“Southern political personalities, like sweet corn, travel badly. They lose flavor with every hundred yards away from the patch.”
Those are the words of A. J. Liebling, the late, great New Yorker writer. They come from his book, The Earl of Louisiana, a portrait of Earl Long, brother to Huey, who won the Louisiana governorship while dodging mental health officials and trumpeting the slogan, “Vote for Earl Long; I ain’t crazy.”
Louisiana, however, has no lock on curious political folk. I grew up near Macon, Georgia, where, in the 1970s, Mayor Ronnie Thompson was famous for singing gospel, brandishing a machine gun, and, in an effort to protect the Piedmont river town from Russian attack, purchasing an amphibious armored car.
I could go on. I could talk of Wilbur Mills, the U.S. senator from Arkansas who famously squired Fanne Foxe, an Argentine stripper, around D.C., until, in the aftermath of a minor car crash, she made her escape by way of the Tidal Basin.
But I’ll pull up short. My point is this: Here in the South, we have a long history of goofball politicians, inclined toward acting up and acting out. And, as Liebling wrote, some of that acting up and acting out doesn’t play well beyond our borders.
Tennessee is the latest locus for such folk. While this year’s session of the Tennessee legislature will not earn Long-worthy infamy, the laws it passed are worth noting, especially as they related to distilled spirits.
One recent move was flat-out rational:
For decades, distillation of drinkable spirits could only occur in three Tennessee counties: Lincoln, Moore, and Coffee. In July, the legislature, acknowledging the micro-distillery boom, and hoping to spur cultural and culinary tourism, voted to allow the distillation of whiskey in 41 more counties. As a result, a number of small distilleries will soon join industry behemoths Jack Daniel’s and George Dickel in filtering corn whiskey through charcoal. (Prichard’s, a small-shop maker of rum in Kelso, Tennessee, was already in the pot-still game.)
The other move, however, was confounding:
In that same session, the legislature voted to permit the carrying of a gun in a restaurant or bar that serves distilled spirits. The law, which also took effect in July, retains an existing ban on consuming alcohol while carrying a handgun, and restaurant owners may still opt to ban weapons from their establishments.
Dig into the rhetoric and you’ll recognize that this second legal edict owes little to the irrational nature of the legislature and a lot to the lobbying efforts of second amendment-thumping N.R.A accolytes.
No matter the impulse, the action seems, here in the sober light of day, well, crazy.