Lamar Alexander, now a U.S. senator, takes the oath of office as governor of Tennessee in 1979. File photo from The Tennessean.
It was a political action unlike any other then or since in Tennessee or even in the United States.
Described by political insiders as “impeachment, Tennessee style,” the event has now been documented in the newly released “Coup: The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Republican Lamar Alexander in Office Early, and Stopped a Pardon Scandal.”
Alexander, now a U.S. senator, was sworn in days before his formal inauguration as Tennessee’s governor in late January 1979.
Using 163 interviews, author Keel Hunt describes how collaborators came together from opposite sides of the political aisle on one day that month. The group included Alexander, but the rest were Democrats — House Speaker Ned McWherter, Lt. Gov. John Wilder, U.S. Attorney Hal Hardin, state Attorney General Bill Leech and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Joe Henry.
They reached an agreement that the corruption of the sitting governor of Tennessee, Democrat Ray Blanton, must be stopped.
The sudden transfer of power to Alexander was deemed necessary because of what one federal law enforcement agent called “the state’s most heinous political crime in half a century” — Blanton selling pardons for cash.
On Jan. 15, 1979, and near the end of his term, Blanton issued pardons to 52 state prisoners, including 20 convicted murderers.
Two days later, the group met to consider what to do about new information that more of the worst criminals in the state’s penitentiaries were about to be released, including convicted Martin Luther King killer James Earl Ray.
“It was a four-hour boot camp between six or eight of us who really didn’t know each other very well,” said Alexander, who served as governor from 1979 to 1987. He spoke of the meeting during a recent stop in Kingsport. “But it permitted me to govern for eight years by working across party lines. Speaker McWherter, Lt. Gov. Wilder, and the state attorney general. ... I was the only Republican in Nashville, it looked like, and they were all Democrats. That four-hour experience where we were able to get a result in the best interests of this state helped us when it came to building roads and schools and auto jobs.
“It was an extraordinary event, something that’s never happened in American history as far as I know. ... It was like being in the center of a hurricane.”
How the book came together
Hunt, a former journalist and former speech writer for Alexander, knew a number of the central characters in the book but noted that Blanton, who died in 1996, did not leave much documentation behind.
“One of the challenges of the research for this book was that all of this happened 34, 35 years ago,” Hunt said. “There were no formal letters, either, that turned out to be helpful in the central story. So this is why the 163 interviews were so important and the shared memories of what happened. There was not a big paper trail, and that was a challenge.”
When asked why a sitting governor would sell pardons, Hunt responded Blanton had a complex personality.
“In most respects he was a very successful politician,” Hunt said of Blanton. “He had grown up working hard, and came from a good family, but there were some flaws in there contributing to his behavior in office, which frankly became bizarre. He had a drinking problem. He had some people around him, as it turned out, who felt they were due some kind of reward for having been out of office. The Republicans had thrown a lot of their friends out of office when Gov. (Winfield) Dunn had come into office four years earlier. All of that contributed to this behavior.”
The Alexander group’s discussion centered around how to use the state constitution to allow him to be installed early as governor.
“That was an important point of discussion on the day of the coup,” Hunt said. “You have the state attorney general, the United States attorney, and others who spent hours in a hotel room going through that analysis. The fact is the state constitution was not very clear on this point. This was an extraordinary situation. State law did not provide much guidance. The question came down to whether Gov.-elect Alexander, Speaker Ned McWherter and Lt. Gov. John Wilder could get an agreement that an early swearing in of a governor-elect would be deemed constitutional if it were ever challenged.”
Attorney General Leech, Hunt said, helped convince Alexander an early swearing in was constitutional and Blanton never challenged it in court.
But no one apparently took joy in Alexander’s early swearing-in ceremony, including his wife, Honey.
The book’s cover displays a photograph of Alexander talking to reporters while a despondent Honey Alexander looks at the floor.
“She told me it was probably the worst day of her life, which is in contrast for someone about to be the first lady,” Hunt said of Honey Alexander’s reaction. “But that was understandable. ... It was more like a funeral.”
After being ousted from office, Blanton was never convicted of selling pardons.
He was convicted of mail fraud, conspiracy and extortion for selling liquor licenses. He had been exposed as being part of a scheme controlling or forcing kickbacks from Nashville liquor store owners and spent 22 months in a federal penitentiary.
Although the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals initially reversed the convictions because of the way the district court conducted the jury selection, that decision was vacated by the court’s ruling to rehear the case and then affirm Blanton’s convictions.
Still, in January 1988, nine of the 11 charges were thrown out in a separate appeal.
Blanton spent his final years trying unsuccessfully to clear his name. In 1988, he ran for a West Tennessee congressional seat, but finished far behind the winner and got only 10 percent of the vote. He then went to work for a Henderson auto dealership. He died at the Jackson-Madison County Hospital in Jackson while awaiting a liver transplant.
Where Is Roger?
Among those pardoned by Blanton was Roger Humphreys, the Washington County son of a Blanton supporter. Humphreys had been convicted of killing his wife and a male companion.
After being pardoned, Hunt said longtime Nashville journalist Lee Smith spotted Humphreys working as a photographer for the state’s tourism department.
Hunt said he did not know of Humphreys’ current whereabouts.
“I tried to find him,” Hunt said of Humphreys. “I had another fellow helping me to locate him. We were not successful with that. He may well be living out of state. For all I know, he may be dead. He has never been heard from publicly since the night he was released by Gov. Blanton — Jan. 15, 1979. That is a remaining mystery.”
The book’s contribution
“Coup” will be distributed statewide during the week following Labor Day to every Tennessee public library, all university and college libraries, and libraries in each middle school and high school.
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat, is quoted as saying, “Every elected official in America should read it.” Alexander added, “What fascinates me 34 years later is how much I did not know about what had happened until I read (the book).”
Hunt insisted the most important part of the book’s story is not about corruption.
“A lot of that (corruption) had been pretty well-documented,” Hunt said. “What was most interesting to me was how the responsible public officials solved the problem. ... They solved an extraordinary problem that could have been a public safety emergency. They did not know how many more prisoners might be released. Two nights before, 52 prisoners had been released, most of them not recommended for release by the state board of pardons and paroles. Some were murderers and rapists.”
For more, visit www.CoupTheBook.com.