I’ve been trying not to write this column for at least a year now, but avoiding the subject of Tim Burchett keeps getting harder. The more he talks, the more people ask me what is wrong with him. And, as everybody and their dog knows by now, he talks way too much.
Simple answer is I don’t know. I could speculate that he’s not content to become a beloved-at-home, virtually-unknown-anywhere-else back bench congressman. He’s not going to settle in and enjoy the job security of representing a congressional district that has never elected a Democrat. He’s always been a little bit different, has never shunned publicity, and might not even care if we get his name right.
I can’t even tell you if he actually believes all the Big Foot and UFO theories he promotes, although I’m finally coming around to deciding that he probably does. Tim’s always been a half-bubble off plumb.
Tim and I go back to 1989 when he was one of a group of ambitious College Republicans working on Bud Gilbert’s state senate campaign against incumbent Democrat Bill Owen. I was a political reporter for the Knoxville Journal and Tim and his friend Chris Holzen were assigned to schmooze me – they didn’t admit this until years later, but they weren’t anywhere near as subtle as they thought they were.
That relationship turned into a lasting friendship, despite our age and political differences (they are conservative, I am not, and obviously they are younger than I am). Chris taught me about Sun Tzu and shared insider stories about national political figures. Tim was a natural comic who got me hooked on the best cheap eateries in his end of town. They took me to Hooters for dinner and we watched a local TV anchor make a fool of himself.
Eventually, Chris got a glamorous job overseas and left town for good. We worried about him when he got mixed up in the Ukrainian independence movement and when he got Interpol hunting him after getting accused of being a spy by the Egyptian government.
Meanwhile, back in Knoxville, Tim and I got to know each other’s families, discovered that we were both fans of Flavor Flav and Pizza Palace onion rings. I told him he dressed like an undertaker and that nobody but his mama wanted to hear him brag about being a virgin. He gigged me about my bad taste in men and fussed over my bald tires before he took me to Reasonable Ron’s for an upgrade. We stayed friends, not political friends, for many years and during many troubles.
Turned out that he and his daddy, Charlie, were big fans of my brother John’s prank phone call tapes, and Tim would later help shepherd a song John wrote through the legislative process of becoming a state song. We attended funerals and I tried to make the best of his sudden first marriage. I wrote his parents’ obituaries. He came to my parents’ funerals.
Meanwhile, he started his long, slow climb in politics by running for state representative and has never lost an election.
Over the years, we found projects (some secret, some not) to take on – Danny Mayfield’s city council campaign, getting a child molester removed from a job in an after-school hangout, or (my all-time favorite), helping longtime Broadway Exxon owner Alvin Frye survive an attempt by his gasoline supplier to put him out of business.
Alvin, a spry, twinkly-eyed veteran of World War II and the Korean War, was in his 90s. His “No Beer, No Cigarettes, No Lottery Tickets” service station was a beloved Fountain City landmark. Tim was county mayor by then, and we hatched a plan: he got up a cash mob, enlisted veterans’ groups, and I wrote stories in the Shopper that got picked up by almost every news outlet in the area. The result was a modern-day David and Goliath story with a touch of Mayberry. The best part was Alvin got to see how much he meant to the community he’d served so faithfully. Tim, his wife Kelly and daughter Isabelle and I celebrated over dinner at Litton’s afterward. It was one of the best days ever.
All this is preamble to my attempted answer to the question posed in the first paragraph of this column.
Tim and I have barely talked at all since January 6, 2021, when I called him on his cell phone to see if he was OK. I was watching the violence unfold and was worried about him. To my great relief, he answered the phone. But the conversation was strained from the beginning. He was flippant and dismissive as he downplayed the event into something that did not begin to comport with the scene that was unfolding on my television screen. I snapped and started quoting the Bible (you know things are bad when I do that). I was yelling at him about reaping the whirlwind and he was yelling back. We ended the call abruptly and, for the most part, stopped talking to each other for a good long time. I called him after Isabelle’s terrible accident (she’s a great kid, by the way, and I miss seeing her and her mom).
Early last year, Tim called and asked me to help him persuade Chris to get out of Ukraine because the Russian invasion was about to start. He said it would be apocalyptic. Chris, taking his cues from Ukrainian leadership, was in disbelief that Vladimir Putin would really do the terrible things he was threatening. He and the Ukrainian government were, of course, wrong.
When Tim and I do have one of those vanishingly rare conversations, I realize that I miss my old friend.
But I don’t miss the guy whose tweets send my blood pressure into the stratosphere almost every morning when I check on what’s happening in the world.
I almost aspirated my coffee Monday when I read his flippant and disrespectful tweet about soldiers wearing dresses (obviously a MAGA talking point). This is so unlike the Tim Burchett who wore a copper MIA bracelet bearing the name of a soldier lost in Vietnam and didn’t take it off for at least 10 years. That Tim Burchett, though he never served in the military, had enough respect for those who did serve not to turn them into dumb rightwing talking points.
I’d barely gotten over the soldiers in dresses remark when the dreadful news about the Nashville school shooting came in. Then I saw a small press gaggle catch Tim on the Capitol steps to ask him what he thought about the Nashville massacre. I knew it was going to be bad, but Tim outdid himself and became the butt of late-night talk show jokes. It didn’t take Vanity Fair long to put up this headline:
“Tennessee Rep. Tim Burchett wins award for most f- -ked-up response to Covenant School shooting.
“Given the remarks from other members of his party, that’s saying something.”
Here was the part that most shocked me: “… And my daddy fought in the Second World War, fought in the Pacific, fought the Japanese, and he told me, he said, ‘Buddy, if somebody wants to take you out and doesn’t mind losing their life, there’s not a whole heck of a lot you can do about it.’”
These are little children learning new math and phonics, Tim – not United States Marines preparing for the Bataan Death March. If you can’t think of anything to do about the slaughter of walking, talking children whose parents love them as much as you love Izzy, maybe you need to quit calling yourself pro-life.
You’re killing me, Tim. Even before you became BFFs with some of the most venal, untruthful and self-serving people in Congress. Your mamma wouldn’t like them a bit, and you know that.
Please stop this.
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.