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Congressman John Duncan, antiwar Republican, upholds the best traditions of Tennessee and of American conservatism

“Don’t yelp with the pack,” William James adjured his students when Spanish-American War fever overtook the Republic.

Hard enough advice for young people to follow, but nearly impossible for most politicians. So when we find a member of Congress smart and brave enough to break from the pack, let us sing his praises so loudly that we drown out the jingo jangles—if not the cries of anguish by American and Iraqi mothers whose sons are dying because too many men and women who knew better yelped with the pack.

John J. “Jimmy” Duncan Jr. of Tennessee was one of the noble sextet of House Republicans who voted against the Iraq War. (The others were Ron Paul, John Hostettler, Amory Houghton, Jim Leach, and Connie Morella.)

The vote, Duncan says as we chat in his Capitol Hill office, was “a tough one for me. I have a very conservative Republican district. My Uncle Joe is one of the most respected judges in Tennessee: when I get in a really serious bind I go to him for advice. I had breakfast with him and my two closest friends and all three told me that I had to vote for the war. It’s the only time in my life that I’ve ever gone against my Uncle Joe’s advice. When I pushed that button to vote against the war back in 2002, I thought I might be ending my political career.”

He wasn’t. Congressman Duncan has won almost 80 percent of the vote in both elections subsequent to his vote against Mr. Bush’s war. Not all acts of political courage are suicide.

On the wall of Jimmy Duncan’s Knoxville office hangs a framed quotation from Janet Ayer Fairbank’s 1930 political novel The Lions’ Den: “No matter how the espousal of a lost cause might hurt his prestige in the House, Zimmer had never hesitated to identify himself with it if it seemed to him to be right. He knew only two ways: the right one and the wrong, and if he made a mistake, it was never one of honor: He voted as he believed he should, and although sometimes his voice was raised alone on one side of a question, it was never stifled.”

It is a principled maverick’s credo, though Duncan’s own maverick streak is really an adherence to pre-imperial conservative principles. He is a Robert Taft Republican in a party whose profligate and bellicose foreign policy today melds the worst features of Nelson Rockefeller and Wendell Willkie.

Jimmy Duncan’s paternal grandparents were small farmers in Scott County, which in 1861 left Tennessee, refusing to follow the Volunteer State into the Confederacy, and declared itself “the Free and Independent state of Scott.”

Duncan is a free and independent member of Congress as well as that even rarer specimen in modern American politics: a man who knows his place, which in this case is Knoxville, Tennessee. His father, John Duncan Sr., “hitchhiked into Knoxville with five dollars in his pocket,” and after an education at the University of Tennessee was elected mayor of Knoxville and then congressman.

Duncan’s father was also co-owner of the Knoxville Smokies of minor league baseball’s Sally League, and Jimmy grew up breathing the invigorating American air of pine tar and resin bags and concession-stand hot dogs. He was a batboy, a ball shagger, scoreboard operator, and, as a freshman at the University of Tennessee, the Smokies’ public-address announcer. (Perhaps a boyhood spent in the minors equipped Duncan with the valuable faculty to discern the insidious way in which this war, like all wars, is making our country less neighborly, less American, less minor-league. It is the minors, after all, with their communal atmosphere, grassroots base, and good-natured acceptance of eccentricity, that represent the best of America. The major leagues—TV-driven, impersonal, corporate, and arrogant—are a sport suitable for American Empire.)

This congressional district has been represented by a Duncan since his father’s election in 1964, the year Jimmy, a teenaged Goldwater enthusiast, rode a train for 77 hours to the San Francisco convention to serve as an honorary assistant sergeant-at-arms.

“My Dad was the hardest-working and kindest man I have ever known,” he states. “I was very close to him, and very proud of him, but I am sure he has rolled over in his grave at some of my votes because he went straight down the line with the Republican leadership.”

I ask Jimmy Duncan how his views on war, peace, and military intervention have changed since he was elected in 1984. “I’ve become convinced that most of these wars have been brought about because of a desire for money and power and prestige,” he says. “I supported the first Gulf War because I went to all those briefings and heard Colin Powell and all of them say that Saddam Hussein was a threat to the entire Middle East. I saw his troops surrendering to CNN camera crews and I became convinced that the threat had been greatly exaggerated.”

Duncan was not going to be fooled again. As Bush II readied his war, “I was called down to the White House for a briefing with Condoleezza Rice and George Tenet and John McLaughlin. I asked, ‘How much is Saddam Hussein’s total military budget?’ It was a little over two-tenths of one percent of ours. He was no threat to us whatsoever. He hadn’t attacked us. He hadn’t threatened to attack us. He wasn’t capable of attacking us.” The U.S. invasion, he says, was “like the University of Tennessee football team taking on a second-grade football team—it’s unbelievable.”

The war has enshrined foreign aid—once a conservative bête noire—as a virtual sacrament of the 21st-century Washington Republican. Duncan notes that the U.S. is draining its treasury into Iraq to “rebuild roads, sewers, powerplants, railroads” and subsidize a “small business loan program, prisons, a witness protection program, free medical care. … I’ve said all along that the war in Iraq was going to mean massive foreign aid and huge deficit spending.”

“When I was called down to that briefing at the White House,” recalls Duncan, “Lawrence Lindsey had just said a war would cost between $100 and $200 billion. I asked about that. Condoleezza Rice said no, it wouldn’t cost anywhere close to that—and now we’re going to be at $300 billion by the end of September.”

Like a voice from conservatism past—he has observed that “We need more Calvin Coolidges in our government today”—Duncan says, “There is no one I talk to on either side who can tell me how we’re going to be able to pay all the Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, military pensions, civil-service pensions, the trillion dollar prescription drug benefit … the money’s just not there.”

Duncan rejects the cant and tripe that served as the rhetorical fig leaves for shock and awe: “It’s ridiculous to say they’re a threat to us because they ‘hate our freedom.’ They don’t hate our freedom. They hate our policies in the Middle East. I believe very strongly in national defense, I just don’t believe in international defense. I don’t believe we can take on the defense problems of the whole world.”

“I’m pro-military,” he says, “but you can’t give any department or agency in the federal government a blank check. Eisenhower warned us against the military-industrial complex. He would be astounded by how far we’ve gone down that path. My goodness, we’re spending as much as all other countries of the world combined on defense spending—and they always want more.” Duncan reckons that the defense budget could be cut by $100 billion. But then by “defense” he means “defense.” Consider, by contrast, the unintentionally illuminating remark of Congressman Dan Burton (R-Ind.), chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, who called the Department of Homeland Security “a Defense Department for the United States, if you will.” Think on that one for a while—or at least until the Thought Police start knocking at your door.

Duncan ascribes Republican support for the war to the straitjacketing exigencies of party loyalty—that is, the subordination of one’s critical judgment to the demands of Team Red and Team Blue. (As if the spectrum contained no other colors! And since when do we allow television networks to paint our lovely land in only two hues?) “Eighty percent of the House Republicans voted against the bombings in Bosnia, Kosovo, and all that,” he points out. “I’m absolutely convinced that if Gore or Clinton had been in the White House, 80 percent of the Republicans would have been against this, too.”

Jimmy Duncan has that quality that is drained out of most politicians, whose characteristic temporizing and trimming induce an almost paralytic timidity. That is to say, he has guts. He speaks his mind and he votes his conscience. “I’ve had a lot of members privately tell me they wish they had voted against the war, but they don’t want to vocally oppose the president,” says Duncan, who adds, “I like President Bush. But whoever is president, there is great pressure to get involved in all these situations around the world. A president always gets more credit than he deserves for a good economy and more blame than he deserves for a bad economy. So with each passing year, all presidents gravitate more toward foreign policy. They all want to go down in history as World Statesmen.”

“I hate for this to be considered a ‘conservative war,’” grieves Duncan, whose credentials date back to when he “sent my first paycheck as a bagboy at the A&P grocery store to the Barry Goldwater campaign,” for “the traditional conservative position is against this war.” He dismisses the war’s neoconservative instigators as “big-government conservatives” who “keep wanting to expand federal power and put Big Brother into an even more powerful position.”

Duncan concedes that the Republicans have become a party of Big Government, but he sees no sign that the flaccid party of putative opposition is about to undergo a Jeffersonian metamorphosis. “The Democrats almost without exception want us to spend more money on everything,” he says, adding that “the Democrats would have supported the war” had it been waged by Gore or Clinton.

The three leading House Republican voices for withdrawal—Duncan, Ron Paul, and Walter Jones of North Carolina—are all Southerners, and if they are not a GOP Antiwar Caucus they are the harbingers—one hopes—of an eventual debate within the Republican Party between the imperialists and those who love America for her own sake.

If Jimmy Duncan is a throwback in search of a party of peace and frugality, he is, even more, a glorious anachronism as a representative of a place and a people. Unlike almost every other member of Congress, Duncan writes his own newsletters—“every word”—and he writes them on legal pads in longhand, for he proudly admits to being a “holdout” from the mousy tyranny of Microsoft. “I do not use, and do not worship, the computer,” he says. “One of my goals is to get to the end of my career without ever learning how to turn on a computer.” The technophiles of the Republican Opportunity Society need not come knocking at Duncan’s door.

Duncan’s newsletters contain none of the usual taxpayer-funded self-aggrandizement. They are at once chatty, ruminative, and informative: letters to the folks back home from a small-r republican. Instead of vapid happy talk, he writes, “I hope more of my fellow conservatives will soon wake up and realize that an unnecessary war and a greatly exaggerated threat of terrorism are being used to expand government at a faster rate than any time in our history.” He muses about the ways in which computers sever people from their communities; he criticizes the Patriot Act and No Child Left Behind; he praises the Tenth Amendment and the civic-minded citizens of Knoxville. He urges the University of Tennessee to hire professors who are able to speak recognizable English. He is, in short, an intelligent, patriotic small-city American who finds himself in Congress during a topsy-turvy age when down is up, imperialist bullies masquerade as “conservatives,” and dissent is treason.

Duncan operates from a base of principles—rooted, localist American—that gives his views a freshness, a vitality. What others accept without a second thought he sees for its underlying wickedness. He has, for instance, criticized the fetish for “national searches” to fill government jobs in Tennessee. He sounds just the right note of angry local pride: “I think possibly that some people in East Tennessee have been teased so much that they have developed unjustified inferiority complexes. There are good, well-qualified people for every job living right in East Tennessee. We should not fall for the old myth that an expert is someone with a briefcase 500 miles from home.”

His brand of conservative Republicanism is straight out of Robert Taft, with a dollop of LaFollettian populism. “Traditionally, conservatives have been for small government, they’ve been supported by small farmers, small business,” he says. “Now what you have is this big government-big business duopoly,” through which “big business gets government contracts, favorable tax rules, and all these things small businesses don’t get.” Thus he is a vocal critic of corporate welfare ranging from the space station (“the biggest boondoggle in the history of Congress”) to the imposition of the metric system (a project of “multinational companies” scornful of American uniqueness).

Duncan annually rates among the most parsimonious House members in the report cards of the National Taxpayers Union. A fair-minded chairman of the Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee, he is liked and respected by the Democrats, even though he routinely votes against welfare-state programs they believe to be incised in Mosesian stone.

He is an antiwar conservative, a Tennessee decentralist, a Republican critic of globalization because, to reclaim a fine word, he cherishes diversity: “I do not favor one-world solutions to our problems, in part because I hope this world never becomes a dull, bland, homogenized place where everyone has to be and think and act alike.” This belief in human-scale institutions, in the blooming of a thousand flowers, motivates Duncan’s promotion of small schools and his sharp criticism of the consolidation movement, which herded children into the anonymity of the centralized superschool, which has plenty of computers but no heart or soul. He cosponsored the Smaller Schools Initiative, an attempt to break large schools into manageable pieces, for as he says—and these words should be spraypainted upon the Department of Education building just moments before it is blasted to that white elephant’s graveyard in the sky— “Children are better off going to a small school in an old building, as long as it is clean and safe, than to a brand-new, gigantic school where few people know who they are.” Again, Duncan acts as the voice of the truer, more honorable, organic conservatism. Just because the Bush Republicans have repudiated Middle American conservatism doesn’t mean that Jimmy Duncan forgets.

I suggest to Duncan that he would make a fine antiwar candidate for the 2008 GOP presidential nomination. Surely there are still Republicans who care about limited, decentralized governance within a constitutional republic and who would rally to Duncan’s blend of front-porch antiwar patriotism, Scots-Irish Presbyterian rectitude, East Tennessee pride, and taxpayer-watchdog populism. He laughs. “I’m not going to get in any race that I don’t have a good chance of winning. I would certainly be one of the most unusual candidates,” he allows, “but I would get slaughtered.” Oh well. Duncan in ’08 still sounds mighty good to me.

When it comes time to retire, Jimmy Duncan will not whore himself out as a lobbyist, one of those pathetic specters who haunt the halls of Congress dunning favors from colleagues who will cross the street to avoid them. “I want to go home to Knoxville and play with my grandkids,” he says. Wanna bet that he follows through?

Duncan is a great American because he is a great Tennessean. Healthy patriotism is rooted in the love of the local, of the small, of the particular, be it East Tennessee, West Kansas, or Greenwich Village. Thus Duncan eschews think-tank cliches and offers, in one sentence, the most concise analysis I have ever heard of Al Gore’s malady: “None of his four kids went to school one day of their lives in Tennessee.” (Adds Duncan: “One thing I’m proud of is all of our four kids have gone to school every day of their lives in Tennessee.”)

This kind of regional patriotism, this feeling for one’s home state, is so far outside the experience of the Washington neoconservatives as to make a man like Jimmy Duncan seem as foreign to them as, well, minor-league baseball and small farms. But Congressman Duncan’s America is still out here. And some of those boys in the minors can hit.  

Bill Kauffman’s most recent book is Dispatches from the Muckdog Gazette. His Look Homeward, America is due from ISI Books in Spring 2006.

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