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.
Sen. Lamar Alexander and others engaged in a round of reminiscence Monday of events leading up to his early inauguration as governor on Jan. 17, 1979. From The Tennessean’s report: “I was in a pickle,” Alexander said. “A high-class pickle.”
That pickle, which eventually led to the decision to swear Alexander in later that day, was revisited Monday evening by a distinguished panel of the day’s key figures more than 30 years later at Vanderbilt University.
The panel was tied to an exhibit at Vanderbilt that included the pre-Senate papers Alexander donated to his alma mater. Alexander, now a U.S. senator, was joined by Hardin, former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson, Tennessee Supreme Court Justice William Koch and others as they shared their sometimes balky memories of the dramatic early swearing-in of the state’s fourth Republican governor.
The panelists, helped along by former Tennessean editor and publisher John Seigenthaler, recalled the uncertainty leading to the early swearing-in.
(Note: This is a slightly revised version of a Sunday column written for the News Sentinel.)
Back when Democrat Ray Blanton took over as governor of Tennessee from Republican Winfield Dunn, there were mass firings of state employees with mass hiring under a brand-new system.
Blanton had an officially designated statewide “patronage chief” who oversaw the hiring and firing of state employees. Each county also had its own patronage chief, who reported to the boss in Nashville.
While that may not have been the worst part of Blanton’s legacy, it was still something that governors who followed did not want to emulate. GOP Gov. Lamar Alexander surely did not, and took pains to be fair with state workers.
Still, Democrats controlling the Legislature over the years, perhaps concerned about Republican governors, put in place a civil service system.
Today we find Republican Gov. Bill Haslam ready to get rid of that system.
The flap in Mississippi over pardons granted by outgoing Gov. Haley Barbour prompts Keel Hunt to reminisce in a Tennessean piece about the “cash for clemency” in Tennessee at the end of Gov. Ray Blanton’s tenure. It starts like this: An ugly uproar in Mississippi last week — over the surprise pardoning of 200-plus convicts by departing Gov. Haley Barbour — is stirring some deep echoes in Tennessee.
Convicts suddenly set free. Secrecy. Mystery. Outrage.
It should all remind Tennesseans of a dark night in our own history — 33 years ago tonight, in fact — when another governor made national headlines of the worst kind.
On Jan. 15, 1979, Gov. Ray Blanton issued 52 executive clemencies in a late-evening meeting at his State Capitol office. By the next day, news of what he had done had touched off a bonfire of public outrage.
Less than 48 hours after his extraordinary signing spree, Blanton was out of office, stripped of his power by a bipartisan “coup” that was unprecedented in American history.
Barbour’s action this week has not been fully explained. He said most of those he pardoned had served their prison time, but Mississippi’s attorney general has challenged the action, and a judge has stopped 21 of the releases.
News release from Vanderbilt University:
NASHVILLE, Tenn. – U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, whose leadership roles have included Tennessee governor, U.S. secretary of education, university president and presidential candidate, and his wife, Honey Alexander, have donated their pre-Senate papers to Vanderbilt University Library’s Special Collections.
“Lamar Alexander’s remarkable career will clearly be seen in the lens of history as one of the most important to Tennessee and the nation in recent times,” Chancellor Nicholas S. Zeppos said. “Vanderbilt is honored to serve as home to these archives of one of our most accomplished graduates.”
Alexander majored in Latin American Studies at Vanderbilt, where he was student newspaper editor, a Phi Beta Kappa graduate and helped to set a school track record.
A yearlong exhibit of the collection, which opens Sept. 17 in Vanderbilt’s newly renovated Central Library, features Alexander’s swearing-in as governor three days early at the urging of a U.S. attorney who said the incumbent governor was about to release prisoners in exchange for cash.