The Right Hand Man: Bob Griffitts

Bob Griffitts first caught the political bug in the late 1950s. The Greenback, Tennessee native had an uncle who served as a Loudon County Commissioner and later as the Highway Superintendent. In those days, a local roads commissioner was an extremely powerful man, and Bob’s uncle began grooming him for a foray into politics, introducing him to the powers that be and taking him to various events.

By age 18 he was serving on the Loudon County Republican Executive Committee, the first of a long stint of Republican committee offices he would hold in Knox, Blount and Loudon counties. After that his political ascendency was interrupted, but only briefly, by a two year stint in Vietnam from 1968-1970. When He returned from the sweltering jungles, he launched his career in real estate and began more heavily to play in politics.

It was at this time when he managed his first campaign, that of Benny Stafford. Griffitts helped him get elected as the State Representative for Loudon and part of Blount counties. Shortly after that, he became active in the all-powerful Duncan political dynasty, a machine that he had no way of knowing he would one day help run. Congressman John Duncan Sr., who Bob campaigned for through the late seventies until his death in 1988, was an influential figure in his life. “Treat everyone like they’re for you, even when you know they aren’t,” he remembers the elder Duncan telling him. “Because then it will be much harder for them to come out strongly against you.”

When Duncan died in 1988, a special election was held to find his successor. His son and heir apparent, Judge John “Jimmy” Duncan Jr., tapped Bob to serve as his treasurer and help run his campaign. The two had been friends since the early seventies, and Jimmy knew Bob had been active in many successful campaigns, including his father’s. In the primary election they easily dispatched with Dr. Bob Profitt, and began gearing up for what was sure to be a heated general election in a time when Democrats had more of a foothold in Tennessee.

It was during this time that Griffitts first worked with a young politico named Tim Burchett. Burchett traveled all over the district with Duncan, Griffitts and some other members of their inner circle working to elect the congressman that no one knew he would succeed 30 years later.

Their challenger, Dudley Taylor, was an attorney who was currently serving as Commissioner of Revenue for Governor Ned McWherter. He ran what one national newspaper called the dirtiest campaign in the country against them. Negative ads alleging connection between Jimmy Duncan and the infamous Butcher brothers banking scandal flooded the airwaves. He told me that at that time, under the onslaught of a dirty political barrage, he remembers feeling even worse than he did during his days in Vietnam. Bob advised Jimmy that it was time to punch back, and punch back they did. Their team crafted a terrific contrast ad that compared Duncan’s conservative ways and solid record as a judge with Taylor’s liberal ideology and record as an overzealous state tax collector. The ad worked and Duncan triumphed, elected to succeed his father by over 14 percentage points. Griffitts and Duncan faced 15 more elections together, and not until 2014 did anyone come within 30 points of beating them in a Republican primary, the end all be all in East Tennessee politics.

When Congressman Duncan was sworn in, he named Bob his district director here in Knoxville, and retained his father’s chief of staff. 12 years later, Bob was named chief of staff, and served in that role until the congressman’s retirement.

Griffitts served as a congressional staffer through the terms of six presidents, at least four of whom he met personally. During his campaign and presidency, George W. Bush visited the second congressional district many times. Bob remembers President Bush’s staff calling and asking the congressman to set up a meet and greet and assembly at a local school. Congressman Duncan asked Bob to set it up at Rockford Elementary in Blount County. Much to Bob’s surprise, the principal did not seem very interested in a visit from the president of the United States. “He must have been the only principal in the country that didn’t want the president to visit his school.” Bob quickly audibled and found that the folks at Townsend High School would be delighted to host president Bush.

Presidents weren’t the only superstars he came across in his time as chief of staff. Once Bob was sent to Atlanta on a private jet to pick up Lee Greenwood so he could perform his smash hit at the time, God Bless the USA, at the Duncan Family Barbecue. For thirty years Bob helped organize the Duncan barbecue, first hosted by the senior congressman Duncan in 1968. It was the preeminent political event in East Tennessee for a generation.

When asked who was the savviest politician he ever met, he found it hard to place one, but specifically mentioned both congressmen Duncan and Newt Gingrich as among the smartest and most effective he ever came across. Bob had a front row seat to Newt’s Republican take over of the House of Representatives in 1994, and clearly remembers the congressional battles with president Clinton.

When the time came to vote on a war authorization for the Iraq War, Bob remembers when the Bush White House dispatched Condoleezza Rice and other intelligence officials to pressure the congressman to support the war effort. In a meeting with her, the congressman asked for specifics on the threat and capabilities posed by Saddam Hussein’s administration. When he didn’t get clear answers, he came to the decision to vote against it. History smiled upon him for it.

Politics has changed a lot during the decades he spent at the helm for the congressman. The largest change he’s noticed has been in the way political parties have become more homogenous and extreme. When he first got to Washington, you had many moderates like the conservative blue dog Democrats. That is a thing of the past. Party members, particularly among the democrat ranks, largely march in lock step these days

What was most telling about who Bob Griffitts is was not anything that he brought up during the hour we spent in the shadow of the court house he dominated for decades at Calhoun’s on the river, but rather what he failed to mention. It wasn’t until after our meeting when I did some asking around that I learned that Bob is a bonafide war hero (he asked me not to write that, as many of his peers lost their lives and he did not, but in he is a hero in my book). As a member of the 101st Airborne, Bob fought in the operation to take Hamburger Hill in one of the most infamous conflicts of the entire Vietnam War. Most people would lead with that story when someone asked to write a piece on their life, but Bob, described by his friends as reserved and humble, never even brought it up. His career was defined by decades of devotion to constituent service, taking care of the least of these. Much more than any proclamation or political maneuver, this is what Bob will be remembered by for many years to come.

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