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Something Southern // NASHVILLE'S MACHINE AGE


Stolen Elections, Southern Politics and a City's Coming of Age

By James D. Squires

Times Books, $25

Reviewed by Chris Sherman

It's tempting to think that American letters would be much poorer if Louisiana's Huey Long had never existed. Without the populist demagogue we would not have had Robert Penn Warren's All the King's Men or all the other tales of young people seduced and betrayed by the promise of politicians, including this years' anonymous Washington novel Primary Colors or the movie City Hall.

A needless worry. Even without Huey, American history can supply all the flawed saviors our writers need. The latest clay footprints recorded are of the machine politicians, led by Garner Robinson, who ruled middle Tennessee with savvy deals, unsavory vote counts, patronage and the muscle of state troopers during the decades that shaped the modern South.

Don't look for Boss Hogg or country music here. This was the Nashville of genteel money and belching factories, with the same illegal whiskey, gambling and crooked politics as New Orleans or Chicago. Same tommy guns, fast cars and fedoras, burgeoning suburbs, Ivy League lawyers and do-good reformers too.

The naive young man watching and retelling this story is James Squires, a real-live newsman with family ties to the machine. He was the working class grandson of a Robinson trooper who guarded the Hopewell box, ballots from a back country precinct that often came in late but with the right votes.

Squires wound up working for the machine's archenemy, the Nashville Tennesseean newspaper and went on to edit the Orlando Sentinel and the Chicago Tribune until he returned to another kind of politics in 1992 as a spokesman for H. Ross Perot.

What begins as a boy's wide-eyed view of politics from the running board wavers between memoir and turgid analysis that can be tedious going.

But he has much to tell. Squires saw Nashville grow from Prohibition and the Depression to become a landmark in progressive struggles: civil rights, reapportionment, the overthrow of Teamster Jimmy Hoffa and the establishment of a pioneering city-county metropolitan government.

Squires' perspective varies from objective to sympathetic, but his insider's view is invaluable to anyone who wants to know how local politics worked in the days when politicians did their own talking and listening.

The machine politicians were a complex lot, few of them pure good or evil, starting with the first "Boss" Robinson who had become a power on the wrong side of the Cumberland River by giving generous credit at his general store _ and passing out cash to Democratic voters for the Crump machine. Son Garner got his start in the family's new funeral parlor. With hearses doubling as ambulances for the rural poor, the young man became a familiar figure at any crisis. After he got a seat on the county court, he used the old family formula of generosity and a wide circle of contacts _ until his upstart cronies ran the city from their own antebellum clubhouse.

Alliances and rivalries between city and county machines, progressives and Neanderthals and the new forces of black voters and Republicans shift over 30 years. All of them move election dates, change primary rules or flat out steal votes.

In telling his story, Squires knows that race was tragically important: His grandfather Dave was one of the men pulling the triggers that killed two black prisoners in an uprising after World War II, and the author himself confronted sit-in protesters as a drugstore soda jerk (and served them). All along, however, Robinson and the other Democratic bosses saw the value of black votes, and Squires notes proudly the other white leaders and journalists who made Nashville relatively progressive. An account from the black perspective would not be so forgiving. But Squires' subject is the city's actual politics, by definition white and neglectful of the black citizenry; telling how it worked and changed is insightful.

More surprising and most revealing is Squires' description of the newspapers' roles within Nashville's power structure, with the Tennessean and the Banner battling for control of the agenda and the players. Although Squires delights in the Tennessean's glory days when the newsroom was filled with once and future Kennedy aides fighting the good fight, he never loses the perspective of a local boy intimate with politicians who colluded with drunken reporters and pompous editors _ or were targeted for muckraking investigations and scandalous headlines.

Decades later Nashville, politics and journalism are different. Although Robinson's daughter mastered TV enough to become a popular judge, the Robinson gang has been turned out and disgraced. Squires' granddad lost all his brass and the clout to even make sergeant. The fact that Squires had succeeded in journalism only added to the sadness of the trips home for funerals.

Machine politicians were not bad people, and there was perhaps genuine democracy in their ward-heeler politics, Squires argues. For him, their passing merits mourning, not the smug editorializing of corporate-owned newspapers and sound-bite newscasts.

Chris Sherman is a Times staff writer.