The State of Tennessee was in crisis. On Tuesday, January 16, 1979, the news media reported that the outgoing Governor, Democrat Ray Blanton, had the day before commuted the sentence of a convicted double murderer by the name of Roger Humphreys, the son of a political supporter, and pardoned or released 51 others from prisons throughout the state. The Blanton administration, already under investigation by the FBI, planned to release even more in the few days before Governor-Elect, Republican Lamar Alexander, was to be inaugurated the following Saturday, January 20.
Hal Hardin, who had been Governor Blanton’s first appointment to a circuit judgeship, had resigned that position in 1979 when named by President Jimmy Carter as the United States Attorney for the Middle District of Tennessee. A man of an exceptional reputation, Hardin maintained an office in the federal building on Broadway in Nashville, within walking distance of the state capitol building. As the chief federal law enforcement officer for the district, Hardin often worked hand-in-glove with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which had suspected that aides to Governor Blanton had accepted bribes in return for the release of prison inmates and were continuing to do. By the terms of Article III, Section 6 of the Tennessee Constitution, of course, a sitting governor has the power to either pardon those convicted of state crimes or commute, that is shorten, their sentences.
Targets of the FBI investigation included Blanton’s legal counsel, Eddie Sisk; his staff extradition officer, Charles Benson; and Tennessee Highway Patrolman, Fred Taylor, who served as security for the governor. Based upon recorded conversations in Memphis between Taylor and a government informant, the FBI had arrested all three men some thirty days before the January news reports. Agents found marked $100 bills on Sisk and clemency documents, a general term that can include a pardon or a commutation, in Benson’s briefcase. All three men were charged with violations of the federal racketeering act.
Hardin had learned of the taped conversations regarding prisoner for pay between Taylor and the FBI informant, which included a reference to the state’s most notorious inmate – James Earl Ray, the man convicted of the murder of Martin Luther King. Another name the FBI had discovered among those scheduled for release was triple murderer, Eddie Denton of Cocke County. While hesitant to intervene in a matter related to a state issue, Hardin had confirmed his worst suspicions from a conversation with a longtime friend of Blanton’s, who stated, “Hal, nobody can talk to him right now…. By 10 in the morning, he’s drunk … out of control.” Keel Hunt, in the masterfully researched and written book The Coup, wrote that Hardin ultimately decided to call Alexander as a courtesy, but chose to do so “as a Tennessean,” not as the United States Attorney. He did, however, inform the Governor-Elect that he felt that his duty as a federal official required him to immediately notify state authorities of what the FBI had learned of Blanton’s plans.
After being contacted by Hardin, Alexander first determined that the call was legitimate. He hung up and then telephoned Hardin back at his office. After learning the details of Blanton’s intentions, he first sought the counsel of his top aide, Tom Ingram, and then legendary Memphis attorney, Lewie Donelson, a law partner to Howard Baker, who had agreed to serve as Alexander’s Director of Finance and Administration in the upcoming term. The author Hunt quotes Ingram’s general reaction in his book, “There was no enthusiasm for [an early administration of the oath of office] in our shop.” He explained that the days before the inauguration had been meticulously scripted. “It was going to spoil things,” Ingram recalled. Upon learning of the possibility of an early transition later in the day, a distressed Honey Alexander concurred with that assessment, describing the disruption of her carefully tailored plans before the following Saturday as the “worst day of my life.”
Donelson, an ardent Republican, advised Alexander, “You can’t [take the oath early] without the Democrats.” Alexander agreed. He would not accept the office early absent the participation and support of the leaders in the senate, the house, and the state’s attorney general, all Democrats. Having developed longtime, respectful relationships with both the Speaker of the Senate, John Wilder, a Democrat, and Speaker of the House, Ned McWherter, also a Democrat, Donelson became a valuable asset in the discussions that were to follow. Hardin and Donelson each telephoned the speakers. Donelson, when interviewed later, recalled that McWherter responded, “I’m for it.” After a pause, Donelson said, “But Ned, I want you to be [at the ceremony].” His call to Wilder was brief and ended without any commitment.
Coincidentally and without collaboration with Alexander or the transitional staff of the new administration, Republican State Senator Victor Ashe, was well-known in those days for seeking opinions on a variety of legal issues from the staff of Tennessee Attorney General Bill Leech. Troubled like so many others with Blanton’s scandal-ridden term of office, Ashe asked for a definitive answer on whether Alexander could be sworn in before the traditional date of the inauguration. A member of Leech’s staff responded in the affirmative. Leech, however, was unaware of his staff’s opinion and, after learning of Hardin’s findings, needed time to review the constitutional question.
Attorney General Leech, who lived some 50 miles away in Maury County, had reserved room 416 at the Sheraton in Nashville, while awaiting the birth of his child at a nearby hospital. To avoid drawing attention to their discussions, this room became the designated place for a more extensive briefing from Hardin. By then, Leech’s support staff had more carefully researched the basic legal issue. Could an early transition of the governor’s office be successfully defended under Tennessee law? While hesitant at first, Leech was persuaded by his staff that an early swearing-in would be compliant with the terms of the state constitution. If the leadership in the state house and senate agreed to take the requisite action, his staff would ask Chief Justice Joe Henry of the Tennessee Supreme Court, also elected to his office as a Democrat, to administer the oath of office to the new governor.
Meanwhile, Alexander, cautious by nature, continued to express concerns about the propriety of an early transition. Much later, in an interview by Hunt, he reflected on his trepidation, “That might be how you change power in a Latin America junta [but] what’s special about America … is that … the power passes peacefully to the [election] winner.” When recalling the course of the events, Alexander recited the words of George Washington during the country’s first presidential term: “What is most important in this grand experiment, the United States? Not the election of the first president, but the election of the second president. The peaceful transition of power is what will separate this country from every other country in the world.”
First, I am a Tennessean. This is in the
interest of Tennessee, regardless of party.
– Ned McWherter, Speaker of the House, 1979
McWherter and Wilder, now mindful of the FBI’s findings, talked with Leech, who confirmed the legality of an early transition. Despite likely repercussions from their own party, each agreed to be present, concluding that a united front was the best way to stop Blanton from releasing for pay even more prisoners. Then a member of Leech’s staff, Bill Koch, now the law dean at Belmont, remembered that everyone decided that the transfer of office should take place that very day, fearing what Blanton would do if he found out about their plans.
When Chief Justice Henry, who was recovering from heart surgery, received notification, he drove to his office chambers. In a conversation with Donelson, Henry first acknowledged the gravity of the situation, “This is very serious …,” he lamented, before accepting the correctness of Leech’s opinion on the legality of an early transition. The author Hunt quotes the exchange between these two giants within the legal profession. “We’ve talked to the FBI,” explained Donelson, “and there are going to be more pardons. Everybody’s going to have a black eye [if no action is taken].” Henry agreed.
All the principals in the process except for Hardin, who as a federal officer felt that the action was purely a matter for the state, agreed to meet at the Supreme Court building at 5:45 that afternoon. Meanwhile, reporters from both Nashville newspapers, who had observed the unusually guarded activities in the Legislative Plaza that afternoon, suspected something “big” was about to happen. As the rumors began to spread, two of the local television stations sent cameramen to stand outside McWherter’s office. Contrary to his popular open-door policy, his entrance was closed. Blanton somehow got wind of these unusual activities and telephoned Wilder’s office hoping to be briefed. A Wilder aide chose to be evasive, denying any knowledge of the plan. When McWherter emerged from his office to walk to the courtroom, he invited the media to follow, but did so without explanation.
Lamar and Honey Alexander arrived at the Supreme Court Building just as McWherter, Wilder, Leech, Henry, and others assembled in what is called the robing room, a private area which opens into the public courtroom. Just as the ceremony was about to begin, McWherter telephoned Blanton’s residence. When he answered, McWherter handed the phone to Leech who explained the circumstances. Obviously shocked by their planned action, Blanton responded, “The hell you say. I hate to go out … like this….” The phone call ended. All then entered the courtroom where the media has assembled. Alexander spoke briefly, and the Chief Justice administered the oath of office. Speakers McWherter and Wilder extended their congratulations to the new governor, expressing approval of the process. The CBS affiliate televised the events live, interrupting the network’s evening news.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, a television reporter interviewed McWherter, whom he addressed on camera as “the leader of the Democratic Party.” The reporter continued, “I don’t wish to be indiscrete, Mr. Speaker, but you are of the ‘other party’ than the man just sworn in as governor; the man whose ouster as governor was felt needed by you and other members of your own party. Could you comment on that?” McWherter explained his rationale and that of his colleagues as the basis to support the early transition. Not satisfied, the reporter pressed on, “The man you just swore in is a Republican,” he emphasized, “You are a Democrat, and most of the people who participated in the decision to swear him in early are Democrats….” Before the reporter could finish his question, McWherter interrupted, “First, I am a Tennessean,” he insisted. “This is in the interest of Tennessee, regardless of party.”
A lesson for the ages. Amen.