Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor remarks of Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) -- Remembering Ned McWherter

Posted on April 5, 2011

Mr. President, it is my sad responsibility to announce that former Gov. Ned McWherter of Tennessee has died this afternoon. Ned had many friends here in Washington, but he had a lot more in Tennessee.

What symbolized Ned McWherter to me was a story that occurred to me when I was elected Governor in 1978. I was a young Republican, about 37 years old. There hadn't been many Republican Governors in Tennessee at that time. The whole State was one party. It was very Democratic. Ned McWherter was the speaker of the House. For those who knew Ned McWherter, he was a big, burly, Hoss Cartwright sort of fellow. He and the Lieutenant Governor, a Democrat, pretty well ran the capital.

Shortly after I came in, the Capitol Hill media came up to speaker Ned McWherter and said: Well, Mr.?Speaker, what are you going to do with this new young Republican Governor?

Speaker McWherter said: I am going to help him, because if he succeeds, our State succeeds.

For 8 years, as he was speaker and I was Governor, he did that. The people of Tennessee apparently didn't mind it because after I left, they elected him Governor. He served for 8 years. That sort of bipartisan cooperation was the way I learned about politics in Tennessee. Ned was a pretty thoroughgoing Democrat. He was one of President Clinton's closest friends and early allies. Democrats all around the country came to him for his homespun advice. He had no problem working hard during election time to put legislators who were Democratic in place of Republicans who were already in their seats. That was not a problem for him

. But in between elections, he knew what to do. We would meet in the Governor's office every Tuesday morning, and we would go over the issues, the Republican Governor and the Democratic leaders. Then we would decide what to do. If I came up with a better schools program, the Democrats would come up with an even better "better schools" program. So when Tennessee became the first State to pay teachers more for teaching well on a Statewide basis in 1984, I made the proposal, but it was the result of a bipartisan education commission that Speaker McWherter and Lieutenant Governor Wilder, both Democrats, and I jointly agreed on. When the legislature agreed to it, I may have proposed it as Governor, but it was amended by the Weakley County amendment, which was the home county of Speaker McWherter. In other words, it was his willingness to fashion a consensus bill on a revolutionary idea at the time, to reward outstanding teachers by paying them more for teaching well.

He did the same thing with highways and roads. Tennessee had one of the worst road systems in the country in the early 1980s. By the time we were finished, we had what the truckers called the best. We had three big road programs. We increased revenues to pay for it so we didn't run up any debt. In every case, Speaker McWherter supported and made sure legislation passed.

When we became a State that attracted Japanese industry, he knew the commitments I made as a Republican Governor he would fulfill as a Democratic leader of the House of Representatives and that he would continue as a Democratic Governor. It was a seamless transition. The same was true with the automobile industry when it had begun to come to Tennessee. People began to look around for a central location with a right-to-work law and good working people. Through a succession of Governors -- Republican, Democratic, Republican, Democratic -- we worked together to do that.

Of special interest to Washington, DC,

right now, through all those Democratic and Republican Governors, we agreed our State would have almost no debt. Under Governor McWherter and Speaker McWherter, our State had almost no debt. If we needed something, we paid for it. As a result, we have low taxes.

Ned McWherter was one of the finest public servants I ever had a chance to work with. He became a close friend. He had an infectious personality and great sense of humor. One of the last visits I had with him included the inauguration of the new Governor, Bill Haslam. Ned McWherter, who was 80 years old, and Jim Haslam, father of the new Governor, were the same age and the best of friends. Their sons competed for the right to be the new Governor of Tennessee. Governor McWherter and Jim Haslam, after the election, were the best of friends. That is the kind of person Ned McWherter was.

There are a lot of people in our State who come in and out of politics. Maybe they are appreciated, maybe they are not. Only a few leave a lasting impression. Ned McWherter will be among the very few who leave the most impression. Part of it was his big, burly, infectious, lovable personality. Part of it was his good sense of politics and openness around the State capital. But a lot of it was his willingness to say to people such as a new young Governor of the opposite party: I am going to help you succeed, because if you succeed, our State succeeds.

Governor McWherter and I talked many times. I talked with him most recently about 1 week ago. He was going to see his doctor again to find out whether, as he said, he had a short fuse or a long fuse. Apparently, he had a short fuse. He didn't have much life left in him, although he may not have known it. Perhaps he did. He used to joke and say the size of the crowd at your funeral will depend a lot on the weather. I think all of us in Tennessee would say the size of the crowd at Ned McWherter's funeral will have nothing to do with the weather, because I imagine it will be standing room only, with people pouring out of the back doors.

We are sad he is gone. But it has been 80 remarkable years. The Governor who never graduated from college is the Governor who had the courage to put into State law the Sanders model for relating student achievement to teacher performance, helping our State win this administration's Race to the Top Award some 15 or 20 years later. He made a real contribution to our State. He has a big place in all our hearts. I am sad to report he is gone. But it is an important time to celebrate the life of a public servant whose lessons of how to achieve consensus and still be a good politician will be a good lesson for everyone in Washington, DC.