Chapter 16
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Taking Charge

Keel Hunt recalls the day Tennessee removed its governor from office

In recent years, any hint of bipartisanship in a legislative body is announced with a fanfare equivalent to a breakthrough in the quest for peace in the Middle East. Democrats and Republicans seem to pick and gouge at one another gleefully in a contest to see who can claim the distinction of inflicting the most damage on the opposition. In such an environment, the well-being of the people can be forgotten and victory defined by ephemeral gains for the individual parties. In Coup: The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Republican Lamar Alexander in Office Early, and Stopped a Pardon Scandal, Nashville writer Keel Hunt remembers a day in 1979 that will long stand as a model of non-partisan self-sacrifice and defense of the people’s right to honest government.

The basic story of Coup is straightforward. Governor Ray Blanton, a Democrat, was apparently selling pardons to criminals who posed genuine, physical threats to the people of Tennessee. Governor-elect Alexander, a Republican, was told that more pardons were coming and that it would be best to take office four days early. Speaker of the House Ned McWherter and Lieutenant Governor John Wilder, both Democrats, agreed that Blanton had to go and bent over backward to make sure their political foe Alexander could take office with unanimous support.

The details of the story, as expected, are much more complex and involve a host of actors of various temperaments from both parties. Careers were on the line. Tennessee’s reputation was on the line. And only five years after Watergate, the people’s faith in government was on the line. It was this last fact that may have played the greatest role. The ghost of the Nixon presidency was sitting in the corner, reminding each of the participants that their fellow citizens would long remember whether they had done the right thing.

The right thing took barely more than four hours, but it was four hours of intensity and nerves that had been years in the making. Blanton had begun his term as a popular and outgoing governor. “Deeper into his term,” writes Hunt, “Blanton’s behavior turned erratic, and his moods grew dark.” On January 16, 1979, the governor did the unthinkable, signing clemencies for fifty-two prisoners, including twenty-three convicted murderers. Of the total number, only thirty-six had been recommended for parole. The U.S. attorney for Middle Tennessee, Hal Hardin, knew that more clemencies were awaiting the governor’s signature. In Coup, Hunt portrays Hardin as a hero among heroes, the man who decided to make a phone call to Alexander, not as an officer of the United States government, but as a citizen of Tennessee, raising the alarm that something terrible was happening. There were fears, probably not well-founded but nonetheless real, that even James Earl Ray could be set free.

But what could legally be done? Tennessee Attorney General Bill Leech huddled with his senior staff in a hotel room to debate the constitutionality of putting Alexander in office earlier than planned. In the end, the ambiguity of the state constitution on the issue of inauguration of governors (ambiguity that has since been eliminated) served the attorneys well. They decided an early swearing in was legal. However, just because a thing is legal doesn’t make it right, and Alexander was reluctant to take the first step. The thought of usurping the existing governor filled him with dread. So a dance began between Alexander, Wilder, McWherter, and others, men who, Hunt writes, “were simply unaccustomed to working together, nor to speaking to each other at all, let alone collaborating in private about Governor Blanton and what seemed to be the rising velocity of madness.” But dance they did, right into the chamber of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, where Alexander took the oath of office on what his wife, Honey, remembers as the worst day of her life. The coup was done, and an enraged Ray Blanton had been told about it just a few short minutes before it happened.

Hunt, who campaigned for Lamar Alexander in 1978 and later worked as Alexander’s speechwriter, was not part of the action during those fateful final days of the Blanton administration. But being a political operative and a former reporter for the Nashville Tennessean gives Hunt the perfect platform from which to tell the story. He has interviewed the surviving participants and delved into the records to tell the complete history, elements of which even Alexander had not heard before. It is a testament to the bipartisan nature of the events that Coup carries jacket blurbs from Phil Bredesen, Fred Thompson, and Alexander. And in the forward to the book, John Siegenthaler, at the time editor-in-chief of The Tennessean, notes that Hunt’s “book enriches history and reminds us again that in a time of crisis, on a dark day in Tennessee, there were politicians who were willing to act with courage and vision, across party lines, in the public interest.” Here’s hoping that the memory lingers.