Tennessean: Editorial: Sen. Alexander recalls fateful moment for state

Posted on April 15, 2012

Last week was a wistful one for Lamar Alexander, Tennessee’s senior U.S. senator, and former U.S. education secretary and two-term governor of Tennessee. On Monday night, as part of an exhibit of Alexander’s papers at the Jean and Alexander Heard Library at Vanderbilt, Alexander took part in a panel of luminaries reminiscing about a pivotal moment in Tennessee history.

On Jan. 17, 1979, Gov.-elect Alexander was administered the oath of office three days early, after the FBI and U.S. attorney had learned that outgoing Gov. Ray Blanton was preparing to sign commutations for dozens of state inmates, many of whom had committed serious crimes.

The commutations and pardons were arranged in exchange for cash, and the urgency called for unusual action — essentially a takeover of state government from a sitting governor.

At Tennessean.com, you can view a portion of the proceedings from Monday’s program, which included former U.S. Sen. Fred Thompson and Tennessean Chairman Emeritus John Seigenthaler, as well as a follow-up interview with Sen. Alexander conducted by Tennessean Editorial Page Editor Ted Rayburn.

Some excerpts from the interview:

Lamar Alexander, on the most surprising thing to him to come out of the program: “The thing that caught me off-guard was that (U.S. Attorney) Hal Hardin didn’t talk to anybody before he called me. ... He didn’t call the attorney general of the United States ... he talked to no one. ... (Afterward), I basically made the decision on my own that while I knew it was the kind of thing that is absolutely not done in the United States ... I’d probably have to do it.”

Did the events of Watergate cast a shadow over the takeover of power?

Alexander: “One reason I announced that Fred Thompson, the former Watergate counsel, was coming back to Tennessee to review documents was to restore Tennesseans’ trust in state government.”

Did you share words with Democratic Lt. Gov. John Wilder and House Speaker Ned McWherter before the swearing-in?

Alexander: “This (crisis) turned a celebration into a funeral. And at a funeral, you never know what to say to one another. ... I did ask McWherter, “Are you comfortable with this?” And he said, “No, I’m not comfortable with this. But I’m relying on the same information you are.”

What would you say to Tennesseans today if the possibility of such a crisis were to reoccur?

Alexander: “... I guess I would say that the people you elect are not perfect, but they’re also not as bad as you think they might be. ... I’d never worked with Speaker Wilder and Speaker McWherter before ... each person there acted in an admirable way, putting the state ahead of any partisan thought.”