Jimmy Duncan, Bill Clinton, and Stephen Breyer's "Taj Mahal" Courthouse
When I heard about Congressman Jimmy Duncan's retirement after nearly 30 years in the U.S. Congress, it reminded me of a favorite Tennessee political story in which I played a small part. In the early 1990s, I was working as an intern with Congressman Jimmy Quillen's office in Washington, D.C. Quillen, another legend in Tennessee politics, served 34 years in Congress, a feat that he loved to tout and made sure you would remember.
Jimmy Duncan had just been quoted in a story appearing in the Washington Post by legendary investigative reporter Jack Anderson criticizing construction of a new federal courthouse in Boston which had been painstakingly orchestrated by then-Judge Stephen Breyer. A recent appointee to the U.S. Supreme Court by the Clinton Administration, Breyer would later be confirmed with little opposition. Duncan eloquently (and accurately, in my view) characterized eventual Justice Breyer's new courthouse, as a "Taj Mahal." The metaphor is thickly ironic based on today's current political climate.
Needless to say, Duncan's press person at the time was very nervous about the article. He was somewhat justified. In addition to Washington people being jittery whenever Anderson published any column, efforts were ongoing in Knoxville to acquire the former Whittle Communications building and renovate it to become a new federal courthouse. The effort was beginning to get expensive, although not nearly as costly as the $200 million price tag for Breyer's building. The press person openly feared someone at the Clinton White House would pick up on the irony.
Apparently, he had annoyed so many other people on Duncan's staff that they, in turn, wanted to play a practical joke on him. A call was made to Jimmy Quillen's office. It went something like this: "The press person is driving us nuts. Will someone with your staff call him, pretend they are from the White House, and then let him know that the President of the United States is not at all pleased with his boss for his quote in the article?" After a sufficient amount of time, Duncan's people would let the press guy in on the gag. Of course, none of the regular Quillen staff was willing to impersonate the White House. After all, Duncan's press person worked with and knew all of them. What about the new intern? Would he do it?
I had little choice. Plus, it made sense because obviously no one knew me. Shortly, I was on the phone with the subject of the prank. I do not remember the entire conversation verbatim from more than 20 years ago, but it must have gone something like this:
Intern: "Hello, this is Ben Rose calling from the White House."
Press Person: "Oh, what a surprise."
Intern: "I wanted to let you know that the President couldn't help but read Mr. Duncan's quote in the Washington Post this morning."
Press Person: "Oh?" [Starting to become nervous.]
Intern: "Yeah. The President read that your boss characterized the new federal courthouse designed by nominee Breyer as a 'Taj Mahal.'"
Press Person: "Ummmmmm. Oh. Did he?"
Press Person: [Gasping for air.]
Intern: "The President was not pleased. He thinks your boss is trying to wreck his nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court."
Press Person: [Silence.]
Press Person: [Awkward silence.]
Intern: "Are you still there?"
Press Person: "Oh, yes sir. I am still here. What did you say your name was again?"
Intern: "Ben Rose. With the White House."
Press Person: "Yes. Of course."
Intern: "The President wanted to let Rep. Duncan know that he has his own 'Taj Mahal' of sorts in Knoxville."
Press Person: "Well . . ."
I hung up. Later reports revealed that the Duncan staffer's face was beet red immediately after the call. Confirming his paranoia all along, the press person set about to berate his colleagues (and apparently told his boss) for several minutes before they finally revealed that the call had all been an elaborate hoax. I bumped into Rep. Duncan later, and someone related to him that I was the intern responsible for the call. "You were that guy?" He loved it. The call was especially rich for me, as representing the Clinton White House was about the last thing I would do at the time. Perhaps foreshadowing my future career as a lawyer, the Quillen people said that they were impressed I could hold it together during the entire telephone conversation.
During my time in Washington, I loved talking with Jimmy Duncan. I recall one of our conversations about the problem of ever increasing (even back then) college tuition, and the possible role cheap federally-subsidized loans may have played. I told him my theory of how tuition seemed to track in lockstep with increases in federal funding for school loans, and how the latter may have caused the former. "You're exactly right!" I recall Congressman Duncan responding.
Jimmy Duncan is an East Tennessee treasure and dedicated public servant. It will be sad to see him retire and end an era.