KNOXVILLE – The maneuver that ousted Gov. Ray Blanton and installed Lamar Alexander three days early was one of the more compelling stories of Tennessee politics in recent decades. The bipartisan effort to stop corruption in the governor’s office is related in novelistic fashion in a recent nonfiction work by Keel Hunt, a former Tennessee political insider turned author.
Over the summer Hunt published Coup: The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Republican Lamar Alexander in Office Early, and Stopped a Pardon Scandal. It’s a look back at history, when a young plaid-clad Alexander won his first elective office –governor of the state – only to find himself in the midst of a political crisis.
Blanton, his administration plagued by scandal, was defiantly preparing to commute the sentences of 28 of the worst criminals in state prison.
U.S. Attorney Hal Hardin learned of Blanton’s plan and was faced with a dilemma. The governor’s power to commute sentences is absolute and Hardin had no way to legally stop him. At the risk of his career by becoming caught up in one of the biggest political crisis in state history, the federal prosecutor picked up the phone and called Alexander and proposed that he take office early to stop the plot.
Alexander had packed away his signature plaid shirts from his 1978 campaign and was preparing for his inauguration ceremony to come three days hence.
Hardin recalled those days, sitting on a tall stool beside author Hunt, himself a former speechwriter for Alexander, at the East Tennessee History Center on Tuesday. They were there to discuss Hunt’s account of the day that the Democrats swore in a Republican governor early and ousted a Democratic governor to stop the pardon scandal. Hunt was a journalist at the Tennessean who had joined Alexander’s campaign in 1978 and was an eyewitness to events. He went on to serve on the governor’s staff.
Hunt said it is hard to remember now how dominant the Democratic Party was in those days, controlling state government and the Legislature. The early swearing in of Alexander could not have happened if the Democratic leaders had resisted. And according to the book Alexander would not participate in the “Coup” without the support of the Democratic leaders.
When Alexander was sworn in three days early, Jan. 17, 1979, he was in the state Supreme Court chamber surrounded by Democrats. Speaker of the House Ned McWherter. Lt. Gov. John Wilder. Attorney General Bill Leech. State Supreme Court Justice Joe Henry. Meanwhile, the paperwork to release hardened criminals was in process up in the governor’s office.
Hardin said when he went home that night he worried that he might have been wrong, but he got a call from his agents that they had recovered the documents so he went to bed “knowing I was right.” He had not called his boss, Attorney General Griffin Bell, to tell him what he was up to. He said he was afraid Washington would want him to wait while they thought about it and he said he didn’t have time to wait if the pardons were to be stopped. He said Bell supported his decision after the fact.
Hunt said one of the lessons from that episode in state history is that Democrats and Republicans got together in a bipartisan manner and that collaboration “should speak to us.” He said bipartisanship, collaboration and compromise have become dirty words in today’s political climate. He said he almost titled his book on a response McWherter gave to a reporter that night. The reporter asked McWherter about his being a Democrat participating in the ouster of a Democratic governor and McWherter replied: “First, I’m a Tennessean.”
Alexander’s first action after being sworn in was to issue an order that no prisoners would be released and the capital was shut down. Alexander aide and later cabinet member Lewis Donelson secured the paperwork to prevent the commutations being issued.
Members of Blanton’s administration were convicted in the parole scandal, but ironically, Blanton was not. He was convicted in another scandal involving selling liquor licenses.
The book recounts how the principals were gathered in secrecy for the swearing-in. Because, Hunt said, Blanton could have surrounded the capital with National Guard troops or State Troopers and issued the pardons. Instead, he was at his private residence and he was called minutes before the ceremony and told he was out.
Hunt’s book also offers a history of the turbulent politics of the 1970s. Republicans were beginning to win statewide offices, led by Sen. Howard Baker and Gov. Winfield Dunn. But the Democrats were still the dominant party and controlled the legislature. But the party was riven by factions. Blanton had won the Democratic primary with a small plurality and he chose not to run for re-election. The book features biographies of the principals in the swearing-in drama, like McWherter and Wilder.
As Hunt travels the state talking about his book one of the central characters is also traveling around the state – U.S. Sen. Alexander is running for re-election.
The audience at the lecture and question and answer session consisted of former Alexander cabinet members, appeals court justices, people who worked in Alexander’s campaigns among the estimated crowd of 200. Hunt was introduced by attorney John King, who served in Alexander’s cabinet.