“Coup” – A Tennessee History Book Worth Reading
I don’t generally do book reviews but every Tennessean needs to get a copy of Keel Hunt’s new book, “Coup” and read it. Why? Because it’s the only coup of its kind that has ever occurred in this country and it happened in Tennessee! Hunt, who was on Governor Lamar Alexander’s staff, as was I, interviewed hundreds of people who were there and who were a part of Tennessee’s “coup” and early swearing-in in of Governor-elect Lamar Alexander three days early in January, l979.
What makes the coup and this book so fascinating is that both political parties, Democrats and Republicans, participated in the coup in order to keep the Democrat Governor Ray Blanton from releasing more hard-core prisoners in his last hours as Governor.
If you are old enough, you will remember that Governor Blanton and several of his lieutenants served time in prison for various misdeeds, but the one that garnered so much attention was his pardoning of Roger Humphreys, a convicted murderer of two people in Johnson City, TN. Humpheys was a trusty at the Governor’s residence and was allowed to become a day-time state photographer. He was also the son of one of Governor Blanton’s political cronies. A Republican journalist, Lee Smith, saw Humphreys in the State Capitol one day taking photographs and recognized him as someone he had gone to school with in Johnson City. Smith’s subsequent writing about this in the Tennessee Journal created a firestorm that eventually led to Blanton’s undoing. There were several other criminals pardoned or given clemency right before his term ended and the fear that he was about to release many more is what set about the “coup.”
Hal Hardin, who was the US Attorney at that time in Nashville, was the person to set the early swearing-in in motion by calling Gov-elect Alexander and suggesting it be done. Alexander was not inclined to do so because America doesn’t sanction coups and unless both Speaker McWherter, (D) and Lt. Governor Wilder (D) were in favor, he wasn’t inclined to do it. The unfolding of how they all came together, along with State Attorney Bill Leech, Democrat, is what makes this book so intriguing.
I was working as Political Director for the Tennessee State Republican Party and had been involved in all the Republican legislative races. As luck would have it, I happened to be at the Alexander transition headquarters that Wednesday afternoon when the decision was made to swear Alexander in early. As I recall events, we got a call from Tom Ingram, Alexander’s campaign manager, to “get down to the Supreme Court” building as soon as possible. None of us knew what was about to take place but we knew whatever it was, we weren’t going to miss it.
My recollection of the early swearing in was that of a somber affair. Honey, Lamar’s wife, and his three children were there, along with Speaker McWherter and Lt. Governor Wilder. Media who had gotten word crowded in as well. Tom Ingram, Bill Koch, on the AG’s staff, and a few of us Alexander staffers, were all there and witnesses to the only “coup” that has ever occurred on American soil.
I highly recommend reading Hunt’s “Coup” to be well-versed in our state’s really interesting history. It may never happen again where partisanship was set aside for the good of the state. I always admired Speaker McWherter and Lt. Governor Wilder for doing the right thing at the right time. Wish we had more of that today.