverich’s book has been credited with helping pave the way for “Tom.”

But it’s a lot to expect any professional writer to devote years to writing someone else’s book, interpreting someone else’s notes, following someone else’s vision. Instead of writing the in-depth Part 2 Leverich intended, Lahr chose to write a one-volume complete biography. It’s a good long book, at 765 pages, but necessarily with about half as many pages per year of Williams’ life as Leverich had done. In his preface, Lahr remarks that he rejected Leverich’s “encyclopedic chronological approach,” and also chose to ignore much of Leverich’s “useless” research, which likely included his notes and documents from research in Knoxville. Lahr and Leverich differed, Lahr admits, in their views of “the psychology of the Williams family.”

That may have a lot to do with the fact that Lahr lays out a fairly complex portrait of Williams’ father, but includes no mention of some Knoxville people and places that Leverich found fascinating.

Back in the ’90s I got to know Mr. Leverich. Although the 1995 book offers some detail about Williams and Knoxville lacking in previous biographies, Leverich told me his regret about “Tom” was that he didn’t more fully explore the playwright’s complicated relationships with his paternal family, and Knoxville. He meant to rectify that, he said, in his second volume, partly through background concerning Williams’ return to Knoxville for his father’s funeral in 1957.

Williams never lived in Knoxville. He grew up in Mississippi and St. Louis, and as an adult spent a lot of time in New Orleans and New York. Williams never set a play in Knoxville, at least not overtly.

But he had a tangle of local connections, positive and negative, some of which he hinted at in his plays, almost in the same way Quentin Tarantino does in his movies. In the major play “Suddenly Last Summer,” for example, the name of the dreaded Louisiana mental institution is “Lion’s View.” The name of Knoxville’s mental institution, a century ago, was the same as its address: Lyons View. I would not want to be the one to argue that that’s a coincidence.

His father, Cornelius Coffin Williams, grew up in Knoxville, a member of one of the city’s most celebrated older families. They settled mostly on the east side of town, before the Civil War. There are two old Colonel John Williams houses, commemorating two different Colonels John Williams, a current residence on Riverside Drive and a well-renovated antebellum house on Dandridge Avenue. The Williams Creek Golf Course bears their name. Just across the river, Dickinson Island, now home to a small airport, was known, until just after the Civil War, as Williams Island.

Tennessee Williams’ formal name was Thomas Lanier Williams III. The grandfather he was named for, Thomas Lanier Williams II, was a onetime Knoxville alderman and, repeatedly, a candidate for governor. Most of the Williamses were men of aspiration, judges, politicians. John Williams was a U.S. senator and diplomat who may have originated the term “Tennessee Volunteers,” thanks to his battles with Indian tribes during the War of 1812 era. He’s the one who, late in life, lived in that house near the golf course.

Cornelius Coffin Williams grew up here, attended UT’s law school without graduating, and worked in business here for a bit, but he turned out to be quite a contrast from his family. A shoe salesman who never had Williams-sized aspirations for himself, C.C. wasn’t much of a family man either, and turned out to be an alcoholic. His sisters, Isabel, who married a Brownlow and was a high-society lady, and Ella, who ran a dress shop downtown and was a little bit eccentric, were very much part of Tennessee Williams’ life, too, even at a distance.

Ella Williams, the maiden aunt, was especially close to Williams’ sister Rose, who was the inspiration and tragic anti-heroine in much of his work, like “The Glass Menagerie” and “Suddenly Last Summer.” Aunt Ella is described and mentioned repeatedly in Leverich’s book, “Tom.” According to the playwright’s mother, Edwina, who wrote her own memoir of her famous son, the glass menagerie that inspired the famous play was a group of odd fashion accessories purchased at Aunt Ella’s shop. Her first shop, in the 1920s, was at 308 Clinch Avenue, between Gay and Market, across the street from the Holston Bank, where Ella Williams had previously worked as a stenographer.

She moved her shop to Locust Street in the 1930s, and older folks may remember when Miss Ella’s shop was at 710 Locust, where she lived. Rose Williams sometimes stayed with Aunt Ella there, as they were trying to figure out how to deal with her unpredictable behavior.

Miss Ella died before I was born, but I remember older folks talking about her, often with a knowing smile and a wink. Short and compact, Miss Ella was a lively, independent woman a Presbyterian lady who nonetheless did as she pleased, even smoked cigarettes in public. At the time of her death at age 82 in 1958, she was described by more than one obituary writer as a “personality.”

Rose Williams spent some long holidays of her youth in Knoxville, and went through the obligatory debutante ordeal here, probably because the Williamses were high-society in Knoxville, but not necessarily in St. Louis. It was during that period, according the Tennessee Williams’ own problematic memoirs, that Rose began showing the first indications of the insanity that would define her life—something, the playwright thought, about a disappointment with a boy who lived here.

It’s not necessarily something for Knoxville to be proud of. But it’s part of the texture of the Williams’ family, and of this complicated place.

Separated from his wife, partly estranged from his children, Cornelius returned to Knoxville in the 1950s to live alone his final years, albeit sometimes with the help of his sisters, in downtown hotels and at the old Whittle Springs Hotel, near Fountain City, and of course was buried alongside his noble family at Old Gray.

Lyle Leverich was going to get into all that in his second volume, using the playwright’s reaction to the death and burial of his father, the deaths of his Knoxville aunts, and the subsequent reference to a mental institution as “Lion’s View” as an aperture for examining the Knoxville family, and the Knoxville part of the playwright’s perspective, in more depth.

Leverich lived in Northern California. We corresponded some, after someone had forwarded him some of my columns in “Metro Pulse,” but when he was doing research here, I met him in person at Old Gray Cemetery, on a hot day in the latter 1990s. He was older than I’d pictured him. Portly, he wore a dark suit even on that hot day, and reminded me of the character actor Charles Coburn, who played formal and genially fussy characters in old black-and-white movies.

He seemed genuinely interested in getting Williams’ full story, and was even interested in Williams’ 1980 speaking visit, when the playwright, on his last public return to his ancestral home, was obviously unprepared for an Alumni Hall audience in the hundreds, a painful experience for most in the room. I was there that stormy evening, but Leverich seemed to know some things about that visit that I didn’t.

We walked around the cemetery, not just to the Williams’ family plot, which is one of the handiest ones, a few steps away from the Broadway sidewalk, but to several other sites in the graveyard, including the Parson Brownlow obelisk, which memorializes one of Tennessee’s most controversial writers and editors of the Civil War era. The Brownlows are related to the Williamses by marriage. Tennessee Williams’ father, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s mother, Emily Dickinson’s Amherst-born cousins are all buried a stone’s throw from each other. Leverich was interested in the whole odd fascinating place, and although he was red-faced, sweating and stumbling a little, he was carried the zeal that comes with a life mission, and didn’t let the heat impede his curiosity.

We said we’d stay in touch, and for years after that day I looked forward to that second edition. He said he was going to give me a credit. But I stopped hearing from him, and eventually I wondered what had become of Lyle Leverich. I had his name and address in my Rolodex, but didn’t want to bother him.

A few years ago, I looked him up on the Internet, and was dismayed to learn why he’d been so quiet. He had died back in late 1999, not more than a year or two after our graveyard tour. His death had been covered in the “New York Times.” I often scan their obits, but I’d missed that one.

It was one of those inversions of memory you have to get used to if you’re serious about getting older. I had to check multiple sources to convince myself it was true. His visit didn’t seem nearly that long ago.

Lahr’s book is a strong one, substantial enough that there probably won’t be a call for another biography of Tennessee Williams for another quarter-century or so. He knows the backstage dramas better than anybody, and the politics of Broadway. It’s a lot about the importance of the plays themselves, in context with American culture. His book is full of famous people, of course, Marlon Brando, Elia Kazan, Gore Vidal, Dick Cavett, Tab Hunter, John Huston.

But never mentions Aunt Ella, who tried to take care of poor Rose. It never mentions Lyons View, or the original glass menagerie, or that strange last lecture at the university his troubled father once attended.

I just checked, and am not surprised I still have Mr. Leverich’s card in my Rolodex, 15 years after his death. But I’m starting to suspect we’re never going to see the book he described.

Obama’s Knoxville Visit

Here’s a coincidence. When I was naïve enough to think there might be a Metro Pulse still in publication in January, 2015, I made a note in my calendar to look into a column about President Obama’s traveling habits. For next week’s issue, concurrent with the halfway point of his second term in office, I was going to remark on the fact that our president had never visited Knoxville. Unless, driving down I-75 on some forgotten spring break–perhaps early in the Reagan administration–he pulled off for gas and cigarettes at a Weigel’s.

Who was the last U.S. president who spent six years in office without visiting Knoxville? No one since Truman, certainly. And I’m not sure about Harry. It could be much, much longer than that.

Until his Knoxville visit this week Obama was in the running for a peculiar distinction he could have shared only with four of our founding fathers. I’ll get at that in a moment.

First, I feel obliged to adjust a doubly misleading statement made this week by a local news source: “Because Tennessee isn’t a traditional battleground state, presidents haven’t made frequent visits.” That could be true if “traditional” applies only to the last 15 years, and if “presidents” applies only to Barack Obama.

Tennessee actually is a traditional battleground state. But its battleground-state status is now only traditional, as opposed to contemporary.

Beginning maybe with the Civil War, when it was literally a battleground state, Tennessee has been the political equivalent of a continental divide, with equal numbers of Republican and Democratic voters going this way and that. For well over a century, Tennessee was the unpredictable wild card in the so-called Solid South. Few states have split their loyalties more evenly between the two parties in presidential elections, and for generations, Tennessee was a prize to win, frequently visited by candidates of both parties. Lest we forget, as recently as 1996, Tennessee favored the Democrat for president. That changed in 2000, perhaps forever. Ironically, it took Tennessee’s first presidential nominee in more than a century to turn the state against the Democrats. I’m still not sure how that happened. We liked Al Gore as our senator, twice, and as our vice president, twice. Just not as our president. We’re funny that way. Maybe it’s the memory of the last Tennessee president, Andrew Johnson. Maybe we figured a Tennessean headed to the White House is rising above his rearing.

In fact several presidents have made relatively frequent visits. By my count, before Obama’s prospective visit, 23 of our 44 presidents since George Washington have made visits to Knoxville at least long enough to make a speech. (Or 22 of 43, if you don’t count Cleveland twice.) Several of them came three or more times during their administrations.

That’s even though presidential travel was rare before the Civil War—and as far as I know, none of our founding fathers ever had a good look at Tennessee, even though it was here to look at. Some of those who did make it to Knoxville visited to campaign. Others, especially Republicans, have visited to raise money. That’s the other reason to visit. Republican presidents in particular have found it worth more than the Air Force One fuel to make a trip to Knoxville, to host $1,000 a plate dinners.

Democratic presidents have usually visited for other reasons.

Several presidents and presidential candidates of both parties have come to Knoxville expressly to voice their support for the Tennessee Valley Authority. That was part of the reason for Kennedy’s 1960 trip, and a bigger part of the reason for Reagan’s 1980 trip. Reagan had opposed TVA early in his political career, and wanted to come to let us know he’d changed his mind. TVA has been a talking point in most presidential visits to Knoxville, and no president has raised questions about TVA’s long-term viability since Eisenhower called it “creeping socialism.” That is, nobody until Obama—who is, unpredictably, the first president of either party in half a century who hasn’t paid proper homage to our sacred cow.

I can understand how newcomers might have the impression that presidential visits are scant here. No president’s been here in about a decade. I’m not sure there’s been a spell that long without a presidential visit since the Civil War.

It’s partly because W didn’t need another infusion of Knoxville cash after winning re-election in 2004 election. And Obama couldn’t have expected that campaigning in Tennessee would ever produce results. And maybe his questions about TVA might have made him shy about visiting TVA’s headquarters.

Both Presidents George Bush found it profitable to visit Knoxville several times. Ronald Reagan was here at least three times. I’ve seen four or five presidents in downtown Knoxville, myself. The first one I remember, I was a kindergartener waving a little flag with my Republican grandfather in 1964 as Democratic President Lyndon Johnson’s parade went up Cumberland Avenue. I know he didn’t vote for LBJ, but my grandfather seemed very happy to see him in town. (Do Republican grandfathers still take their kids to parades for Democratic presidents?)

JFK was here, Ike was here. I still haven’t proven whether Harry Truman ever got his Knoxville ticket stamped. In the library I can’t find a record of a Truman visit. He was certainly a major figure here, in the era when Oak Ridge and TVA were federal projects under his supervision. He had motives to come here. It would be odd if he didn’t. I was once told by someone old enough to remember that Truman indeed did come here once, but details are elusive.

Franklin Roosevelt came to Knoxville at least three times. Lately there’s been some issue of mistaking old pictures of FDR’s parade down Gay Street in 1936 with his parade down Gay Street, in the same direction, in 1940. They look a lot alike.

However, just before FDR, the three Republican presidents of the 1920s are elusive. I’ve never run across any account of Harding or Coolidge ever darkening our door either during their campaigns or terms in office. Hoover made a car trip through East Tennessee, but a newspaper feature suggests he favored small towns, and may not have come to Knoxville proper.

However, for a long period during Knoxville’s boom years, in the half-century after the Civil War, most U.S. presidents came to Knoxville to give a speech to a big crowd, either during their term in office or in the four years before their first elections.

Wilson came here for a brief whistlestop visit at the Southern station, accompanied by his son in law, who was also his Secretary of the Treasury, former Knoxvillian William McAdoo.

Taft, our heftiest chief, gave a talk at the Hotel Atkin on Depot Street.

Teddy Roosevelt, who was very popular in Knoxville, spoke to roaring crowds here on several occasions. (The Knoxville area even supported TR in 1912, when he was running for a third term as the most liberal of the three candidates, touting, among many other progressive measures, a national health-care policy.)

Going farther back, McKinley came to Knoxville two or three times, before and during his presidency. Grover Cleveland, too, who visited during one of his famously non-sequential terms. Benjamin Harrison was downtown once, as was Rutherford B. Hayes, who gave a big public speech in the front of what’s now the Bijou Theatre on Gay Street.

For President Grant, we might be allowed to fudge a little bit. I don’t know he ever came here as sitting president, but Grant spent about a week in Knoxville about four years before his first election to the presidency. It’s true that he was not giving speeches here, as a politician would. He was a general of an occupying army. Still, it was mainly on Grant’s military record that he was elected, so maybe we can call that campaigning.

Obama’s avoidance of Knoxville until this week was beginning to suggest a new distinction.

Consider this. Since the Civil War, all the presidents who never came to Knoxville—that may include Garfield, Arthur, Harding, Coolidge, Hoover, and (maybe) Truman–were elected only once. Is a Knoxville visit necessary to a successful double-term administration?

I’m not ready to make that claim today. But here, at least, is a damnably vexing question for trivia night. Who was the last president to be elected, and re-elected, without ever visiting Knoxville?

If you guessed Abraham Lincoln, you score a swig of hard cider. He probably never set foot in East Tennessee, even though he had a lot of friends here, and even though his father had lived in Greene County for a while.

Of course, a Knoxville visit would have been inadvisable during most of Lincoln’s administration, because, for more than half of it, Knoxville was deep in enemy territory. Then, even under Union occupation, some disgruntled Confederate might well take a shot.

As was the case even in the Union capital. Lincoln didn’t get to serve much of his second term, just six weeks of it in fact. So that raises another question. Before Obama, who was the last president to be elected, re-elected, and serve more than two months of his second term, without ever seeing Gay Street?

It wasn’t Andrew Jackson, obviously. Between the 1790s and the 1830s, he was probably here dozens of times. Young Hickory kept a room here, in his circuit-judge days, felt comfortable enough here even to challenge local hero John Sevier to a duel in front of the courthouse.

No, the streak goes back further, to our founding fathers. None of them saw much of the nation they founded.

Consider Jefferson. He’s considered the symbolic Southern champion, but in his very long life, he never saw most of the South. He spent a lot of time in Philadelphia, spent years in Paris, but never saw Charleston or Savannah or New Orleans. Or Knoxville. He offered some advice to the founders of our university, but he never crossed our border. In his 83 years, he never ventured south or west of Virginia. Eleven states later formed the Confederacy, but Jefferson never saw more than one of them.

And he was actually better-traveled than some of our founding fathers. In his day, there was no expectation that a leader was obliged to actually visit all the states he governed. It wasn’t just that roads were bad. People just weren’t accustomed to political campaigning, and the flattery that comes with a visit.

He wasn’t the last president to serve two terms without a Knoxville visit. That distinction goes to James Monroe. His famous Doctrine was globally far-reaching, but he wasn’t.

Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all served two full elected terms, and none of them visited Knoxville. Since Monroe, who left office in 1825, every two-full-term president has Knoxville on his resume.

So, in visiting Knoxville this week, just before the halfway mark of his second term, President Obama maintains an obscure 190-year-old streak for the city of Knoxville.

At the same time, he spoils a presidential distinction he almost shared only with our founding fathers.