While U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has devoted a lot of time and effort to burnishing his partisan Republican credentials in preparation for next year’s re-election run, he has also been deftly including a history lesson from his background on the value of bipartisanship.
That came on Jan. 17, 1979, when Alexander was sworn into office as governor of Tennessee three days ahead of the announced inauguration day. Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton was removed from office ahead of schedule and thus blocked from granting further end-of-term pardons and paroles to imprisoned criminals.
The events of that day, those leading to it and the lay of Tennessee’s political landscape in that bygone era are thoroughly chronicled in “Coup,” a book written by Keel Hunt that is being published this summer by Vanderbilt University Press. It is a recommended read for anyone interested in Tennessee history or politics.
Hunt makes it clear that Alexander, then a 30-something lawyer best known for walking across the state in a red-and-black plaid shirt during his gubernatorial campaign, was reluctant to get involved in Blanton’s early ouster. The scandal-ridden Blanton administration had probably contributed substantially to Alexander’s 1978 campaign win.
The coup plot was hatched, basically, by U.S. Attorney Hal Hardin, a Democrat, and executed with the collaboration of other leading Democrats in the state, including House Speaker Ned McWherter, Lt. Gov. John Wilder, Attorney General Bill Leech and Supreme Court Justice Joe Henry.
Hunt, who served on Alexander’s gubernatorial staff in the 1980s and who now works with a public affairs consulting firm in Nashville, interviewed 163 people for his book. They included McWherter, interviewed before his death last year, and Hardin, now a Nashville lawyer, as well as survivors of the other principals in the coup operation.
(Disclosure note: So extensive was his research that Hunt even interviewed yours truly. On the evening of the coup, I was working for United Press International in its Nashville bureau, fielding the phone calls from two UPI reporters at the scene, Fred Sedahl and the late Duren Cheek, who are mentioned in the book’s review of coup-related media activities — including a bit of mischief they used against a competeting AP reporter.))
Alexander’s role was, well, to be convinced that he should “Come on Along,” which happens to be one of his long-standing campaign themes and the title of a Vanderbilt exhibit of Alexander history put on display last year. Much of it was devoted to Alexander going along with the Democrats’ plan.
A third of a century after the coup, senior citizen Alexander, 72, is perhaps understandably prone to reminisce somewhat about the experience that put him officially into a public office for the first time.
“I was in a pickle,” he recalled at a panel discussion last year.
On one hand, there was the very real prospect that Blanton would free criminals who had paid for clemency if he served out his last days in office. Indeed, members of the Blanton administration were subsequently convicted in the cash-for-clemency scandal.
On the other hand, there were questions about whether the arrangement violated the state constitution and the possibility that the image-conscious new governor would be seen as an opportunistic, grandstanding politician at the outset of his administration. With the Democrats providing cover, however, everything fell into place. The coup seemed accepted — even hailed — by politicians of all stripes and the public generally.
And now it’s being heralded as elder statesman Alexander readies his run for re-election to a third term — while regularly releasing news releases denouncing various Democratic doings of the day and reports on Republicans who endorse him.
The timing raises the question, perhaps, of whether there’s some collaboration of the book release (official publication date is Aug. 15) with the campaign here. No, said Hunt in an interview. It’s a coincidence, he said, and the project was his idea. Alexander cooperated, but no political considerations were involved.
Indeed, he advised that there’s been some bipartisan fundraising to provide copies of the book to all public libraries and schools statewide free of charge. That’s appropriate for a document recounting an unprecedented event in state history.
Further, it won’t have any impact on Alexander’s effort to avoid a serious GOP primary challenger. And Democrats? Well, he doesn’t have to worry about them these days.
In fact, it seems they weren’t really a problem back in 1979 either.
Note: An astutely edited version of this column appears in Sunday’s News Sentinel, HERE.