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Cordell Hull still deserves his due on Capitol Hill

Robert Houk • Dec 1, 2019 at 7:48 PM

An effort has been launched by a Republican leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives to rename the Cordell Hull Building in Nashville for former GOP Gov. Winfield Dunn.

If successful, the move would pay homage to the 92-year-old Dunn, who was the first Republican to be elected as governor of Tennessee in a half-century when he took office in 1971.

It would also remove the name of a Tennessee Democrat and Noble Prize laureate, who served nearly 12 years as U.S. Secretary of State — the longest tenure in history — from an iconic state office building

The Cordell Hull building, which first opened in 1954, has housed the offices of the 132 members of the state General Assembly since late 2017.

The state spent $126 million to renovate the 11-story Cordell Hull Building, which sits between Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium and the state Capitol Building. Part of that work included constructing a 452-foot-long underground tunnel that connects Cordell Hull to the House and Senate chambers at the state Capitol.

The new tunnel is a little longer than the one that had connected the offices of lawmakers in the War Memorial Building and Legislative Plaza for more than 40 years.

Cordell Hull was one of Tennessee’s direct links to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal. As I noted earlier, Hull served longer as secretary of state than anyone else in this nation’s history.

He also received a Nobel Prize for Peace in 1945 for his role in establishing the United Nations — the only Tennesseean to do so before Vice President Al Gore was awarded a Nobel in 2007.

Hull doesn’t always get the respect today in his native Tennessee that he deserves. Perhaps it’s because he was the creator of the modern federal income tax during his time as a member of Congress, or maybe it’s because he championed the formation of the United Nations.

In his 1999 book, “Tennessee Senators, 1911-2001: Portraits of Leadership in a Century of Change,” former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist devotes a chapter to Hull’s extraordinary life and career.

Frist notes that even though Hull’s two-year stint in the U.S. Senate (after serving decades as a member of the U.S. House) was brief, his colleagues admired him for his “intelligence, diligence, integrity and old-fashioned country spunk.”

Those were also some of the qualities FDR was looking for when he named Hull to be his secretary of state. The president believed Hull could also help him in his ambitious domestic agenda.

Although Hull’s experience in foreign affairs was limited, Frist writes that FDR hoped Hull’s presence in his administration would “bolster Southern confidence in the New Deal and provide a bridge to Hull’s former colleagues in Congress.”

Hull had a reputation in Congress of being something of a miracle worker when it came to getting two entrenched sides to come together. Such magical powers could be put to good use in Washington today.

A self-professed country lawyer, Hull demonstrated his skills as a statesman in 1913 when he convinced his colleagues in the U.S. House to approve this nation’s first graduated income tax. Hull, who died in 1955, was proud to be called the father of the federal income tax.

Few politicians in Tennessee since then have wanted to have their names linked to an income tax.

State Rep. Ron Gant, R-Rossville, said recently he plans to introduce legislation when his colleagues return to Nashville in January to rename the Cordell Hull Building for Dunn, a one-term governor who hasn’t always been looked on fondly by Republicans in Northeast Tennessee.

He created a few hard feelings in this part of the state in 1974 when he vetoed a bill to create a medical school at East Tennessee State University. The state House speaker at the time — the late Gov. Ned McWherter — helped to override that veto and earned the Democrat from Dresden a close following among those he called his “Republican cousins” in Northeast Tennessee.

Among those political relations was 1st District Congressman Jimmy Quillen. The Kingsport Republican — whose name is now attached to the ETSU medical school — left little doubt who he was supporting in the 1986 race for governor between Dunn and McWherter.

It was a personal and political bond that would connect Quillen and McWherter until their deaths.

While Dunn may indeed deserve a token of honor on Capitol Hill, there are people who think it should not mean stripping Hull of his acclaim. One of those folks is Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, who told The Tennessean last week he believes lawmakers need to give some serious thought to the matter before taking Hull’s name off a prominent state building.

“Cordell Hull was also a great Tennessean who rose from meager beginnings to serve our nation as secretary of state,” McNally, who worked for Dunn’s campaign for governor in 1970, told the Nashville newspaper. “We have a deliberate process for removing or adjusting historical monuments and designations. That process should be followed.”

McNally was referring to the furor in recent years over removing monuments and busts of Confederate generals, slaveowners and Ku Klux Klan members from the state Capitol Building.

One of the arguments against doing so has been that the individuals honored were “extraordinary men of their times.” Cordell Hull should be considered an extraordinary man of any time.

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