Commentary: A guy named Bill

I grew up admiring Bill Lee. I miss that guy.

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE - JULY 15: Tennessee Governor Bill Lee gives the command to start engines prior to the NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on July 15, 2020 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
BRISTOL, TENNESSEE - JULY 15: Tennessee Governor Bill Lee gives the command to start engines prior to the NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on July 15, 2020 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

When I was growing up in Franklin, there was this guy, a few years older than me, who I sure looked up to.

His name was Bill.

He was a paragon: Smart. Nice-looking. Excelled at everything he put his hand to. In 4-H, he and his siblings dominated every project in which they competed, from electric to cattle. Livestock is the queen of 4-H and city kids like me, whose projects were entomology — “Know your common garden pests!” — played second fiddle to the farm kids like Bill. 

If you were a boy, your mom asked why you couldn’t be more like Bill. If you were a girl, your mom sighed about why you couldn’t date a nice boy like Bill. 

He was salutatorian of his high school class, voted “Most Outstanding Boy,” and he graduated and went off to study engineering at a nice SEC school.

Gov. Bill Lee, Most Outstanding Boy, Franklin High School. (Photo: 1977 Franklin High yearbook)
Gov. Bill Lee, Most Outstanding Boy, Franklin High School. (Photo: 1977 Franklin High yearbook)

Now, of course, he’s not just ‘Bill.’ He’s Gov. Lee. And my old role model has been a gross disappointment. 

Not because he and I differ ideologically on most things, as we do. When he was elected, I told worried friends: He’s a good and decent person. I think he will do the right thing.

I was wrong. 

More than 18 months into his tenure and I’ll argue he hasn’t done much of anything, and when he does make a decision, it’s typically the worst possible choice. 

At no time has that been more clear than the last few months. His handling of all things pandemic has been abysmal and this week has been stupefying even to those of us who are used to scrutinizing elected officials. 

  • Monday, Dr. Deborah Birx, an esteemed public health expert and President Donald Trump’s Coronavirus Response Coordinator, visited Nashville. She repeatedly and bluntly said mask-wearing is beneficial in stopping the spread of COVID-19, urged a statewide mask mandate and pointed out Trump is even wearing a mask, urging his supporters to do the same. 
  • Lee has proven to be a Trump loyalist so one might think the final point would sway him. But minutes later, when questioned by local media about following her suggestions, Lee calmly responded: “That’s not a plan for us.”
  • The next day, he issued an executive order that said, among other things, “In-person learning is the medically sound, preferred option.” He responded to a question about his decision on in-person school by saying, “There’s going to be a nationwide experiment in this.”
  • That same day, Tennessee Lookout senior reporter Nate Rau broke the story that two staff members at a Nashville school tested positive for COVID-19 after a planning session, with 18 more in quarantine.
  • Penny Schwinn, Ph.D., Lee’s commissioner of Education, said Tuesday the rise in student hunger while school is out of session is a compelling reason to send kids back to the classroom. 
  • Thursday, The Tennessean broke a story that belies any words about concern for hungry children: The state is on the verge of forfeiting over $60 million in funds to help low income families feed their children. In short, Tennessee requires an additional application, an extra hoop to jump through, for families who get free or reduced school lunches to access the funds allocated for them during the pandemic.

Other Southern states with conservative governors, including Alabama and Mississippi, have simply distributed electronic cards directly to families who qualify. Not Tennessee. 

And that’s just this week. I haven’t even listed all his other poor decisions that have led to court cases and corresponding expenditures of taxpayer money.

Williamson County 4-H Electric Contest winners, circa 1973, with Gov. Bill Lee standing at far left. (Photo: Review Appeal/writer's collection)
Williamson County 4-H Electric Contest winners, circa 1973, with Gov. Bill Lee standing at far left. (Photo: Review Appeal/writer’s collection)

These decisions beg the question of whose welfare Bill Lee is concerned about. This is not only a lack of leadership at the executive level, it’s no leadership at all. 

I recently reminisced with a friend who graduated with Lee in the Franklin High Class of 1977. She spoke of seeing Lee last at a 2017 class reunion, when the former Most Outstanding Boy talked of his gubernatorial campaign and she, like others, looked upon him with pride and anticipation.

“I keep thinking, I hope people realize Bill played us all at the class reunion when he announced his run,” she says now. 

Gov. Lee played a whole bunch of people. I’m no fan of Gov. Lee, but I sure miss that guy Bill I used to admire.