Walker Webcast: Former Governor of Tennessee Bill Haslam on Unifying the Nation


Former Governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam, learned valuable lessons during his time in office, including how to find common ground among allies and opponents. On this episode of the Walker Webcast, he and Willy discussed his book, Faithful Presence, his business and political career, factors impacting our nation's political divide, the role that faith should play in government, and so much more.  

Willy welcomes Bill Haslam, former two-term mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee, and former two-term Governor of Tennessee. Bill was reelected in 2014 with the largest victory margin of any election in Tennessee history. During his tenure, Tennessee became the fastest improving state in the country in K-12 education. In his term, Tennessee was the first state to provide free community college or technical school for all citizens and also added 475,000 net new jobs. Since then, Bill has served on the board of Teach for America and Young Life. He is a visiting professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. He is also a graduate of Emory University, and he and his wife of 40 years, Crissy, have three children and ten grandchildren. 

Willy starts off by asking Bill what made him change his mind about teaching and going to seminary school after he graduated. Bill describes how his father told him that if he wanted to end up in church, it would be a good idea to learn the business first so he could have that background and better empathize with people in the congregation. He intended to work for his father's family-run business, Pilot, for a few years but stayed for 20 because he loved the challenging and interesting environment. Bill left the very successful family company to become CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue because he was ready to be somewhere where his name wasn't on the door. Bill describes how it was the beginning of online fashion and was a big change and challenge, and how he didn't plan to be there long-term. About that time, a number of people started recruiting him for the Mayor of Knoxville. Bill explains the "Friday Five" by saying he started meeting every Friday morning with a group of four other guys to talk about life together. His wife, Crissy, told him he should consider running for mayor, and when he brought it to the five, they all said he should go for it. He states that these four men in his life knew him, so he trusted them to help him make the big decisions in his life. 

In his book, Faithful Presence, Bill extensively writes about how he loved being mayor and running the city of Knoxville. Bill talks about how Americans have become more performative in nature rather than informative. He states that we have become so separated and polarized that we can't solve problems, so we need to support people who can. Bill also describes how he felt very vulnerable when he ran because you are being evaluated all the time, and it makes you see yourself in ways you haven't seen yourself before. He also discusses how his business background helped him to develop an excellent team in office and understand the basic budget confidently. 

Willy asks Bill about the Affordable Care Act, and Bill sums up his decisions in office by stating that it's more important to get to the right answer than our answer. Bill also decided not to run for Senate because he had spent 16 years in office and wanted to go back to real life and he felt discouraged. Bill wanted to tackle the debt problem, but faced many people who didn't want to because it was too challenging. Bill goes on to talk about how hard-fought politics are in America's history, but now is the first time in history we can choose how to receive our news, and we like to hear information that confirms what we think. He discusses how America's views are split half and half as a nation, but no one thinks that because we only talk to people who think like us. 

Also, Bill talks about how people need to be more involved in politics but also care less about it too. Americans get frustrated with politics, and their reaction is to not get involved anymore, but he encourages people to not withdraw from the process and not to place their identity in politics. He states that people are not evil if they disagree with you. Willy also asks Bill about how to look for someone with faith in the office, and Bill talks about how Christians are called to be different. Bill goes on to say that we justify things politically as Christians that we would never justify in any other thing in our life because the stakes are so high. Bill discusses how Jesus calls us to be faithful regardless of the circumstances, and that truth is not relative. 

Willy and Bill then discuss that as a Christian, you should stay steadfast and sure in what you believe, but the other side might have a point. Bill states that you shouldn't change your view for political advantage, but you are allowed to change and come to new conclusions. Bill also talks about how Americans are hiring certain types of people to lead us, but we need to consider what are the good qualities of a boss that we would like to work for and hire the right candidates instead. Bill says some of the best leaders are people who were clear about the mission they were on and how the story wasn't about themselves. Bill also talks about how one big mistake he made as Governor was pushing off pardon requests until the end of the term. He discusses how the pardon of Cyntoia Brown received a lot of media attention, but he did his research, and Bill came to the conclusion that her life had been changed and that it was better for society to have her outside of prison than inside. He talks about how they have met several times since releasing her and that God created a beautiful tapestry of their story in that she was also praying for their decision of her pardon as well. In their closing remarks, Bill says that he isn't sure yet about running for the presidential election, but he hopes to serve in a public role again. 

Key ideas:

1:13- Willy introduces today’s guest, Bill Haslam. 
2:14 - Bill’s decision to start off in business after graduating. 
4:24 - Why Bill left Pilot to become a CEO of Saks Fifth Avenue. 
5:45 - The Friday Five and how they influenced his decision to run for mayor. 
9:02 - The idea of supporting people who can solve problems. 
10:00 - Feelings of vulnerability in running. 
11:38 - How his background in business helped him in office. 
16:18 - Always remember the other fella might be right.
19:33 - Decision not to run for senate. 
21:40 - The idea of hard-fought politics.  
35:20 - The idea of being more involved in politics, but caring less. 
30:45 - The conflict between what Christians stand for and what they look for in politics. 
34:50 - How to get truth and right back into the dialogue.
37:18 - Decision not to make the bible the state book of Tennessee. 
41:19 - Ideology of politics. 
43:45 - Biblical truth in politics. 
49:00 - The Cyntoia Brown pardon. 
52:54 - Any chance of running for presidency. 
54:10 - Closing remarks. 

Webcast transcript: 

Willy Walker: Good afternoon to all of you on the East Coast and good morning to all of you in further points to the West. It's an honor and a real pleasure to have Governor Bill Haslam joining me today. I've been a big fan of Governor Haslam when he was in office. Now that he's out of office, I’ve become even a bigger fan, given what he has written about and what he has been working on at Vanderbilt University. But we'll get to that in a moment. Let me do a quick introduction, Governor, and then we'll dive into our conversation. 

Governor Bill Haslam is the former two term mayor of Knoxville, Tennessee, and former two term Governor of Tennessee, re-elected in 2014 with the largest victory margin of any gubernatorial election in Tennessee history. During his tenure, Tennessee became the fastest improving state in the country in K-12 Education and the first state to provide free community college or technical school for all of its citizens. The state also added 475,000 net new jobs during the governor's tenure. Haslam serves on the boards of Teach for America and Young Life and is a visiting professor of political science at Vanderbilt University. He's a graduate of Emory University, and he and his wife of 40 years, Crissy, have three children and ten grandchildren. 

Governor, let's start here. When you graduated from Emory, I believe your plan was to teach for a couple of years and then attend seminary. What happened to make you go off that path of becoming a teacher and going to seminary and joining the family company Pilot Corporation? 

Bill Haslam: I have a very wise father who also is a Horatio Alger story himself. And he had basically started but one closed down gas station and transformed it into a company that today sells about 12 billion gallons of fuel a year. But he came to me at the time and said, “Listen, if you really think you're going to end up in the church, wouldn't it be helpful to understand the business for a little bit? So rather than go teach for two years, you know what schools like. Why don't you come into business for a couple of years, learn that world, and then you can better empathize with people that end up in your congregation.” And I thought that was great advice. So, I went for two years and stayed for 20 plus because it was just such a challenging, interesting environment and kind of figured out that was the right place for me rather than going to seminary and being in a church like I had originally thought. 

Willy Walker: So, Pilot today is the seventh largest privately held company in the United States and employs, I think, 28,000 team members. First, it must give you great pride and joy that both your father, your brother and now your niece as well as yourself, have all built that company into such an incredible company. Just for a moment, Governor, given where fuel prices are and where the economy is today, I realize you're not in the company on a day to day basis, but what's your outlook as it relates to the U.S. economy and most particularly fuel, given that were the price of WTI crude I think fell below $100 today, down to 95 bucks a barrel? 

Bill Haslam: Yes. So, there's been some encouraging signs recently. I still think we have a basic supply and demand issue. And I think as a country, I'm going to overgeneralize, but we've got a lot of things to incentivize demand, but not supply. And we're seeing the consequences of that. So, I think it will get some better. I think you're starting to see that. I don’t see a fundamental change that it's going to take it back down to the kind of prices we normally associate with what you pay at the pump any time soon. 

Willy Walker: You left the family company, governor to go and be CEO of saksfifthavenue.com. Help me understand leading a wildly successful family company in the services and oil business to going to a dot-com in the early 2000.

Bill Haslam: Well, I think it's a logical jump to go from truck stops to fashion on the Internet. That felt very logical to me. You know, it was interesting. I had been at our family company for 20 years and I was ready to be somewhere where my name wasn't on the door, if you will. And those were the brand-new days of Internet retailing. And this is the late nineties, early 2000s and people are literally making it up as they go. But that was interesting to me. So, it became, how do you take this brand, Saks Fifth Avenue, internationally known, translate it onto the Internet and build a strategic plan and a team to make that last. And so, all those were interesting things to me. And I also knew I wasn't going to do it forever. A friend of mine was the CEO of Saks at that point, said, “Hey, why don't you come for a couple of years, help us figure out how to do this, and then you'll be free to go without any long-term obligation. It was just a really fun and different challenge. 

Willy Walker: So, your father had been involved in Republican politics for quite some time. And in the early 2000s, a number of people in the Republican Party in Tennessee started to recruit you to run for mayor of Knoxville. And you write in your book about a meeting that you had with your "Friday Five," which gave you the encouragement to jump in. Can you describe what the Friday Five is and what they said to you that got you to throw your hat in the ring to run for mayor of Knoxville? 

Bill Haslam: From early in my marriage, early in my business career, I started meeting every Friday morning with four other guys. There was a dentist, a lawyer, a banker, and a guy that was in sales. And we met every Friday morning just to talk about life — everything from raising kids, to our marriages, to how we were spending our money, to what decisions we were making in business. And we just started sharing life in that way and I found it to be incredibly helpful. And so, when I had a big decision like this, people had approached me and said, “Why don’t you run for mayor?” To be honest with you, first, I laughed and said “You got the wrong guy. I have no interest.” But they said, “Why don't you at least think and pray about it?” It's kind of hard to tell people you won't think and pray about something they ask, so I said “Okay. I’d do it.” And I brought it actually first to my wife, Crissy, and she goes, “I think you should really seriously consider that.” And then I brought it to these guys who knew me well. They knew decisions I'd made in the past. They knew my strengths and weaknesses. And much to my surprise, they all encouraged me and said, “Hey, we really think you should go for it.” So that was kind of obviously a pivotal point to get their buy in and go ahead.

But what's even more critical, you need people that are there long before you make the big decisions in your life so that they actually can help you make the big decisions. The analogy I make is, unfortunately, we have way too many shootings in schools. And so, when that happens, they always rush all these counselors into the scene. Students/kids want to talk to people that they knew before this cataclysmic event, and I think that's true in all our lives. We need to have those people that not just when we come to those big pivotal moments but have known us all along. So, they really can give great advice once the hard decisions come. 

Willy Walker: You write extensively, Governor, about how much you enjoyed that experience of being mayor and of actually running the city of Knoxville. You're also very straightforward in saying, pointing out some of the mistakes you made and the difficulty of governing. But in your book, Faithful Presence, you write that “Real leadership is connecting problems with the difficult process of governing.” When did Americans lose the concept that governing, and institutions are critical to a functioning democracy? 

Bill Haslam: I think it's been a process where we've become what I'd call performative in nature rather than formative in our politics. The problem is we've become so separated and polarized, there's no political benefit in actually solving a problem. So, take immigration. There are some really good reasons we haven't solved that problem. Number one, it's really hard and complex. Number two, both parties make money off of it. The Democrats say Republicans are keeping kids in cages at the border and Republicans say Democrats just want open borders and let everybody in. And I'm willing to bet almost everybody listening to this has gotten a mailer or an email to that effect, depending on which political party has their information. So, there's no reward in actually solving a problem. And one of the things I'm trying to spend my time doing these days is to encourage people to support people who actually have a history of solving problems and actually have a resumé where they've done that. Lots of people can get up on a table and yell the things you want them to yell, but I would remind you there's very little consequence in that. 

Willy Walker: So, you wrote in Faithful Presence about running for governor, having had a very successful tenure as mayor of Knoxville. And in it, you want to talk about being vulnerable, but moving to both the statewide level and as we all know, there are only 50 governor races across the country. So, you're really on the national level when you step into that realm and you talk about the vulnerability that you felt of the exposure and of running for a very significant political office, not in any way demeaning being a mayor of a major city like Knoxville. But in Brené Brown's book, which I have read and love: Atlas of the Heart, she talks about vulnerability being fundamental to the innovative and creative process. Did creativity and innovation follow your feelings of massive vulnerability and running for governor of Tennessee? 

Bill Haslam: Well, I think it does. I mean, here's why it feels vulnerable. Flashback to when you're in fifth grade and you have your tray and you're walking into the sit-down lunch table and you're hoping people say, “Come sit with us” instead of making some sort of sarcastic remark about you. That feeling of being evaluated all the time is, if you think about it, just as a human being, that's hard. Like we don't like the thought that other people are evaluating us. But when you run, you're raising your hand saying, “Check me out. I think I'm the person.” You've raised your hand to do that. I do think Brown's point's a really good one and that the vulnerability makes you see yourself in ways that you haven't seen yourself before. You kind of figure out, why am I so anxious about this? What's giving me all this anxiety about this process? And at least for me, it was one of those x-ray of the soul to be a candidate, if you will. And in doing that, you learn, “Okay, here are the things that maybe I care about too much and here are the things I don't care about enough. And what do I do to change that?”

Willy Walker: Do you think that having had a career in business and being financially independent gave you more flexibility or leeway, Governor in governing rather than having politics be a career?

Bill Haslam: You have to examine your own situation. Where you stand depends on where you sit in a lot of cases. And I mean, people say, “Well Bill, it would be so easy for you to go be bold about this or that because it's not like you have to worry about where your next meal's coming from.” But I think what my background in business did for me is this: it helped me see what excellent looks like. One of the advantages to being a part of businesses that compete on a national scale is you compete against some really good people and you see what that looks like and you realize, “Okay, if we're going to win, I'm going to have to recruit people of this caliber and I'm going to have to have a strategy that really adds value to my customer. You think through all those things in ways that I think are really helpful, that a lot of times people come to the political arena without doing that. The last thing I'd add is this: at the end of the day, you know this in your business, the numbers matter. I don't mean the poll numbers, but as a mayor, as a governor, you have a budget that you have to balance. You have to; it's not like the federal budget. You're constitutionally mandated. And everybody says they want you to run the government like a business until you do and then I go, oh, don't cut that part. I like that part. So, you have to make a lot of hard decisions. But the root of that is understanding the fundamental numbers of the government. And I think in the end that the best two things that business did provide me is number one, it helped me and understanding what it looks like to hire a great team of people because you can't do it by yourself. You literally can't. And number two, understanding the basic budget in a way that I had confidence around gave me the courage to maybe try to do some innovative things, to try and say maybe we can be the very first state to have two years free of community college or technical school. We can figure out how to make the math work on that. 

Willy Walker: You passed legislation called Insure Tennessee, and you caught a lot of flak for supporting parts of the Affordable Care Act, which was wildly criticized by Republicans. That was the signature legislation from the Obama administration. As you point out in your book, Governor, one of the main reasons there was such a push back against that is that the Democrats in Congress, as well as the President, pushed that through with zero Republican support for the legislation. Nonetheless, you saw the need to really move on health care and insurance in Tennessee and got Insure Tennessee passed through and were branded that for I believe for the first time a RINO (Republican In Name Only) by some. Explain why you supported parts of the “Affordable Care Act'' (ACA) and why that was so important for Tennessee?

Bill Haslam: I wish your version of the story was true. I actually proposed it and it did not pass. We got smacked down in the very first committee hearing. Just real quick, if you remember, for your listeners, when the Affordable Care Act, Obamacare passed, people said this isn't legal, it's not constitutional because you're forcing people to buy insurance. You remember and it goes to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court comes back with this ruling that surprised everybody. “They said, no, actually, that is legal. What's not legal is forcing states to cover this expanded portion of the population,” because the states pay a portion of that. And so, every state can decide whether they're going to cover this portion of the population. And we initially didn't. And then I went back and negotiated something with the Obama administration that I thought was a very conservative policy, where it was going to cost us literally nothing to do.  The hospitals, because they were swallowing all the indigent care costs, were going to make up the difference. We were going to put some things in there that added personal responsibility to the Medicaid plan. That which is I think one of the things Republicans have a problem with is you can't incentivize good behavior for a care that's free for all, kind of without any conditions. 

And so, we put some things in there that I thought incentivized good, healthy decisions. Number one, I thought it was fiscally smart for the state. It wasn't going to cost us a dime. Number two, I thought it was the right thing to do. There’re people you don't realize that prior to this, the people like, well, everybody, if you're poor, you get health care. But prior to this, that's not what happened. I mean, the people that got Medicaid in Tennessee were pregnant women, handicapped folks, people who are living in certain households of one of those two and children. But not if you're just making $12,000 a year, you didn't get Medicaid coverage. And I just felt like we'll be better off. People take better care of themselves. They'll cost us less long term if they can go get preventative care at a hospital. And it wasn't going to cost anything. So, I thought it was the right thing to do, but I did catch and still to this day, even though I'm out of office, it's not forgotten by a few people. 

Willy Walker: So, you worked for Senator Howard Baker and who once said to you, “Always remember the other fellow might be right.” And you go on to say in your book, Governor, getting to the right answer is more important than our answer. How did you create and maintain that frame throughout your tenure as mayor and governor? 

Bill Haslam: That was Baker saying, I was working for him as a college student back then and the big issue of the day in the late 70s was whether or not we were going to give the Panama Canal to Panama. And if you polled a thousand Americans right now, they couldn't tell you “Did we keep it or do we give it to them?” But at the time, it was a big issue and President Carter proposed it. Baker came out in support of it. I was literally answering mail and phone calls. There were 99 to 1 against giving the Canal to Panama. And that's when I was an intern, he was the senator. We didn't go out for dinner much. But when I did have time, I talked to him, “I don't get it. Why did you do this?” And he just said, “You have to do the right thing and you have to begin by sitting down and saying, okay, the other person might be right. I need to listen to them.” For the 21-year-old or 22-year-old that I was, who one day ends up in politics — there couldn't have been a better lesson to learn. So how did I apply that? Two or three things. I literally tried to set up our conference room table in the governor's office, where instead of sitting at the end of the table, I moved to the middle because I quickly figured out once we got there, everybody was just waiting on me to answer. And then whatever answer I walked in the room with was the answer we walked out of the room with, and it just didn't feel like a very good way to make decisions. So, we always started with, “let's get to the best answer and let's do the right thing and let's talk about all the different possibilities.” On the day we walk out of here, let's make sure we have the best answer. 

Willy Walker: So, you decided not to run for the U.S. Senate and replace Lamar Alexander. As a two term very successful mayor and then two term governor, the chances are that you would have replaced Lamar Alexander in the U.S. Senate. And in your book, you write that, there is a big difference between running a state and going to Washington to be a U.S. senator. I quote you by saying, “Doing the hard stuff just isn't worth it seems to be the feeling of many representatives in Washington, both in Congress as well as in the Senate.” And let me just for a moment, Governor, read something that Mitt Romney wrote last week in The Atlantic, because I think it sets up nicely to get your thoughts about national office as it relates to the Senate and Congress and what's going wrong with our politics. 

And Senator Romney writes, “President Joe Biden is a genuinely good man, but he has yet been unable to break through our national malady of denial, deceit, and distrust. A return of Donald Trump would feed the sickness, probably rendering it incurable. Congress is particularly disappointing. Our elected officials put a finger in the wind more frequently than they show backbone against it. Too often, Washington demonstrates the maxim that for evil to thrive only requires good men to do nothing.”

Bill Haslam: I think he's exactly right. I decided not to run for Senate for several reasons: One, I'd been in office for 16 years, and I really do think you need some time, people who spend their whole career in public office, I don't think that's the best way to approach it. I really do think kind of going back into the real world for a period. I honestly think I have better insight now after being out of office for four years than I did when I was in office. So that was what I meant. I just thought it was time to go back to private life. 

Number two, though, I do have to admit that there was a discouragement. One of the things that if I ran for Senate I was interested in was I think we have a major problem with the national deficit. The debt is a big problem in my mind. When I went up to talk to senators, when I'm thinking about running, even those who are fiscal conservatives were saying, “Well, good luck with that. I kind of tried that when I first got here, and I broke my pick on that rock. And I'm not I'm not going to beat on that anymore.” I kind of walked away thinking, well, if nobody really wants to take on the serious problems, then I'm not certain I'm going to feel like this as my friend Bob Corker, who was a United States senator from Tennessee, used to say, “I'm just not certain this is a way for an adult to spend their time.” Now, he was kidding, and he and I would both say it really does matter who we elect. But like I said, number one, I'd be less than honest if I didn't say it was discouraging that people just don't want to try to solve problems because it's hard. Number two, you're going to get beat up from the people on your side on the right. If you're a Republican, they're saying, “Well, you're just in the mushy middle. You're compromising with these Democrats and they're the bad guys” or the reverse if you're a Democrat. And there's no room for nuance in today's political conversation and unfortunately, anybody that's run anything knows that nuance is needed because things are never quite as black and white as they seem from the outside. 

Willy Walker: So, you start Faithful Presence on January 6th. Going back to January 6th and you ask the question, “how did we get here and where do we go from here?” And you're very quick to point out that divisive politics or hard-fought politics is part of America's history. And you go back to Hamilton, Madison, and talk about duels and things of that nature. But you say this time is different. What do you think makes this time so different, Governor? 

Bill Haslam: A couple of things. We can, for the first time in history, choose our news in a way that we haven't been able to in the past. I mean, you can go on your cable TV right now. Tell me where you're on the political spectrum and I'll find a TV news show that you like. And from the far left, a far right, you can find it all. And we all have confirmation bias. We like to listen to things that confirm what we know to be true. If you don't think you're that way, ask a friend. I promise you are. I mean, I am. When I was in office, I loved reading news about me that was good. If it was bad, I'd kind of scan the headlines and flip the sports page, you know? But if it was good, I read every last line. That's just part of who we are as humans. So that's one: we can choose our news and then we choose that news that tells us what we think. And the truth is, we're an evenly divided country. You know, the last ten presidential elections have been single digits. The House is six or seven votes, separate, Dems more, and that'll probably flip over in this next election. The Senate is literally 50/50. We're an evenly divided nation, but we don't think we are because everybody we talk to thinks like we do. The news that we listen to or read thinks like we do, our friends that we go to church with or live in a neighborhood. We've segregated ourselves into these ghettos of people that think like we do. So that's one problem. 

The second is and it's an easy boogeyman that everybody picks on, but social media really has changed everything. And the reality is you get elected. One of the reasons you do is because you're good at reading the room, okay? You have people on this webcast that are salespeople. And one of the things you learn to do is read the room like what's the room wanting to hear? And unfortunately, today, politicians are reading the room in a way that doesn't reflect who we really are. If you go on Twitter, 80% of the tweets are from one of four things. They're from people on the far right. They're from people on the far left. They're from Russians or they're from bots. You know, people pretending to be somebody that they're not. So, the language you hear is reflective of the far right or the far left. If you're on Twitter all the time, you're thinking, “well, that must be where people are,” but that's actually not where people are. 

Jonathan Haidt, the NYU sociologist says, “It's like we gave everybody a dart gun and 80% of the people just put their dart gun in the closet and said, ‘okay, that's nice.’ Another 20% went out. ‘So, if I shoot people, guess what happens? They react. And more people tune in to watch me shoot more people.’ When Twitter put in the Retweet button in 2014 and when Facebook put in the Like button, now all of a sudden it became, ‘How do I get a lot of responses?’” And it turns out that people respond well when you shoot at other folks.

Willy Walker: So you mentioned the Arthur Brooks comment, the outrage industrial complex, which I think is a great way of putting it and you go on, Governor, to quote Les Moonves, who ran CBS talking about former President Donald Trump; “It may not be good for America, but it's damn good for CBS.” It's not going anywhere. I guess the question that I have for you is those two capitalist forces that have allowed for this massive polarization of both the media we get and the ideas we share. So, barring massive regulation of it to try and limit its impact, what's the solution to using it towards better good, if you will? 

Bill Haslam: Well, I think two or three things. This is going to sound kind of backwards, but I think we need to both be more involved in politics, and we need to care a little less about it. Let me start with this: would you be more involved in this? I can’t tell how many people tell me, “I'm just frustrated and exhausted by all this.” I bet if we polled your audience right now and if we could somehow say everybody raise their hand, if you're frustrated and exhausted by our politics today, we get 80%. Okay. I ask that question everywhere I speak, and I get that. But the reaction from a lot of what I would call normal people says “I'm not playing anymore. I'm not going to get involved in a primary, they're crazy on the right and left. I'm not going to get involved.” But guess what happens? That's who determines our candidates. The fastest growing political segment today are independents. And you might think, well, wouldn't that be good? We have some people in the persuadable middle and you have to actually persuade them to win an election. But the problem is they're not determining who the candidates are. The candidates are going to be baked by the time they get up to the table. And so, my first thing would be don't withdraw from the process. Who we elect matters way more than I thought it did. That's number one. 

Number two, too many of us are getting our identity through our politics. And we're determining everything through that lens. And we decide we're on the side of good or evil, depending on whether you're with my party or not. And like I said, we've already secluded ourselves in the ghettos, so we already think, “well, yeah, I'm pretty sure those other people are evil.” We need to come to the conclusion that somebody can disagree with us and not be evil. And that's what I meant by we need to care a little bit less about our politics in the sense of the political part of the other side’s the enemy. The other side is not the enemy. The other side has different opinions than you do. And if you sat next to them at a football game or at your kids' swim meet, you might decide they're not such a bad person after all. 

Willy Walker: So, going to your book, which I found to be a fantastic read, you state that people of faith should play a central role forward. But that quote, “Unfortunately, that is not what has been happening. Too often the words and actions of Christians have been done more to inflict those wounds than heal them.” And you go on to say, “Christians find excuses in their actions in politics that they never do in other parts of their lives.” 

I have a quick anecdote, Governor, and then I want to hear you respond. One of my dear, dear friend's mother passed away in 2016 when I flew to Greenville, South Carolina, for her funeral and I walked into a very large church. There must have been over a thousand people there. And I sat in the upper left-hand corner, and I looked out and I listened to the sermon at her funeral about what an incredible woman she was, how much time and effort she put into the church and words of honesty, love, and humility and all the things that you talk about in your book. After the service, it was during the campaign, I walked out afterwards and said to my friend, “that was an amazing service. But my sense is that 98% of the people in that church are going to vote for Donald Trump.” And I don't get the conflict between hearing a sermon about a woman and everyone in there who are God fearing, caring, honest, straightforward and yet they're going to put that to the side and vote for Donald Trump. And my friend looked at me and he said, “One issue, Willy, Pro-Life.” He said, “Those people are putting all of that to the side on that one issue.”

My question is this, Governor, first of all, that may or may not have been correct, that was my friend's assumption and my assumption that 98% of people in the church were going to vote for Donald Trump. But there seemed to be this great conflict that came about during the Trump era of a person who embodied conservative thoughts as it relates to the way to govern, and yet was a juxtaposition as it relates to his personality. It seemed to be that many Christians in America put his personality to the side because they wanted to go after the issues. And obviously today, a week and a half after the Supreme Court ruled on Roe vs. Wade, there are, I'm sure, plenty of people in that church who said, “I got what I was waiting for.” But how is it then, Governor, that we're supposed to look for people to use faith and Christianity to step in and yet, at the same time, there has been this what seems to be, and you point out, kind of a conflict, if you will, between what they truly stand for and what they look for in politics?

Bill Haslam: So, you had a lot of great observations in that, and I agree with your underlying premise there. And one of the reasons I wrote the book is this, again, I'm writing from a Christian perspective, but Christians would say the greatest sermon ever was the Sermon on the Mount. And if you want to boil down Jesus's sermon there, it would be different. That's where he brings up the salt that’s supposed to be different than the meat. The light is supposed to be different than the dark. And my unfortunate experience in office wasn't true. The Christians acted just like everybody else, and we're just as likely to disparage someone on the Internet. They were just as likely to treat the other side as the enemy when we're supposed to love our enemy. You talked about Arthur Brooks earlier, and just as a quick aside, he was speaking at the National Prayer Breakfast one year while Donald Trump was President and he had just written a book called Love Your Enemies, those are Jesus's words and President Trump got up and said, “Well, I agree with all that except that love your enemies stuff.” Brooks kind of later said, “Well, it takes quite a bit of courage, I guess, to get out and disagree with Jesus at the National Prayer Breakfast.” 

But I think going back to how did the church get here; I think it got here out of fear. Your friend might be right. I mean, the pro-life issue is a big one to the church. But I think even more than that, I think the church was coming from a place of fear. It was seeing the world that they knew and were comfortable with slipping away where, you know, Sunday mornings aren't for church anymore. They're for Starbucks and soccer games. Fifty years ago, your local newspaper probably had a Bible verse of the day, and we don't live in that world anymore. And people look around sexual mores changing, and they say, “wow, this world, I feel like it's slipping away from me.” And they've got we've reacted out of fear, which is a horrible place to react from on anything. Probably one of the most frequent commands in scripture is do not fear. Do not fear. And yet that's the place we're coming from. And again, I think if you ask why, I think there's a sense of we've lost ourselves and we should identify more with the political ends that we want. The quote you referred to in the book, we justify things politically that we, being the church, that we would never justify in any other area of our life. In other words, if somebody came up to me in church and said, “I know this whole I'm supposed to be faithful to my wife, but the woman in the office next to me is really hot.” We would not give them a break. Or if you said in your business, “I know I'm supposed to be ethical here, but I've taken a few shortcuts because I was about to go out of business.” We would not say that's okay, but we said because the stakes are so high, because what's being decided in the political sphere is so big and so important and so critical that we can abandon those things that we know to be true. As I say in the book, that's Machiavellian, that's not Jesus. Machiavelli is the one who says the end justifies the means. Jesus calls us to be faithful, regardless of the circumstances. 

Willy Walker: One of the questions you ask and what I ask as I read your book; “How do you get involved in the political process in a faithful way?” And you go to a Lincoln quote with “With malice towards none, with clarity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right” And later in the book, Governor, you talk about the fact that there is right. And it seems as if we've lost the ability to understand that there actually is truth, that there is right, and that there is truth in the world that we live in. And there seems to be this I mean, the world that you just spoke about, the press is very bifurcated between the left and the right and what we can watch on cable news, and then social media that seems to say that there is no truth, there is no right. How do we get that back into the dialog? 

Bill Haslam: By the way, you should do this more often, your questions are really good. I'm teasing because you've done this so well. But I think we used to live in a world where there was this idea of stated truth, and we've moved into this idea that truth is relative, that you're your own, whatever you determine to be true is true. And so, we've lost this idea that there's true truth, if you will. And everything has become relative, and I think we're paying the price for that. It's been said that Donald Trump was the first post-truth candidate where it mattered more, how we said something than what we said. The Kellyanne Conway quote about being in a world of alternative facts. The reality is we're seeing that, not just in politics but across the board. And this kind of society that's in a post-truth world, we're all paying the price for that. 

Willy Walker: There's so many interesting things you say in the book as you, as you go back to both scripture as well as to your own faith and the way that you both live your life and then also the way you governed as Governor. And one of the things that you talk about in scripture is “People to be shaped and reshaped and that you learn from your own experiences.” And yet I hear that and being shaped and reshaped and in the political world, that's anathema to being successful. I remember very well of the branding of John Kerry as being a flip flopper, like, heaven forbid that he would ever change his mind on any issue that ever came in front of him, and that if you're not strident in exactly what you think, that somehow you are not being faithful to the cause, whether it's a left cause or a right cause. 

You throughout your governorship were able to draw upon your faith to guide your actions, and yet at the same time, listen to the other side and back to the previous quote as it relates to the other side might actually have a point. How did you manage that, Governor, in the sense that there are many people who sort of say, “If you're a Christian, you need to stay firm and steadfast to what we believe are certain ideologies within that?” Yet you had several decisions that came in front of you where at least from my reading of it, for instance, when the legislature brought you past legislation to make the Bible the State Book of Tennessee and as I'm reading your book, I'm sitting there going, “this is an easy sign for Governor Haslam who’s a man of faith and a devout Christian and yet you didn't sign it.” How did you get to that point? 

Bill Haslam: So, I think the whole kind of what flip flopping is versus what is I've learned new things, so I've come to new decision points, there's a real distinction there. If you're changing to gain political advantage, the kind of finger in the wind politics that you talked about before then you know that's wrong. If you're changing because in the process you learned more about that issue. I mean, I'll give an example. I learned a lot more about judicial sentences once I was in office than I did before. And I came to some new conclusions that I didn't have prior to going into office. I'm hoping I don't think I was flip flopping and thinking I had learned and again, come to some new conclusion. The bill you talked about was an interesting one because our legislature passed something to make the Bible the official state book. You know, states have official everything. We have official birds and insects and trees and everything else. In the process, by the way, I always assumed Tennessee's official drink was Jack Daniels until I found out it was actually milk. So, it's something I probably should have known before I ran. But they said, “we want to make the Bible the official book” and the establishment clause of the Constitution of the state in the U.S. is really clear that we're not going to make any law establishing a religion. And I felt like this was doing that. And they said, well, we're not recognizing it as the Bible we’re recognizing it as a historical book. And so well, if that's true, then, I think you're being a little disingenuous because I don't really think that's what it is. And I think, by the way, to me know you're just making it a historical book rather than the word of God, you're violating what you said you believe. So, it was to me actually, it kind of became really clear that this was not the right thing to sign, but that that is a bill that literally I'll bump into people today in the grocery store somewhere and say, “I still can't believe you vetoed the Bible.”

Willy Walker: You had that other anecdote about the woman who came up to you and said that you were trying to eliminate writing script in schools and that she was accusing you of not wanting kids to be able to read the Constitution. 

Bill Haslam: Right. Unfortunately, we live in a world where the easiest way to get something just to go viral is to say something negative about someone else and to put a conspiracy theory behind it just adds jet fuel. 

Willy Walker: So, you recommend that we think biblically about our politics rather than politically about our faith? Talk about that for a moment. 

Bill Haslam: The reality is, if you're in a church for any period of time, you've probably had lots of chances to go to a seminar a weekend on Christian marriage or your kids are involved in the high school youth group to say here's what it looks like to work faithfully with Christ as a high school or a middle school or college student, or maybe there's a Christian business persons association, etc. all about here's what it looks like to walk faithfully in that arena. We really don't do that in politics. There's nobody that says, here's what it looks like and as a result, you referred earlier when you were talking about the church in Greenville, this praise for this woman of humility and meekness and service, etc., that didn't seem to fit with the politics of the church. And here's the example I'd give. I recently saw a survey of Republican primary voters and ask them, “What are you looking for in your next Presidential Candidate?” And it gave them like 20 adjectives to pick from. Number one, by a long way, was Christian. Okay. The last number 20 was humble. 

Now, I would argue there's a case where somebody hasn't really thought through what's the theology of their politics? What are we supposed to act like? And again, we've justified it by saying the stakes are so high that, Bill, you're asking us to bring a pillow to a knife fight. The stakes are too high to play in this nice Sunday school world that you're talking about. I was talking to a group of pastors right after the book came out and I finished making my argument. And a guy raised his hand and said, “Well, has that ever worked anywhere what you're talking about?” 

Willy Walker: How about two terms in Tennessee?

Bill Haslam: Well, I wanted to say that, but a more thoughtful, humble answer was wrong question. Jesus isn't asking us like, hey, I've got a really great political strategy for you. If you're a Christian, you're following somebody who came not to kill the bad guys, but to let the bad guys kill him. When the pastor asked me, “has this ever worked anywhere?” I'd say again, wrong question. The question is, if those who call themselves Christians are going to faithfully act like that, the goal is not to win the argument. The goal is to get to the right answer and to faithfully serve. Period.

Willy Walker: You go on, Governor, to say “I'm not calling for believers to be silent about the things of importance to them, but I am asking them to separate those things as a matter of policy and those things we know are clear biblical truths. Love your neighbor. Walk with humility and kindness.” And I find it so interesting there where you talk about that list of what do people want in their next president? And you've got number one Christian and you've got number 20 is humility. And you ask in your book how, if the Republican Party, and particularly evangelical Christians, are known for issues of abortion and gay marriage, that humility needs to be inserted in there as a defining characteristic. And it's not today. It's just very interesting to see you go back and talk extensively in your book about where that true north ought to be yet to exactly the example you just showed, it's nowhere close to being where it needs to be on the list. 

Bill Haslam: Even in those issues, gay marriage, abortion, where the church might say, “hey, we think we have biblical truth behind us here.” I would still say, “Are you approaching that with humility and with empathy with people that are in very different situations than yours?” It doesn't mean you give up on the truth. Listen, I'm a fiscal conservative. I think the Bible's really clear on a few things. It says we're supposed to feed the poor. Now, I would argue it's not clear on how we're supposed to do that. We do that through government systems, through charity. I would lean toward again, I'm a fiscal conservative. I don't think big government programs work really well, but I don't think I can make that as a biblical argument, I can make that that's what Bill believes politically and practically works. And I don't think you can come on one side or the other of that biblically. But I would argue feeding the poor is not up for debate. The question is, how do we do that? So, I use all that as an example of there are things that we have clear scriptural imperatives on. Let's be really faithful at those things. The quote that I used to summarize all the time is from Micah in the Old Testament, “What's the Lord require of you? Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.” I would argue if the church would do that, it would be the magnet that would draw people in and say, wow, I want to go be with people like that.

Willy Walker: Here you go on to point out, James 4:6, when you say, “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” But as I read that, Governor, I sat there and scratched my head saying, how many politicians can I define today as being humble? I know you know many more than I do, but I know plenty of leaders, both at the national level and the local level and I very rarely run across many who would come across to me in any way close to humble. And I think one of the things that you point out is the need to create social media profiles and get images out there is the antithesis of humility. It's thinking about yourself. It's making yourself special. It's trying to put out there so you can get the thumbs up and gets the retweets of what you've written, which means that that is somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy in the sense that we will, with this technology in place, continue to have people say the way to get influence is to act in a prideful way and not a humble way. 

Bill Haslam: You know, you're right. I mean, I can definitely think of some politicians that I would think are examples of humility,, there are definitely men and women out there serving like that. And I you know, I could come up with a great list of that, but it's not the predominant character type because it's not what the current market is rewarding. But I would argue this: Who do you want to work for? You want to work for the narcissist? None of us do. And so why are we hiring those types of people to lead us? And I also think this: It's going to take the right person who can come along who can lead in a way that folks look at and go, that's a different way. I'm so frustrated and exhausted by where we are now. I'm ready to sign up and help a person like that. I honestly think that maybe we're like a drunk that has to hit bottom, but that we're ready for a different type of candidate. 

Willy Walker: I found it really interesting that in your book you brought in Jim Collins and Good to Great and his identification out of 1,500 public companies, the 11 CEOs who had shown 3X returns over a 15-year period and that whether they were Christians or not, that they led in a in a in a Christian like manner. And I found it fascinating that you'd gone and done that and then looked at the profiles of them. And I've read the book several times and it's a fantastic book. But you're spot on that those leaders of those companies were not the headline grabbers, they weren't the big personality types. They were typically people who were very humble, who listened to a lot of input, who were happy to adapt their corporate culture and their corporate policies to be able to meet where the markets were. 

Bill Haslam: Yeah, I mean, the conclusion (you've nailed it again) after I did all those studies, and no one knew what they were looking for and they boiled it down to two consistent characteristics. They were people who were really clear about the mission they were on, number one. And number two, they knew the story wasn't about themselves, and those were the people who produced the best returns. I would argue the exact same thing is true, and that does translate from the business environment to the political environment. What we need is more of the folks who (and I'm betting that this describes, like I said, most of your listeners) people who are frustrated, exhausted by the process now that says, “I'm ready to go find people, whether it be school board or running for President of the United States, who can bring a different attitude to running for office. 

Willy Walker: So, Governor, as we wind up here there, you talked very personally in the book about some of the harder decisions you had to make as governor. And you waited until the very end of your term as governor to consider any pardons. And you talk extensively about the Cyntoia Brown pardon and both the difficulty coming to the decision as well as meeting her for the first time with your wife and what that was like. Could you talk our listeners through that a little bit and just give a sense of why that was such a difficult decision for you and why it felt so good when it was actually done? 

Bill Haslam: Yeah, I made a big mistake. You talk about changing your opinion. I made a big mistake as governor when I came in and decided to push all the pardon requests off to the end, because some people who had served before gave me that advice that if not everybody that has somebody on death row, to somebody you went to college with that has a DUI is going to come wanting a pardon. And the governor has actually absolute power when it comes to pardons, exonerations and clemencies as long as you're not getting a personal reward for it, you can do whatever you want. Well, I put it off and thought it'd be really easy like, “Oh, I'll be like Solomon, and I'll say, yes, they're forgiven. No, they can be. Just in all my wisdom, I could run through and figure it out.” It was really, really hard to be just and merciful at the same time. It's really hard. 

One case in particular came up is a woman named Cyntoia Brown, who as a young teenager, ends up working on the streets as a prostitute at the age of 16. She has a boyfriend/pimp who kind of keeps pushing her back on the streets. Long story short, picks up a business guy, shoots him in the head, in his bed, gets tried as a juvenile and is sentenced to life in prison, which means in Tennessee the way the law works, she won't get out until she's in her seventies. Somebody ran a documentary on her and it just all of a sudden went viral. And people like LeBron James, Snoop Dogg and Kim Kardashian kept tweeting out to call the Tennessee Governor, email the Tennessee governor and tell him to free Cyntoia. And so, it became this huge case that got all this social media attention. I mean, it literally shut down the switchboard of the whole state of Tennessee with the phone calls coming in. And like I said, it reminded me again of how hard it is to be just and merciful. In the end, I dug into her case. It turned out that she really did have a life that had been changed. Our prison system doesn't work too many times. It doesn't really bring the reform that we wanted in her case. I became convinced she was way better for society outside of jail than inside. She had gotten her degree in prison and had a 4.0 which is a little higher than my GPA and I need to confess at this point. And then I knew some people who had literally gotten to know her in prison, and we made the decision to free her. And part of the story I tell in the book, which is the chance to get together with her afterwards and since then we've gotten together several times. But every now and then, you get to see the back story, what I call the tapestry that God is weaving together in all of our lives. Usually you just see your portion, but this time I got a chance to see this woman who had been praying about this decision we're making, literally praying day and night about it. We're praying about how we do the right thing. And when it was over and we had a chance to sit together, become friends, and compare notes, we can see that the tapestry that God was weaving together, I mean, it sounds corny. I hate to say it, it sounds really corny, but it truly was a beautiful picture. 

Willy Walker: Yeah, it's really an incredible story in the way you tell it in the book and just told it here. It's quite something. Redemption and forgiveness and some really important things that I think many of us forget about quite often and you did it in a very public scene, in a very public setting. 

So, Governor, final question to you: you're richer than Donald Trump, you've won three more elections than he has, and you have a leadership style that seems to be exactly what America needs today. Any chance we hear of another meeting of the Friday Five and see you in the 2024 race? 

Bill Haslam: (Laughs.) Yeah, I honestly don't know. I hope I get a chance to serve in public office sometime again. Just to be blunt, running for President is not a decision to be made lightly. I see the process and what it takes. And in my language, I would have to definitely feel called to do that and to feel like there's a strategic path to make that work as well. And I also honestly don't know the answer to your question. But again, one way or another, I hope I get to serve in some sort of public role again. I just believe in it that strongly and see what kind of difference it can make. So, I don't mean to dodge your question, but I don't really have an answer to it as we sit here. 

Willy Walker: And to be honest with you, I wasn't expecting you to come out and announce your campaign for President of the United States while you're on the Walker Webcast. 

Bill Haslam: Let me just make a point. I will say this: I've never heard of the Walker Webcast before you asked me to come, but since then, I have been flooded with people from all my past, people I haven't talked to since elementary school “Like, Oh, I can't believe you're going to be on Willy’s show, that's so cool.” And I'm like, “How am I the only person in America that has missed this so far?” So, thanks for letting me. It's been cool to be part of the crew that you've had on here.

Willy Walker: Well, it's fantastic. I would only say, Governor, the work you're doing at Vanderbilt on the Project on Unity and American Democracy, I take my hat off to you. I've watched a lot of your interviews with fascinating people talking about why our politics are so divisive today and trying to drive the message of unity and coming together. And so, as much as I'd like to see you get back into the political realm, I'm also very appreciative of the work you're doing at Vanderbilt to try and drive these issues home. 

Bill Haslam: Well, thanks. And Willy, this has been an enjoyable conversation. Thanks for doing your homework. You've read the book better, I think, more closely than some of my own family members. 

Willy Walker: Great to have you on, Governor. To everyone who joined us this week, thanks very much and we'll see you again soon. Thank you, Governor. 

Filter by Category