Coup News

October 8, 2013

The Tennessean

It’s got everything except a Ferris wheel.

This weekend, Nashville celebrates the annual Southern Festival of Books in the space tucked between the downtown library and the state Capitol. Go hungry. Go with the kids. Go to meet writers you’ve loved for years and to discover new favorites.

If you’ve never been, this is simply one of Nashville’s most outstanding signature events. It is free. There are no tickets or reservations required. You can come and go. You can stay as long or as little as you want. And you can shop. Have mercy, if you love books, this is the place to do your early Christmas shopping.

This is the 25th anniversary of the festival. The main focus is sessions with authors from all genres in committee rooms at Legislative Plaza, in the House and Senate chambers in the state Capitol, and in meeting rooms at the downtown library. Free schedules will be available.

Most authors will read a bit from their latest works, but the heart and soul of the event is the exchange between readers and writers. This is your chance to ask them questions. All the authors will go to a signing area after their session.

There will be food vendors and a music stage. The popular youth stage will be back. It will feature storytellers, artists, favorite book characters, dancers, first lady Crissy Haslam reading from “The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe,” and a 25th birthday party for “Where’s Waldo?”

I’ve had the pleasure of hosting a session at the festival every year for the past decade or so. This year, I’m thrilled to present Nashville writer Keel Hunt, author of “Coup! The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Republican Lamar Alexander in Office Early, and Stopped a Pardon Scandal.”

This is a wonderfully detailed nonfiction book about the hours on Jan. 19, 1979, when the state’s top leaders from both parties came together to swear Alexander in early as governor. They felt they had to in order to stop Gov. Ray Blanton from freeing murderers from prison for cash. Hunt, a former journalist and campaign aide to Alexander, conducted 163 interviews to write “Coup.” He now works as a public affairs consultant and writes a monthly column for The Tennessean’s editorial pages.

I can’t provide a Tilt-A-Whirl or that Ferris wheel, but I promise it will be a lively and interesting hour. And after you’ve experienced the entire Southern Festival of Books, book lovers will agree it’s better than the best ride on any midway.


Click here for the original article online.

September 2, 2013

Kingsport Times-News
By Hank Hayes

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.”

Constitutionality issue 

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.”

The aftermath 

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.”

Click here for the original article on

September 2, 2013

Knoxville News Sentinel
By Betty Bean

At noon on Jan. 17, 1979, the principal planners of the 1982 World’s Fair set up a fancy lunch at the Hyatt Hotel Nashville with key government officials in hopes of greasing the skids for a future funding request.

Guests included House Speaker Ned Ray McWherter, Lt. Gov. John Wilder and Attorney General Bill Leech. Not attending was Gov.-elect Lamar Alexander, who had other things to do, and whose presence wasn’t required, since he was already pretty much a cinch to support the event.

Bo Roberts, who remembered the luncheon as a high-dollar, prime rib and red wine affair, led the Knoxville group.

Then somebody got a phone call and, poof! Wilder, McWherter and Leech were gone.

“We all knew something was going on, but we had no clue what it was – until we found out later in the day. It was on the day of the coup. The day it was happening. Of course, we had no idea,” Roberts told Keel Hunt, author of “Coup,” a deeply-researched, highly engrossing, minute-by-minute account of the day a bunch of Democrats ousted their crooked governor and installed a Republican before his scheduled inauguration.

This central fact makes “Coup” more than a well-told yarn. The inescapable comparison of then and now is stark.

“Then” was an era when Democrats and Republicans sometimes put aside their differences to do what was right; “now” is an era when they don’t.

The felonious governor, of course, was Ray Blanton, whose major priority during his last days in office was selling pardons to a scary array of Group W-level felons with access to money.

The governor-elect was Lamar Alexander, who had deep misgivings about the propriety of allowing himself to take the oath of office early and relied heavily on the approval of the two speakers.

Other GOP players were Alexander’s Yodaesque advisor Lewis Donelson and pesky state Sen. Victor Ashe, whose habit of requesting attorney general’s opinions set the stage for the coup when he asked whether a governor-elect could be sworn in before inauguration day (the answer was yes).

And is any Tennessee political tale set during the last five decades complete without a mention of Mr. Ubiquitous, Tom Ingram?

Of course not. He’s all over this book like white on rice as Alexander’s chief campaign aide-de-camp. He may not, however, be thrilled with debunking the common wisdom that credits Ingram with the signature plaid shirt Alexander wore on the walk across the state. Hunt credits the candidate himself with suggesting the shirt because he thought he would look like a dope hoofing from Mountain City to Memphis in a blue suit.

Hunt also credits the candidate’s wife, Honey, with the concept of walking across the state, and treats it as an original idea without mentioningWalkin’ Lawton Chiles, who hiked more than 1,000 miles from Key West to Pensacola during his successful campaign for U.S. Senate in 1970.

Johnson City native Lee Smith, creator of the Tennessee Journal, long a must-read for political insiders, lit the fuse for the fire to come in September 1977 when he recognized the governor’s official photographer as his homeboy Roger Humphreys, a well-connected double murderer from the Tri-Cities who had been sent away for life after being convicted of blowing away his ex-wife and her lover. Smith’s mention of Humphreys’ cushy work release assignment sparked statewide outrage.

A couple of weeks later, tough questioning from TV reporter Carol Marin – who got her start at Channel 10 in Knoxville where she was known by her married name Carol Utley – set the stage for Blanton’s eventual demise when she frustrated him into blurting out a defiant pledge to pardon Humphreys.

Blanton’s fate was sealed when undercover agents decided to test the lengths to which he would go by throwing out the name of the worst of the worst – James Earl Ray. The Blanton security operative acting as a go-between mulled the request before turning it down, sort of. Ray was probably too hot to pardon, he said. But maybe an escape could be arranged.

Why now?

The timing and distribution of the book (and probably the subtext, which celebrates bipartisanship) have deeply irritated some who question the decision of Vanderbilt University Press to donate 2,000 free copies to schools and public libraries across the state.

Suspicions were compounded when the Tennessee State Museum announced a traveling exhibit called “Come on Along: Lamar Alexander’s Journey as Governor,” a condensed version of an exhibit assembled from material the Alexanders donated to Vanderbilt.

The tour was put on hold until 2015 after notes surfaced indicating that museum officials had consulted Ingram about the exhibit.

2014 is an election year.

Click here for the original story online.

August 15, 2013

Nashville Scene
By Chris Scott

In recent years, any hint of bipartisanship in a legislative body is announced with a fanfare equivalent to a breakthrough in the quest for peace in the Middle East. Democrats and Republicans seem to pick and gouge at one another gleefully in a contest to see who can claim the distinction of inflicting the most damage on the opposition. In such an environment, the well-being of the people can be forgotten and victory defined by ephemeral gains for the individual parties. In Coup: The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Republican Lamar Alexander in Office Early, and Stopped a Pardon Scandal, Nashville writer Keel Hunt remembers a day in 1979 that will long stand as a model of non-partisan self-sacrifice and defense of the people’s right to honest government.

The basic story of Coup is straightforward. Gov. Ray Blanton, a Democrat, was accused of selling pardons to criminals who posed genuine physical threats to the people of Tennessee. Governor-elect Alexander, a Republican, was told that more pardons were coming, and that it would be best to take office four days early. Speaker of the House Ned McWherter and Lt. Gov. John Wilder, both Democrats, agreed that Blanton had to go, and they bent over backward to make sure their political foe Alexander could take office with unanimous support.

The details of the story, as expected, are much more complex and involve a host of actors of various temperaments from both parties. Careers were on the line. Tennessee’s reputation was on the line. And only five years after Watergate, the people’s faith in government was on the line. This last fact may have played the greatest role. The ghost of the Nixon presidency sat in the corner, reminding the participants that their fellow citizens might long remember whether they had done the right thing.

The right thing took barely more than four hours, but those four hours of intensity and nerves had been years in the making. Blanton had begun his term as a popular and outgoing governor. “Deeper into his term,” writes Hunt, “Blanton’s behavior turned erratic, and his moods grew dark.” On Jan. 15, 1979, the governor did the unthinkable, signing clemencies for 52 prisoners, including 23 convicted murderers. Of the total number, only 36 had been recommended for parole.

The U.S. attorney for Middle Tennessee, Hal Hardin, knew that more clemencies were awaiting the governor’s signature. In Coup, Hunt portrays Hardin as a hero among heroes — the man who decided to make a phone call to Alexander, not as an officer of the United States government, but as a citizen of Tennessee, raising the alarm that something terrible was happening. There were fears, probably not well-founded but nonetheless real, that even Martin Luther King assassin James Earl Ray could be set free.

But what could legally be done? Tennessee Attorney General Bill Leech huddled with his senior staff in a hotel room to debate the constitutionality of putting Alexander in office earlier than planned. In the end, the ambiguity of the state constitution on the issue of inauguration of governors — ambiguity that has since been eliminated — served the attorneys well. They decided an early swearing-in was legal.

Just because a thing is legal, however, doesn’t make it right, and Alexander was reluctant to take the first step. The thought of usurping the existing governor filled him with dread. So a dance began among Alexander, Wilder, McWherter and other behind-the-scenes players, Hunt writes, who “were simply unaccustomed to working together, nor to speaking to each other at all, let alone collaborating in private about Governor Blanton and what seemed to be the rising velocity of madness.”

But dance they did — right into the chamber of the Supreme Court of Tennessee, where Alexander took the oath of office on what his wife, Honey, remembers as the worst day of her life. The coup was done, and an enraged Ray Blanton was told about it just a few short minutes before it happened.

Hunt, who campaigned for Lamar Alexander in 1978 and later worked as Alexander’s speechwriter, was not part of the action during those fateful final days of the Blanton administration. But being a political operative and a former reporter for The Tennessean gives Hunt the perfect platform from which to tell the story. He has interviewed the surviving participants and delved into the records to tell the complete history, elements of which even Alexander had not heard before.

It is a testament to the bipartisan nature of the events that Coup carries jacket blurbs from Phil Bredesen, Fred Thompson and Alexander. And in the forward to the book, John Seigenthaler, at the time editor-in-chief of The Tennessean, notes that Hunt’s “book enriches history and reminds us again that in a time of crisis, on a dark day in Tennessee, there were politicians who were willing to act with courage and vision, across party lines, in the public interest.” Here’s hoping that the memory lingers.

Click here for the original article on

August 9, 2013

Keel Hunt (’71) has written a new book, Coup (Vanderbilt University Press), a behind-the-scenes story of the downfall of former Tennessee governor Ray Blanton. A former city editor at The Tennessean, Hunt was a key member of then-gubernatorial candidate Lamar Alexander’s campaign staff and later was Alexander’s special assistant. Hunt, who has a master’s from Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and also attended the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, later became a strategy consultant for businesses including HCA and Pilot Oil Corp. He later served as staff director of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, leading the planning for the Partnership 2000 economic development initiative. In 1993, Hunt established his own public affairs consulting business (The Strategy Group) and has since worked for institutions including Ingram Industries, the Frist Foundation, and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.

Click here to see the original story in MTSU Magazine.

July 28, 2013

The Tennessean


Tennessee has the dubious distinction of being the only state that has had a coup to replace a governor. It happened in 1979, just two days after then-Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton pardoned or commuted sentences for 52 convicted criminals.

The U.S. attorney general for Middle Tennessee — a Democrat — had information that more pardons were coming, and there were suspicions that the Blanton administration was selling clemencies.

So, the leaders of the state Senate and House — Democrats Ned McWherter and John Wilder — conspired with Republican Gov.-elect (and current U.S. Sen.) Lamar Alexander to swear Alexander in early to stop any more pardons.

Former Tennessean reporter Keel Hunt, a member of the incoming Alexander administration, has written a book that documents the historic event, one that includes biographies of each of the major players.

Hunt did more than 150 interviews for the book, “Coup: The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Republican Lamar Alexander in Office Early, and Stopped a Pardon Scandal” ($27.50, Vanderbilt University Press).

Still hard to believe all these years later that Democrats and Republicans got together to oust a governor. What an extraordinary event.

Extraordinary. Very much so. It had never happened before, anywhere in any state in the country. And it certainly has never happened anywhere since. It was also extraordinary given the fact that senior Democrats, as well as the Republican governor-elect, were able to work through this day, a very difficult day, successfully.

In turn, the story has great relevance to our country today when that kind of bipartisanship is so hard to find.

What made you want to do this so many years later?

It was a story that stuck in my head for many years. And I did think it was an important tale. I wrote the book for two reasons. One was, I knew it was a great story and it would be fun to tell it. I’m a writer and I enjoy writing, and it struck me as a good yarn. And it was an extraordinary case study about leaders in different parties working together to reach a solution.

Why three decades later?

I was very busy in my work. There was very little time to sit down and write anything of my own. One year would lead to another, and I never sat down to do it.

I had run into Hal Hardin (former U.S. attorney general who got the ball rolling on the coup) again, and that pulled it into the front of my mind. And I thought, I want to sit down and write this story.

Gov. Blanton eventually was convicted of a felony, but never of selling pardons. I wonder if the participants would’ve felt better had there been a conviction of selling pardons.

Oh, I think that would’ve changed it dramatically. You have strong opinions on both sides — how bad was this situation? There was ambiguity at the time: How much of the clemency-for-cash scandal was Gov. Blanton aware of? In truth, he was never convicted of that.

There was plenty else going on in that administration and he was convicted of another crime, but not this one.

But among these central participants … there was in a matter of hours, very quick agreement that this coup had to happen, that something had to be done. There was potentially a public safety emergency; there was fear that one of the prisoners about to be released in the second wave would be (convicted Martin Luther King Jr. assassin) James Earl Ray.

You’ve said several times that Hal Hardin is the hero of this story, and you’ve used the word “hero” in our conversations. Can you please explain?

Hal Hardin, like many of the participants, was a very senior Democrat in the Tennessee Democratic Party. He was a longtime political character, owed his appointment as a judge to Gov. Blanton. Hal Hardin was Gov. Blanton’s first judicial appointee in 1975 after he took office.

He (Hardin) was appointed U.S. attorney by President Carter. At the time, Hal Hardin was considered to be a potential candidate for governor himself. He had worked hard in the party.

So this was a very problematic situation for him, but he felt his first duty was to public safety and to the rule of law. So when he got this information on late Wednesday morning, Jan. 17, 1979, that there was another list coming, that clemencies were being prepared that morning for a list beyond the 52 that were released, he took a courageous step.

He made a phone call. He didn’t call his boss, the attorney general of the United States, Griffin Bell. He didn’t call anybody else at the Justice Department. He called Lamar Alexander, he called a Republican, because Alexander was the only available governor-elect who might be sworn in early and end this craziness.

In that call, he said, “I’m calling you as a Tennessean.” That was a courageous act.

You mentioned that Hal Hardin had a boss. Did he run it up the chain at all?

I asked him why he didn’t. And he said a couple reasons. “I’m one U.S. attorney out of 90-some. And I didn’t think they would get back to me quick enough because the clock was ticking.”

Number two, he felt that if they got back to him, they might say, “Leave it alone.”

So that’s what I mean. It was a very courageous act on his part that probably kept a lot of bad people in prison as a result.

What were the concerns around carrying out the coup?

On the afternoon of the decision, there was worry that what might happen could be not so peaceful. They were concerned partly because of Gov. Blanton’s personality, his behavior that he might do any number of things. The governor is in charge of the Highway Patrol, the National Guard. He could have encircled the Capitol and refused to let (Alexander’s) people in.

Part of the thought process was how to make this go properly. You didn’t want to have conflict about two people claiming to be governor.

July 28, 2013
The Tennessean
By Brad Schmitt

Click here for the original story on

July 27, 2013

Coverage from the July 19 event at The First Amendment Center will air this Saturday July 27 at 10pm (CST) on C-SPAN2/BookTv.
(C-SPAN2/BookTv is channel 100 on the Nashville Comcast lineup)

For more information on the program, click here.

July 23, 2013

Keel and Coup will be featured on A Word on Words with John Seigenthaler on Sunday, September 29th at 10:30am.

This same show will be re-broadcast on NPT 2 on Friday, October 4th at 9pm.  This can be found on a digital tuner at 8.2, or on Comcast 241.

The podcast will then be available on iTunes/word on words/Keel Hunt as a free download, and it will be available at where it will be archived.

July 21, 2013

On Wednesday morning, Jan. 17, 1979, Republican Gov.-elect Lamar Alexander was enjoying a brief respite from his five-year quest; he was sitting in his campaign offices on Hobbs Road, working on his speech for Saturday, when he, his wife, Honey, family, friends and supporters would celebrate the long, sole-wearing journey they had taken to Nashville.

And then U.S. Attorney Hal Hardin called and ruined his day.

And it was not just Lamar Alexander’s day that Hardin ruined. “It was the worst day of my life,” Honey has said of the next several hours that led to Alexander being sworn in by Justice Joe Henry in the Supreme Court chambers just before 6 that evening.

Keel Hunt, a former reporter and longtime media and public relations consultant, has just published a book, “Coup,” about that day when the Democratic leadership of the state legislature, the Democratic leadership of the state’s judiciary, the Democratic attorney general and the Democratic U.S. attorney determined that the only way to prevent one of the worst political scandals in Tennessee’s history from spiraling out of control was to prematurely oust Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton and swear in the young Republican Lamar Alexander. John Seigenthaler wrote the foreword, and on Friday hosted Hunt, Alexander and Hardin for a rare public review of that day.

Hunt starts his epilogue: “Among the principals, there were no further meetings on the subject, ever.” As Hardin said at the Friday event, it is not an event to celebrate.

But it is certainly an event that we should remember and take heed of.

When Alexander beat Knoxville banker Jake Butcher to win the governor’s race, Tennessee Democrats were in the midst of losing control of the state. After more than 50 years of dominance, voters had elected two Republican senators, Howard Baker (elected in 1966) and Bill Brock (elected in 1970, but Jim Sasser won the seat back for Democrats in 1976), and Democrats had just lost the governor’s office for the second time in eight years.

Though not panicked, Democrats were of little mind to cooperate with these new Republicans who were in the process of wresting away the lucrative relationships that come with entrenched political power.

Yet faced with the naked acts of Blanton and his staff, who were engaged in a “pay-for-pardons” scheme that ended up freeing 52 criminals — including several murderers — whose parole had been denied, the Democratic leadership, Lt. Gov. John Wilder, House Speaker Ned McWherter and Attorney General William Leech agreed with Hardin, a fast-rising Democrat appointed U.S. attorney by President Jimmy Carter, that Tennessee faced the prospect that Blanton could “empty the penitentiary” with his scheme. Already, the FBI had arrested three Blanton staffers for corruption, though Blanton was not indicted after a December 1978 appearance before the grand jury.

In a remarkable turn of events, these leaders came together, debated heatedly about their constitutional rights and obligations and concluded that Tennessee demanded more of them than partisan politics.

Justice Henry was pulled from his recuperative bed; Honey Alexander dug out the family bible; and Alexander took the oath that evening. Welcome to the mansion.

At Friday’s event in the Seigenthaler Center, Alexander was asked how the abrupt beginning of his term had affected his governorship.

“Though it would be difficult on the country, I wish that all political leaders had that experience of a six-hour boot camp with the opposing party,” he said. “I did not know Hal (Hardin), Ned (McWherter), John (Wilder) or Bill (Leech) other than by reputation before that day, but we worked through the most difficult problem we would face.”

Alexander became the first Tennessee governor to serve consecutive terms, and he was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2002.

We are fortunate to have the opportunity to hear firsthand from those who lived through the dramatic twists and turns of governance, and to read their accounts from the skilled hands of journalists such as Keel Hunt.

We say that we study and remember history so that we do not have to experience the same tortured process to learn its lessons and avoid repeating mistakes.

That is what we say …


Sunday July 21, 2013
The Tennessean
Written by Frank Daniels III

Click here for original story on

July 20, 2013

The late Lt. Gov. John Wilder once described it as “impeachment, Tennessee style.”

Keel Hunt’s new book calls the events surrounding Sen. Lamar Alexander’s swearing in to the Tennessee governor’s office in 1979 “the coup.”

John Seigenthaler, chairman emeritus of The Tennessean, hosted a panel discussion of Hunt’s book, which is titled “Coup,” at Vanderbilt University’s John Seigenthaler Center. The panel included Alexander, Hunt and former U.S. Attorney Hal Hardin, who was the first to advise Alexander to take office early on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 1979.

The recently released book tells the story of the cash for pardons scandal that compelled Alexander, who would go on to serve two terms as governor and eventually be elected to the U.S. Senate, to take the governor’s oath of office three days early. Government officials, namely Hardin, learned that then Gov. Ray Blanton, a Democrat, planned to pardon dozens of criminals in his last few days of office.

“It was a stunning moment in the history of this state,” Seigenthaler said on Friday night to the more than one hundred people who attended the discussion.

“Coup: The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Republican Lamar Alexander in Office Early, and Stopped a Pardon Scandal,” the book’s full title, focuses on the bi-partisan collaboration between Alexander, a Republican, and state Democrats to keep the criminals Blanton intended to pardon, which included murderers and rapists, behind bars.

Hunt conducted 163 interviews over more than five years to piece the story together.

Several days before Alexander and his collaborator’s unprecedented actions, Blanton had already pardoned 52 men.

Hardin called Alexander on Jan. 17, informing him of the existence of a second list of men the governor intended to pardon. By 5:55 p.m., Alexander was the new governor of Tennessee.

Saturday July 20, 2013
The Tennessean
Written by Caleb Whitmer

Click here for the original story on