Public affairs consultant and former journalist Keel Hunt brought the story of Tennessee’s unprecedented bipartisan ouster of a corrupt governor to MTSU’s renowned Windham Lecture Series April 17.
MTSU alumnus Hunt, author of “Coup: The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Republican Lamar Alexander in Office Early, and Stopped a Pardon Scandal,” was joined in MTSU’s Tucker Theatre by Alexander, now Tennessee’s senior U.S. senator; John Seigenthaler, Tennessean editor emeritus; and former U.S. Attorney Hal Hardin for an in-depth discussion of the 1979 political scandal.
Hunt was appreciative of MTSU’s invitation to share a deeper understanding of his book.
“This is where I came of age … this is where I spent my undergraduate time and made friends and associates that have been dear to me for the past 50 years,” he said. “I’m so grateful to MTSU for what this university means to our state and so many like me.”
A captive audience listened as the panel recalled the story of Tennessee’s constitutional crisis erupting 35 years ago, when then-Gov. Ray Blanton signed 52 executive clemencies, including pardons for a political pal’s son and 20 other convicted murderers, amid a growing federal investigation into a clemency-for-cash scandal.
You can watch an excerpt of their conversation below.
“One reason I wrote the book was that it was an extraordinary tale,” Hunt said. “What you’re about to hear about has never happened anywhere in our country … before 1979 and certainly not since.
“In hindsight, it’s a pretty good case study in an episode of very serious bipartisanship at a very high level in our state government.”
Leaders learned Blanton planned to issue more pardons before the newly elected governor Alexander was to be sworn in Jan. 20, 1979. Hardin, who also is an MTSU alumnus, contacted Alexander with the news.
“And I said, ‘I’m not calling you as the United States Attorney, I’m calling you as a Tennessean, and here’s what I know,'” Hardin told the audience, adding that he remembers that day’s events “like it was yesterday.”
Working with the state attorney general to determine whether an early inauguration was constitutional, Alexander, a Republican, had only a few hours to collaborate with Speaker of the House Ned Ray McWherter and Lt. Gov. John Wilder, both Democrats, to find a solution.
They did. Alexander took the oath of office three days early in the Tennessee Supreme Court chambers, and the bipartisan scramble effectively prevented any more early releases for dangerous criminals.
Alexander recalled the angst he felt.
“I had to think about, ‘How do you do this, since it has never been done?’ Going through my mind were things like, ‘If I appear to be the usurper of power, Tennessee will be even more of a laughingstock because of the pardons.'”
Thursday night’s audience also watched archival news footage from Nashville’s WTVF-TV on the night of Jan. 17, 1979, when Alexander took the oath of office for governor.
“The days and weeks prior to this, all of the media in Tennessee was telling the story, either in print or in broadcast, the story of the scandal,” said Seigenthaler, who wrote the forward to Hunt’s book and was editor in chief of The Tennessean at the time of Blanton’s ouster.
“There were very few people in the state at the time who didn’t understand that this scandal, this crisis, was on us.”
Hunt, a former Tennessean reporter and city editor who campaigned for Alexander in the 1978 election and later became his special assistant and speechwriter, was able to interview many of the surviving participants for “Coup,” learning details that surprised even his former boss Alexander.
“I admire so much the book Keel has written because he’s collected a lot of stories I didn’t know anything about, because I was in the center of it,” Alexander said.
Hunt characterized his book as “a story of a crisis, and mainly the story of how that crisis was resolved. And the solution was a one of a kind.
“I appreciate that a lot of the appeal of the story is due to the scandal and the corruption,” he continued, “but genuinely what was more interesting to me was how these other folks worked through the solution on that afternoon. There was a crisis, but there was also the solution.
“I would say this is not so much a story about bad guys doing wrong: it’s about good guys doing right.”
MTSU’s Windham Lecture Series in Liberal Arts was established by William and Westy Windham through the MTSU Foundation.
Dr. William Windham was a member of the MTSU faculty from 1955 to 1989 and served as chairman of the Department of History the last 11 years. His first wife, the late Westy Windham, earned a master’s degree in sociology at MTSU and was the founder of the Great American Singalong. Since Westy Windham’s death, Windham and his current wife, Doris, have continued their sponsorship of the lecture series and were in attendance for Thursday night’s lecture.
The inaugural Windham Lecture in 1990 featured Drs. Dan T. Carter of Emory University and Dewey W. Grantham of Vanderbilt University, who spoke on “The South and the Second Reconstruction.” Since then, the Windham Lectures have addressed topics spanning from American music to U.S. foreign policy and have included such speakers as musician Bela Fleck, filmmaker Rory Kennedy and retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.
For more information about the lecture series, please contact the College of Liberal Arts at 615-494-7628.
— Gina E. Fann (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Jimmy Hart (email@example.com)