Tennessean: Ned McWherter, 'a man of the people,' dies

Posted on April 5, 2011

Ned McWherter, who combined a sharp understanding of politics with a finely honed sense of the little man's plight as he scaled the heights of state government, died Monday of cancer. He was 80.

Mr. McWherter, a Democrat, was at the center of power in Tennessee for more than two decades, first as speaker of the House of Representatives for 14 years and then as a two-term governor from 1987 to 1995.

"There are a lot of people in our state who come in and out of politics, maybe they're appreciated, maybe not," said U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican who preceded Mr. McWherter in the governor's office and forged a strong working relationship with him. "Only a few leave a lasting impression. Ned McWherter will be among the very few that leave the most (lasting) impression."

Longtime friends, colleagues and journalists who covered him said Mr. McWherter had a keen understanding of people and politics and knew how to bring opposing factions together.

"He was the most powerful governor I've known," former U.S. Sen. Jim Sasser said in a recent interview. "He knew everybody so well. He knew what their political needs and desires were so well."

Former Vice President Al Gore, who, like his parents, was close to Mr. McWherter, said in a statement that Tennessee had lost "a true giant."

"Regarded by many as the greatest governor in our state's modern history, he fused the demands of tough executive management with the authentic touch of the common man," Gore said.

Mr. McWherter is survived by his son, Mike McWherter; his daughter-in-law, Mary Jane Wooten McWherter; two grandchildren; a stepdaughter; and two stepgrandchildren. Funeral arrangements were incomplete Monday.

Mr. McWherter was a big bear of a man who had learned to read in a one-room school with a wood-burning stove. He got his start in politics as a 20-year-old driver for and informal aide to unsuccessful congressional candidate Robert "Fats" Everett, who was elected to Congress years later from the Weakley County area, according to McWherter, a biography written by friend and former senior adviser Billy Stair.

He began his career as a traveling shoe salesman and served in the National Guard before winning his first election to the House from Dresden, Tenn., in 1968. Four years later, he decided to challenge the incumbent speaker of the House, Rep. Jim McKinney of Nashville, and won by one vote in the Democratic Caucus and one vote in the full House.

State Rep. Jimmy Naifeh, a political acolyte of Mr. McWherter's who served under him as Democratic majority leader and ultimately broke his record by serving 18 years as speaker, said his mentor worked hard to reach bipartisan agreements on important legislation. He also strove to make the House more than a mere adjunct of the governor's office.

"We were our own independent body once Ned became speaker of the House," Naifeh said.

A master consensus builder

Mr. McWherter's legislative accomplishments included working with then-Gov. Alexander to pass a sales tax increase and a controversial education reform package known as the Career Ladder program, which provided salary supplements for "master teachers."

As both speaker and governor, Mr. McWherter was a masterful consensus builder, said Larry Daughtrey, who first met him in the National Guard and later covered him for years as a Tennessean political reporter.

"He could persuade people to do what he wanted them to do and make them think it was their idea," Daughtrey said.

Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican who was elected speaker this year, said Mr. McWherter enjoyed leading the House.

"He was a worthy opponent when it came down to partisan issues, there's no doubt about that, but I also saw him rise above partisan politics to do what was best for the state on a number of occasions," Harwell said.

While leading Tennessee's legislative branch with then-Lt. Gov. John Wilder, Mr. McWherter also was helping a Southern neighbor. He regularly flew to Washington, D.C., to advise President Jimmy Carter, a former Georgia governor, during Carter's one term in the White House from 1977 to 1981.

"Ned McWherter was one of the most effective and finest public servants I have known," Carter said in a statement Monday. "He was very helpful to me with his wise counsel while I was President and in the years after. … Our nation has lost a great leader, and I a trusted friend."

4 vanilla wafers and a cup of coffee

After 18 years in the House, Mr. McWherter decided he was ready to make a move to the executive branch. He was elected governor in November 1986, defeating Republican Winfield Dunn, a former governor.

The man and the office were a good fit, Daughtrey said, noting that Mr. McWherter had "an iron butt" that allowed him to "sit through everything," including countless government meetings.

"There was probably nobody better prepared to be governor than he was," Daughtrey said. "He knew every crack and crevice of state government."

Ever folksy, Mr. McWherter often joked during his campaign that he would need just four vanilla wafers and a cup of coffee to be ready to start work as chief executive. Friends said that kind of talk was central to his appeal, but it was nothing if not genuine.

"He prided himself on being a man of the people, and he was," said state Sen. Douglas Henry, who was first elected to the Senate in 1970. "He never forgot his origins."

"He loved plain talk," said former U.S. Rep. Bob Clement, who was appointed to the Tennessee Valley Authority's board of directors by Carter, thanks in part to Mr. McWherter's lobbying. "He just knew how to connect with people that a lot of people never know how to connect with, whether they be in the city or country folk."

As governor, Mr. McWherter lived in Nashville but remained true to his rural roots with what he called his "95-County Jobs Plan," which aimed to stimulate economic development beyond just the state's biggest cities. The plan informed his administration's approach to education, road building and other initiatives.

Mr. McWherter also pushed through a sweeping education reform package that equalized state funding for schools, raised graduation standards, abolished the election of school superintendents and established a "value-added" evaluation system for teachers. But his first attempt to fund the reforms failed when the legislature rejected his proposal for a 4 percent income tax, a reduction of the sales and excise tax and elimination of the sales tax on food.

After that rare failure, Mr. McWherter was able to get lawmakers to go along with a half-cent sales tax increase to pay for the reforms.

One of his most lasting legacies, for better or worse, probably will be TennCare. The state's innovative version of Medicaid attempted to broaden health coverage and reduce costs by turning to the private sector to manage care for low-income, disabled and previously uninsured Tennesseans.

The program succeeded at first but eventually chewed up more and more of the state's budget. Gov. Phil Bredesen, the state's chief executive from 2003 until earlier this year, cut more than 350,000 people from the program's rolls during his tenure.

"TennCare was fairly unique for its time," said Sasser, who was in the U.S. Senate when the program started. "It was put forward with the thought that the federal government would come along in a few years and pick up the slack, which did not happen."

Counsel to Clinton

After leaving the governor's office, Mr. McWherter worked as an adviser to another president, Bill Clinton. Announcing his plans as his term at the Capitol wound down, he said he would counsel Clinton on domestic policy issues and downsizing the federal government.

In a statement, Clinton said Mr. McWherter "loved people, politics and policy."

"Just being around him always made me feel better," Clinton said. "He calmed me when I was excited and lifted me up when I was down. His legendary ability to cut to the heart of a problem in a few blunt words was invaluable to me in the White House.

"Those of us who served as Governors with Ned knew that under his leadership, there was no state better run than Tennessee, because of his commitment to both continuous change and sensible management, and his uncanny blend of old-fashioned common sense and progressive values."

Fifteen years after his own time as governor ended, Mr. McWherter watched as his son, Mike, tried to follow in his footsteps as the Democratic nominee. But the younger McWherter's campaign never really caught fire last year, and Republican Bill Haslam was elected by an overwhelming margin to succeed Bredesen.

"This is a sad day for Tennessee," Haslam said in a statement Monday. "Governor McWherter was a true statesman who cared about this state and its citizens."

Former Nashville Mayor Bill Purcell, who served in the House when Mr. McWherter was governor, said he would remember a man whose calm manner and long-range perspective always served him well politically.

"The thing he continually said … when people would get scared, nervous, anxious, overly excited, he'd look at you and say, 'Ease along,' " Purcell recalled. "Truthfully, there aren't too many situations where a little more caution and a little more care won't make the difference. He eased along, but when he was done he had gotten much further ahead."