Bredesen speaks in Chattanooga, hours before Trump rally

Democratic Senate candidate Phil Bredesen speaks at a fundraiser in Nashville on Aug. 20, 2018. (Erik Schelzig, Tennessee Journal)

Democratic Senate candidate Phi Bredesen held a rally on Sunday in Chattanooga just hours before President Donald Trump was scheduled to  come to the city to headline an event for Republican rival Marsha Blackburn.

“If the previous two visits are any guide, he’ll have plenty of derogatory things to say about me,” Bredesen said in his prepared remarks.

“That’s OK — politics today is a blood sport — but I’ve come here to show that there are other ways to campaign and to present your case to the people of Tennessee,” Bredesen said. “We should vote people in and out, not shout them in and out.”

Bredesen praised retiring Sen. Bob Corker (R-Chattanooga), who “is understandably not here with us” — but was also not attending the Blackburn rally because of an unspecified prior engagement.

“I want everyone to know that I admire the job he did as Chattanooga’s mayor, and I respect enormously how he has carried himself in his two terms in the United States Senate,” Bredesen said. “As you all know, I’m seeking to follow him in that seat, and it would be a privilege to do so.”

Here is the full speech as prepared for delivery:

Mayor Berke, thank you for your hospitality today, and for all that you are doing for Chattanooga. As a former mayor myself, I admire and respect your work, and the city is fortunate to have someone of your work ethic and good will leading it. I hope to have many opportunities to work with you in the future.

I also want to acknowledge this afternoon another prominent Chattanoogan, Bob Corker. He is understandably not here with us, but I want everyone to know that I admire the job he did as Chattanooga’s Mayor, and I respect enormously how he has carried himself in his two terms in the United States Senate. As you all know, I’m seeking to follow him in that seat, and it would be a privilege to do so.

I enjoy being with each of you any time, but I’m sure you recognize that my presence here today is related to the visit by the President of the United States this evening. He is coming on a campaign stop for my opponent, and if the previous two visits are any guide, he’ll have plenty of derogatory things to say about me. I have to say, I will be glad when the campaign is over this Tuesday and the unending stream of negative ads stops.

My grandkids’ dog Bella watches television, and Bella won’t even look me in the eye anymore.

That’s OK — politics today is a blood sport — but I’ve come here to show that there are other ways to campaign and to present your case to the people of Tennessee. My family taught me their values, and one of them was that you respected everyone. The heat of a political campaign doesn’t change that.

We should vote people in and out, not shout them in and out.

Nevertheless, I want to emphasize this: that whatever is said in the heat of the campaign won’t affect my willingness, eagerness even, to work with the President. When this election is over, it’s over. I’m not running against the President; if he is for something that is good for Tennessee, I need to support him in that. If it’s bad for Tennessee, I need to oppose him.

I’ll feel the same if there is a Democratic President. While I was Governor, there were numerous times that I strongly supported President Bush, especially in national security and border control matters. And there were several times that I opposed President Obama—expressing disagreement with parts of the Affordable Care Act and what I thought was some regulatory overreach in other areas.

I have something I’d like to talk with you about this afternoon: My re-entry into public life this past year has made two things clear to me.

First, I love my country and Tennessee very much. Andrea and I arrived here in the mid-1970s as newlyweds—10 months—in a Volkswagen, not knowing anyone, and got a furnished apartment to start our lives in Tennessee together. We are living proof that America is the land of opportunity.

Second, I love my country very much, and I hate to see it lose its way. It’s not just this campaign season or the past couple of years, it’s been going on for a couple of decades now. Washington is mired in the worst kinds of partisanship, leaders of both parties seem to feel that purposefully setting Americans against each other is somehow acceptable or even desirable. Public discourse has reached new levels of incivility.

Consider a marriage: any marriage has arguments from time to time. But in those arguments, we all know that however strongly we might feel, however angry we might be, there are some things you just don’t say. There’s a line you don’t cross. If you do, you can’t go back, the damage is permanent.

With our political arguments, we’ve stepped over that line. And just as stepping over that line in a marriage corrodes and weakens it, stepping over it in our political discourse corrodes and weakens our nation. Listen to the President when he is here tonight and imagine putting his words into the mouths of Ronald Reagan or John Kennedy. You can’t do it; they both would have stopped well short of what I expect this evening. Or, for that matter, listen to some of the President’s critics on TV tonight; same thing.

I want to tell you about something that happened to me, when I was in my 20s.

I grew up in my grandmother’s house in a small farming town in upstate New York: Shortsville, population 1100, one traffic light. I grew up hunting and fishing, I worked evenings and Saturdays at the local Rexall drugstore, I graduated with 42 others from our public high school—Red Jacket Central

Then, at the age of seventeen, I found myself at Harvard. Surrounded by young men who’d already had amazing opportunities in life, who’d been to the best prep schools, who had plenty of walking around money, who had already seen the world. It was an overwhelming and discouraging experience, and so I looked around and decided that I needed to reinvent myself.

I hate to admit it today, but I was just a little embarrassed by my background. My family weren’t corporate executives, or doctors, or lawyers, or college professors. They were an office clerk, a mail carrier, a seamstress, a bank teller. I spent a lot of my 20s trying to leave Shortsville behind, to reinvent myself to be more like others whose lives I envied.

When Andrea and I started dating, she never believed in that idea of reinvention, and one day before we were married she gave me a gift. It was a piece of driftwood on which she had carved, “Life is discovering yourself.” She was telling me to stop looking outside, stop referencing myself to others, to quiet my mind and look inside for what was important. I did so, it changed my life and gave me a much stronger and more reliable center than anything I could invent.

America seems as confused today about who it is as I was about myself in my 20s. We should turn off the tv and smartphone, look inside ourselves, and seek to rediscover just who we really are.

When we do, I think one of the things we’ll discover is that we are at heart pioneers. We’re the people who came to the New World; and who then came West, to Tennessee among other places.

Those pioneers were resourceful; they found new ways to get what they needed done, and one of those new ways was a barn-raising. We’re pioneers, and with that we’re barn-raisers.

So I want to tell you about barn raising.

Think about the work it took for pioneers to carve a new life out of unsettled land. They were farmers and they had to clear fields, dig wells, plant crops. And before that first crop was in, they had to build a barn. This wasn’t something a pioneer family could do alone. So, when the time came, they asked their neighbors for help.

Imagine that barn-raising with me for a moment. A cleared field surrounded by forest. A log cabin where the family lived off on one side.

The sky is just getting light, it’s still cool, but men and women are coming together, crossing the field, from all directions. Pretty soon you can hear the saws, and the hammers, and voices and shouts. A little later, the sun is on the field, and you can start to see the framework of the barn taking shape.

The men and women working together were human and imperfect; just as human and imperfect as we are today. They held grudges. They had disagreements and arguments. Some were friends, others didn’t want anything to do with each other. But on barn-raising day, they did something special. For a day, they put aside their differences and were just neighbors. They got to work, and the next morning the sun came up on a new barn, one that hadn’t been there yesterday.

That morning might have been a couple of hundred years ago, but the impulse it reflected is just as relevant today: sometimes we have to put our personal grudges, our likes and dislikes aside and work together for a while. We do that sometimes—most people in this room work in some organization, and it’s safe to assume that you don’t agree with or even like everyone you work with. But you set that aside so that the job at hand can be done.

But in our national politics, we’ve lost that touch. The grudges and disagreements have become too great for us to become neighbors for a while and raise a barn.

My mission here today is to ask you to join me in fixing this.

I still have a high school civics class view of my government. I believe that it was brilliantly designed by our Founders—a government of three equal branches, acting as a check and balance on one another, protecting against abuses of power. A Constitution and a Bill of Rights. A government run by elected officials, making thoughtful choices to the best of their ability.

Most important, I was taught to believe in American exceptionalism, and I do. While there are those who regard the concept as old-fashioned, or naïve, or arrogant, I don’t. America is different, it’s special, we’re not just one more nation on the world stage. We have a special destiny.

Many of those who originally settled our land left behind palace intrigues, decay, intolerance. They dreamt of something new, something better, something exceptional. Their descendants have helped keep that dream alive.

I believe in that dream, that destiny, and I will not give up on it.

I’m not here to make an academic speech. I’m in the final days of a political campaign for the United States Senate. If the people of Tennessee choose me next Tuesday to represent them in Washington, I know there are practical, pragmatic things I can do to help. I’m sure, for example, I can lead some progress on health care, especially in dealing with pre-existing conditions and drug costs.

But more than anything else, I want to roll up my sleeves, I want to go to work to restore that idea that America is something new, something exceptional.

Ancestors came here to escape palace intrigues; we are awash in them today, in both the White House and the halls of Congress. They wanted to escape the decay of the institutions of their government; but does anybody think that the Senate—sometimes called the greatest deliberative body in the world—does anybody still think the Senate actually deliberates about anything? They wanted to escape intolerance; intolerance is the stuff of headlines as we speak. And intolerance is not limited to the right; I’ve experienced plenty from the left as well.

Voters in Tennessee are going to have a real choice in a couple of days. For those who are pleased with what our government is becoming, who believe in hard-edged partisanship, that people with different views from their own are the enemy, no compromise, I’m not their guy. They have another choice, someone who has helped build that world for the past 16 years, is steeped in it, and is good at it.

I want something different. I believe leadership is working to find common ground, not to divide. In independence of thought. In deliberation and compromise and getting things done. And yes, I believe in American exceptionalism.

We shouldn’t put up with intrigue and corruption and intolerance. Our forebears came here to escape all that; leave it behind.

The belief that America is exceptional, that we’ve been given the opportunity and the charge to be the standard of civility, the model of enlightened self-government, is not partisan.

Leaders as diverse as Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, as John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan have embraced it.

This is a room of people of faith. Religion is built on faith, but so is America. Today, I challenge you and I challenge myself to devote ourselves to restoring the faith that has sustained America—that it’s our destiny to occupy an exceptional place in the world.”


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