Bill Frist will never be President of the United States and he knows it.
At the start of the 2008 presidential campaign season, back when Hillary Clinton was “destined” to become the Democratic nominee and Mitt Romney was the Republican to be scared of, the former Tennessee senator was on the national radar as a heavyweight candidate should he run.
Despite the perception that he was too cozy with then President George W. Bush — whose popularity at the time was lower than the flood line in New Orleans — and there were lingering doubts over his “diagnosis” of Terry Schiavo via videotape, he was a comer to the GOP base.
When a presidential campaign never materialized, The City Paper uncovered a low-key but high-dollar fundraising operation that Frist had set up with former Bush adviser Karl Rove to funnel money to key U.S. Senate races across the country.
It appeared at the time he was setting up ground troops for future campaigns should he decide to run nationally in 2012, not to mention a run for the governor’s job seat.
Then, just after everyone was getting over their New Year’s party hangover, Frist announced on Jan. 4 of this year that he would not be seeking the office of governor of Tennessee in 2010. The move opened the floodgates on the Republican side as within 24 hours three high profile candidates threw their hats into the ring. Conventional wisdom is that had he run, the GOP nomination would have been his by acclamation.
Now, Frist has unofficially declared that he should no longer be a considered a candidate for office either statewide or nationally. There were no press releases, no speeches, no e-mails, just a simple note on a bulletin board.
The note isn’t important, what’s important is where the bulletin board is.
Sponsored by Dr. Tom Nesbitt, Jr., Frist has applied to rejoin the Belle Meade Country Club. Notice was given to current members of the club on a bulletin board where all applications and sponsorships are placed.
Frist joined the club in the 1980s but resigned his membership in 1993 when he first ran for the U.S. Senate. At the time the club was all-white, all-male, with no Jews and no African-Americans as members — not something that a statewide candidate needed on his resume at the time.
He won the race and both he and the club avoided major controversy.
The only black man in Belle Meade
On August 20, 1994, after Frist quit, Atlanta attorney and Vanderbilt Law School graduate Richard Sinkfield became the first African-American to join the club since it was founded in 1901.
Sinkfield is also a 1968 graduate of what was then called Tennessee A&I State University, now TSU.
The news was greeted with relief from many in the Nashville community hoping to avoid national media attention that had resulted from coverage of all-white clubs in Georgia and Alabama. In hindsight, the move now seems more like a “that’ll shut them up” from Belle Meade to many in the community.
There are a couple of Jewish members now as well, and Sinkfield, who still lives in Atlanta, is approaching the 15th anniversary of his membership — still the only African-American member.
His lone membership has been a problem for members of the club who are engaged in politics, it is a major strike against them in the court of public opinion.
Reached by The City Paper in Atlanta, Sinkfield seemed unaware that he was still the only African-American member or the controversy that still comes to politicians that are members of the club.
“I haven’t followed the politics. As a non-resident member I am not a voting member and I don’t have knowledge of applicants,” Sinkfield said.
When asked if he had ever lobbied for other African-Americans to become members, Sinkfield replied, “It is not something I have been personally active in one way or the other.”
As to the circumstances surrounding his membership he said, “I favor diversity and at the time I would contribute diversity and further diversity for the club.”
Sinkfield continued by stating, “To my knowledge, the club is not biased on race. I hope they continue to consider applicants on a non-racial, non-sexual, and non-ethnic basis. I have no indication that there is any bias.”
Puryear and Cammack
In the last year we have seen Belle Meade Country Club members Ward Cammack and Gus Puryear assailed for their membership by everyone from elected officials to bloggers.
Cammack was nailed by left-leaning bloggers because the financier turned environmentalist Democratic gubernatorial candidate refused to quit the club. The Nashville Scene reported that Cammack said at the time the controversy began that this is the “sort of the thing to do and I've never fully appreciated it because you know we all have different constituencies of people we may hang out with or are a part of, and I don't see any reason for me to turn my back on anybody, including the employees there.”
Interestingly the Scene called the reference to BMCC employees, “an apparent reference to the black waiters who serve the secretive club's members.” Factually, the incendiary comment is misguided as there are persons of many races and seemingly an overwhelming majority of servers are Caucasian as was witnessed and discovered through the course of research for this story.
Another look at myth busting shows that the club does have female members — they just can’t officially vote on club policies or memberships. If a female member’s husband dies or gets a divorce, she can stay a member upon approval of the BMCC board.
The club doesn’t have a very good policy of kicking men out as there are men who “married in” but after their divorce there isn’t a clean way of terminating their membership.
One example is a minister who joined the club as a standard part of the “duties” of his Belle Meade church. He was eventually terminated from his religious duties because he had an affair with a parishioner, but was not booted from the club despite it being the only reason he was given membership.
Back to politics, the other high profile member to get verbally assaulted for his Belle Meade connection as of late was Gus Puryear, the Corrections Corporation of America lawyer nominated to serve as federal judge for the Middle District of Tennessee. He took his BMCC connections on the chin from Sen. Ted Kennedy, despite the fact that neither side of the debate pointed out that the person Puryear was nominated to replace, Judge Robert Echols, also had been a member of Belle Meade for years.
Looking a bit further back there’s the case of current Comptroller for the State of Tennessee Justin Wilson.
Wilson realized that his membership in the club would be a problem when he was nominated to serve on the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals by President George H. W. Bush in 1992 and therefore resigned.
Although he was not confirmed, Wilson never rejoined the club. Earlier this year during the period his appointment for State Comptroller was being considered by the Republican controlled Tennessee State Legislature, he and all other applicants were asked if they were members of any club or organization that discriminated on the basis of race or sex.
Wilson truthfully answered in the negative, but due to the nature of the question put forward to him by Republican’s it is obvious that had he rejoined it would have been a problem.
Other political members
It is safe to say that membership in the Belle Meade Country Club means that you are politically connected, some more so than others. It used to mean that once you were elected governor you automatically became a member.
The current roster of the club has over 2,000 members, including spouses and children, and they fall into categories all across the political spectrum.
Among the big name Democrats (or liberal leaning in some cases) are Cammack, attorney/fundraiser Dale Allen, Al and Tipper Gore confidantes Andrew and Marianne Byrd, Hortense Cooper (wife of a late former governor and mother of U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper), Metro Councilwoman Emily Evans, State Sen. Douglas Henry, Davidson County District Attorney Torry Johnson, former Gov. Ned McWherter and attorney/fundraiser James Weaver.
On the Republican side there is Puryear, Echols, Drew Alexander (son of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander), car dealer/fundraiser Lee Beaman, former conservative commentator Crom Carmichael, State Rep. Beth Harwell, U.S. Bankruptcy Judge George Paine, developer/fundraiser Ted Welch, former Metro Councilman Chris Whitson and a whole mess of Frists.
Media members and owners are Belle Meade members as well. Two of the largest shareholders of SouthComm, the parent company of The City Paper and NashvillePost.com, are Townes Duncan and DeWitt Thompson. They are both long-time members of BMCC as are former publisher of The City Paper and The Nashville Scene Albie Del Favero and former Scene editor Bruce Dobie.
Morton Kondracke, executive editor of the Washington, D.C. political insider newspaper Roll Call, became a non-resident member of the club after he married Nashvillian Marguerite Sallee. Salle is CEO of America’s Promise, the nonprofit organization for children created by former U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell.
One leg at a time
Many BMCC members take pride in the elitist image that comes with the name. They see themselves at the top of Nashville’s caste system and rulers of the economic workings of the city. They are doctors, lawyers, developers, bankers or at the least the legacy of one of the above.
For many members, their measure of personal success became final when they were admitted as full-fledged members.
Despite the air of authority and the belief by some at BMCC that it is society’s loss that their members are increasingly ostracized in politics, behind the doors of the club are days and nights that are more Peyton Place than bourgeois bastion.
Two years ago at The Hunt Ball, the society dinner held at the club in concert with the Iroquois Steeplechase, a couple was found in one of the private dining rooms. They were caught “in the act” and not with their respective spouses.
How about the time that one “lady member” walked in and threw a drink in the face of a prominent member, yelling “How dare you!” She had just learned that he had been cheating on his wife with the wife of another prominent Nashvillian.
Some of the scions of the club are also interesting characters in their own right.
One member, a trust fund baby, was unaware that his adult son, a trust fund grandbaby, had lost his job. He only discovered that his son’s only source of income was inheritance when the father looked at his BMCC bill and realized that for at least the previous six months his son had been eating in the club dining room everyday and charging it to his account.
The purpose of recounting those escapades is to show that even Belle Meade members take their pants off one leg at a time.
Each time an article is written about Belle Meade Country Club, word on the street is that the African-Americans wanting to join have their membership applications moved to the bottom of the pile. Mention the name of one of those applicants in print and their individual application supposedly goes even deeper into the proverbial black hole.
Of course, there is no way of knowing if that is true. However, it has been 15 years since the only African-American was admitted to Belle Meade and he doesn’t have a vote, so even if it isn’t true in politics one is taught that perception is reality.
Current members of the club will be the ones to decide when they want to stop the speculation surrounding why Sinkfield still stands alone. Some observers think it’s just petulance and Old South stubbornness, others call it a basic American right of being able to choose who you want in your private club.
Regardless of which side of the argument one takes, the current members (be they self-described liberals or conservatives) have been complicit in the membership selection process that has tainted the public perception of the club as well as otherwise qualified citizens seeking to become public servants.
Membership just generates bad publicity during campaigns, which is something Frist seems to be aware of — and why his desire to renew his serves as an indication he has no desire to hold public office at this time.
The future of the club is secure in the sense that it is still a sought-after organization by a monied class of people, but there will be fewer elected officials among their ranks as long the demographics stay the same.
The federal judges and other office holders will die off with no one to replace them because of the electoral litmus test and perceptions of racism.
Society may be at a loss for not having the privilege of electing a Belle Meade member. But society will likely survive.
Read a list of more members of the Belle Meade Country Club.