The first week of freshman orientation, a couple of newly elected members-to-be of the U.S. House of Representatives – a Republican and a Democrat – were walking out of an ethics meeting designed to instill the fear of God into the newbies. The Republican, a virtual unknown on the national scene, decided to break the ice by asking the Democrat, a former secretary of Health and Human Services, university president, president of the Clinton Foundation and recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom (awarded by George W. Bush), an impertinent question:
“Is it true that you and the Clintons cut a deal with the devil to stay in power?”
At first, Donna Shalala couldn’t decide how to react to Tim Burchett’s out-of-left-field question.
“She looked at me for a long second, and then she laughed and said, ‘We’re going to get along just fine.’”
Thereafter, when Shalala would run into him on The Hill, she’d say, “There’s that boy from Tennessee.”
That the conservative, Trump-supporting 54-year-old Burchett would so quickly forge a friendship with a 77-year-old colleague whose politics are so different from his own should surprise exactly nobody. Burchett has a history of working across the aisle, as it used to be called when such friendships were considered a positive thing (think Ronald Reagan and Tip O’Neill).
It’s also consistent with some advice he got from someone he quotes frequently – his daddy, World War II veteran Charlie Burchett:
“(Being in Congress) reminds me of what my dad told me about the invasion of Peleliu. He looked over the side of the amphibious vessel and saw 20 Marines get hit by a lucky strike. They were almost all dead, including the tough guys in the front of the boat. Then he saw an older guy that’d probably been in World War I sitting in the back, and said, ‘That’s the guy I’m going in with.’
“So I’m looking around to see the ones who’ve been there before.”
(Lest anybody think that Burchett’s becoming a Washington liberal, ultraconservative House Whip Steve Scalice is one of his favorite new colleagues, and Vice President Mike Pence made a video for him to send to his wife, Kelly, who is home in Knoxville with their daughter, Isabelle.)
Although D.C. is a whole new ballgame for the former Knox County mayor/state legislator, he says that there’s a certain déjà vu about the experience, and that some things in Washington seem almost eerily similar to Nashville, though he’s playing on a bigger field now, with more to lose.
“You walk by somebody and they’re talking about something that’s in the national news. It’s like playing JV football and all of a sudden you’re on the varsity. There are so many of us I just kind of blend in and realize I’m No. 436. The president’s not going to call me to negotiate a trade deal.”
That realization, of course, didn’t stop him from telling a gaggle of reporters that he and POTUS are like peas and carrots.
“I told them my golf clubs are coming, and that I’d talked to the president, and he said if the weather clears up, we’ll be playing this week. They were like, ‘Wow,’ and started writing stuff down.”
His traveling companion on these trips to D.C. has been Michael Grider, who was most recently Burchett’s public information director during his tenure as county mayor. (The two are being coy about confirming rumors that Grider will become Burchett’s chief of staff.) Grider has been attending meetings for new staff members and making arrangements for Washington lodging and transportation.
Grider, whom staffers are already calling “Big Sexy,” the moniker Burchett hung on him years ago, said his boss’s press-friendly ways are pretty different than most others in this new environment.
“They keep the press segregated,” Burchett said. “Reporters are three deep, but everybody’s keeping away from them, which I find sort of weird. So I walk up to them and they ask if I’d answer some questions. A lady runs up to Michael and says, ‘Your guy’s over there talking to the press.’”
Grider grinned: “I said, ‘Ma’am, that cow left the barn a long time ago.’”
Burchett said this orientation isn’t really much different than others he has weathered.
“After you get through the excitement, it’s all business. You get up in the morning, eat your complimentary Continental breakfast and you go to a meeting. After that, you go to another meeting, then you go to lunch where there’s a meeting, then you go to two more meetings and then you go to supper where there’s another meeting, and every night there’s a reception.
“Then you go to the airport and sit there listening to people telling their life stories. On the way home last week, I sat next to a big old guy – never told him who I was – and as he got up, he said, ‘You know what’s the only thing I want you to do?’
I said, “Make these seats a little bigger?”
“He said, ‘Absolutely.’ He knew who I was the whole time.”