In Morristown, it was a state trooper who said, “Ernie would be the governor.”
In Memphis, it was Christi Gibbs, assistant to the first lady, who said, “Ernie would be the governor.”
Most of the time, across the state, it has been First Lady Crissy Haslam who has said, “Ernie would be the governor” — the person who fictitiously delivers the punchline in one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s favorite jokes in his speeches.
Most people understand warm-up jokes in political speeches are part of the process, and those who have heard the governor tell his Ernie joke have generally learned to live with the funny legend and appreciate some of the little changes that creep into it each time Haslam tells it.
And there has been little reason to tell anyone it’s just one of those stories to get people loosened up at the beginning of a speech.
But the joke was finally exposed Tuesday as just that — a made-up story to get a laugh. Yet as many times as Haslam has told the joke, it always seems to get that laugh. So he has kept using it.
Nevertheless, pesky investigator that he is, reporter Jeff Woods of Nashville’s City Paper and blogger for the Nashville Scene, wouldn’t let it go any further. After Woods heard Haslam’s Ernie joke at the First Tuesday luncheon in Nashville Tuesday, he got Haslam to fess up that it was made up. In fact, Haslam didn’t even make it up. He recycled it from somewhere, maybe back to Bill Clinton, as best as Haslam could recall.
So perhaps to the relief of his staffers who have lived through the joke countless times, but to the detriment of those who might not have heard it, it has become known that Ernie, the lovable cashier and high school sweetheart of Crissy Haslam, never existed.
But Ernie has had a great ride. He has become famous from one end of the state to the other.
The joke, when Haslam tells it, goes something like this:
Haslam explains that they were in the car headed to an event and were ahead of schedule. Somebody in the car wants a Diet Coke (sometimes it has been chewing gum). So they pull over to a convenience store, and Crissy goes inside while Bill waits in the car.
Bill sees Crissy get to the cashier, and she gives the cashier a big hug. This makes such an impression on the attentive governor (sometimes he adds that it wasn’t at a Pilot convenience store, the family business) that Bill asks Crissy when she gets back in the car what that was all about. She explains that the cashier was Ernie, whom she dated in high school.
“Oh,” Bill says.
After a while, as they head down the road, Haslam is gazing out the window with a smile on his face. Crissy asks what he’s smiling about. Haslam says, “I was just wondering what it would have been like if you had married Ernie.”
And Crissy replies, “Then Ernie would be the governor.”
An effective punchline. Except in the different tellings, it has been someone else, like the trooper or the first lady’s assistant, who replies, “Then Ernie would be the governor.”
The joke seems to work every time, self-deprecating yet an acknowledgement that Haslam has ascended to the highest office in the state. Yet it makes Crissy look like the kingmaker.
“It’s an old story,” Haslam told reporters Tuesday. “I can’t remember where it came from. I think it maybe originally was Bill and Hillary Clinton, to be honest with you. I mean, 20 years ago.”
Woods asked Haslam if there is a little book of jokes to use.
“If there is, I need one, because I keep telling the same ones over and over again,” Haslam said.