By Lucas Johnson
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore on Saturday remembered Ned McWherter, Tennessee’s governor from 1987 to 1995, as a politician with a special way of connecting with everyday people.
Clinton and Gore attended a public memorial service for McWherter, a self-made millionaire who also was a longtime House speaker from West Tennessee. He died Monday of cancer at the age of 80.
Tennessee Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, as well as several former state governors and lawmakers, also attended the service at War Memorial Auditorium.
Gore, a former Tennessee senator, said McWherter “always kept a connection to working people and the rural poor.”
Clinton called him a “fabulous politician” who “made us dream, and think and act.”
A second public service is set for 1:30 p.m. Sunday in West Tennessee on the front lawn of McWherter’s Dresden home.
Clinton, who said he spoke with McWherter about two weeks before his death, livened a somewhat somber gathering with stories about McWherter — particularly the first time he met him.
McWherter was an imposing 6-foot-4 who some say resembled actor Dan Blocker, who played “Hoss” on the old TV show “Bonanza.” In fact, a photo of the two together was displayed in McWherter’s office in Dresden.
But Clinton had his own fond description of McWherter.
“When I saw that body, I thought ‘My God, the Grand Ole Opry has got its very own Buddha,'” Clinton said, drawing laughter from the crowd.
He ended his speech on a more serious note, alluding to the human qualities of the state’s 46th governor, who was a Depression-era child of sharecroppers.
“He graced us in a way few people have,” Clinton said. “Not just because of all he did, but because he was our friend.”
Gore, who introduced Clinton at the end of his speech and sat next to him in the audience, said McWherter was “committed to absolute integrity” and “always kept a connection to working people and the rural poor.”
“Ned McWherter was the finest governor that we have ever had in the state of Tennessee,” Gore said.
McWherter, who became wealthy through various business enterprises before entering politics, served 20 years in the Legislature — and 14 as House speaker — before becoming governor. Twice during his tenure, Tennessee was recognized as one of the best-managed states in the country, and in his last year McWherter was named the best governor in the country.
“He was a governor among governors,” David Gregory, McWherter’s former chief of staff, told the gathering.
McWherter also was political adviser to Bill Clinton during his presidency.
Clinton said it was McWherter who brought him and Gore together for the first time in 1991 and encouraged them to partner. As they entered the room where Gore was waiting, Clinton said McWherter told him: “I’m telling you, you’d be a good team. He’s smarter than you are … and your line of b.s. is a little better than his.”
As the state’s 46th governor, McWherter supported education improvements — called the “21st Century Classroom” — that put more computers and technology in classrooms, increased teachers’ pay, reduced class sizes and gave local school boards more control.
During his second term, McWherter promoted TennCare, a plan to expand health care coverage by placing Tennessee’s Medicaid program for indigent care under management of the private sector.
He served on the U.S. Postal Board after he left the governor’s office. Mike McWherter, his son, lost the race for governor in 2010 to Haslam.
On Saturday, Mike McWherter eulogized his father, as his father had requested. He also said the elder McWherter wanted Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” played at the service. The young McWherter compromised by having a string ensemble perform the song during the recessional.
“There was just something about him that was special and kind,” Mike McWherter said. “He made a difference and sought to instill quality in himself and those that he taught.”
Gregory told the story of how after a speech at one event McWherter asked to be shown to the kitchen, where he shook the hand of everyone from the cooks to the dishwashers.
“He could relate to everyone he met,” Gregory said.
McWherter’s death shocked friends even though they knew he had been ill. He had worked in his office last Friday and entered the hospital that Saturday.
Tennessee state trooper Steve Russell, who occasionally drove McWherter around after his governorship, attended the memorial. He said McWherter “worked up until the time he passed away.”
“He was just a kind, outstanding gentleman who cared about everyone,” Russell said. “He had Tennessee at heart and all of its citizens at heart.”