(Note: This is an unedited version of a column written for Sunday’s News Sentinel.)
As Tennessee’s governor, Ned Ray McWherter was basically a benevolent dictator, or as close as you can get in a democratic society, and the likes of him will almost surely never be seen again in our state.
Certainly, we haven’t seen anything since that can be reasonably likened to the bald, burly, country-talking, self-made millionaire college dropout with extraordinary and seemingly instinctive skills in dealing with people and politics.
Note that our current chief executive, Bill Haslam, ran for governor promising a “top to bottom review” of state government. McWherter ran for governor declaring. “Swear me in, gimme a coupla vanilla wafers and a cuppa coffee and I’ll get to work.”
A campaign bumper sticker read: “He’s one of us.” All candidates want to get a similar message across, spending millions on TV ads to declare themselves, for example, a “good man” or “the real thing.” But McWherter was “one of us” common folk naturally.
After 14 years as speaker of the House, McWherter needed no review of state government. He could truthfully declare knowledge of “every pig path” in the state – that meant roads, even the small ones — name almost every politician in the state and even most of what he called, uh, dog posteriors (a printable version of the affectionate term he used for us media types).
As a creature of the Legislature, he had absolutely solid relations with the then-Democratic majority and would typically collaborate with Republicans, many of whom hailed his bipartisanship in tributes last week after his death.
Indeed, you can make a pretty good case that he owed victory in his 1986 gubernatorial campaign to Republicans such as the late U.S. Rep. James H. “Jimmy” Quillen. Many Republicans were taken aback when McWherter was ardently attacked by then state Republican Chairman Tommy Hopper, an early leader in the confrontational style that has since become part of the partisan “new normal,” to perhaps misapply a phrase favored by our new governor.
McWherter didn’t have to veto bills. He simply decided which ones should, or should not, pass. And legislators of the day generally followed his wishes. Once he had them recall a bill from his desk after passage – it raised legislator pension benefits – so he wouldn’t have to veto it.
As a gubernatorial legacy, he put in place the original BEP system for funding education and TennCare, which have changed somewhat but rest on his foundation. He passed tax increases, almost unthinkable nowadays, on general sales and gas that are still providing the funds to keep state government as functional as it is.
Though somewhat tight-fisted, he still thought government overall should be doing more. Today, of course, the prevailing thought is government should do less.
An old Ned story: While pushing a gas tax increase, the governor brought into his office a legislator who was opposed and handed him a toy bulldozer. If you ever want to see one of these in your district again, McWherter said, you need to vote for the tax increase. It worked.
He could, in other words, play political hardball. In the 1986 Democratic gubernatorial primary, he roamed West Tennessee in what some media christened “the redneck express,” urging a big turnout in rural West to offset an expected heavy inner city Memphis vote for rival Jane Eskind.
Bumper sticker of the day: “Make her spend it all, Ned!” The reference was to Eskind’s self-financing as a multi-millionaire.
And McWherter was as good as any politician in baloney spreading, abbreviated b.s., sometimes leaving those who did not pay close attention to what he was saying – and didn’t say – with the impression that McWherter was supporting something that he actually opposed.
He never got mad. He did, on occasion, get even.
Ned story: A nationally famous television news correspondent first met McWherter at campaign event for a presidential candidate and basically had him shoved out of the way, telling a cameraman “he’s nobody.” Later, the correspondent came to the House chamber where McWherter presided as speaker when President Reagan was to address the body. Ned had him tossed out of the chamber.
He was a friend to presidents and to janitors at the state capitol. He had a great sense of humor and could laugh at himself and play jokes on others.
He was even friendly to media folks, although once declaring “I’d rather clean out bed pans than do what you guys do.”
An extraordinary man, leaving an extraordinary legacy.
There was another bumper sticker in the days after he left office: “I miss Ned.”
It is a collectors item now.