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The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Republican Lamar Alexander in Office Early, and Stopped a Pardon Scandal

Keel Hunt

Publication Year: 2013

Coup is the behind-the-scenes story of an abrupt political transition, unprecedented in U.S. history. Based on 160 interviews, Hunt describes how collaborators came together from opposite sides of the political aisle and, in an extraordinary few hours, reached agreement that the corruption and madness of the sitting Governor of Tennessee, Ray Blanton, must be stopped. The sudden transfer of power that caught Blanton unawares was deemed necessary because of what one FBI agent called "the state's most heinous political crime in half a century"--a scheme of selling pardons for cash.

On January 17, 1979, driven by new information that some of the worst criminals in the state's penitentiaries were about to be released (and fears that James Earl Ray might be one of them), a small bipartisan group chose to take charge. Senior Democratic leaders, friends of the sitting governor, together with the Republican governor-elect Lamar Alexander (now U.S. Senator from Tennessee), agreed to oust Blanton from office before another night fell. It was a maneuver unique in American political history.

From the foreword by John L. Seigenthaler:
"The individual stories of those government officials involved in the coup--each account unique, but all of them intersecting--were scattered like disconnected pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on the table of history until the author conceived this book. Perhaps because it happened so quickly, and without major disagreement, protest, or dissent, this truly historic moment has been buried in the public mind. In unearthing the drama in gripping detail, Keel Hunt assures that the 'dark day' will be remembered as a bright one in which conflicted politicians came together in the public interest."

Published by: Vanderbilt University Press


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pp. C-iii

Title Page

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pp. iv-ix

Table of Contents

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pp. x-xi

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pp. xii-xix

As I read and reread the manuscript of Coup, by Keel Hunt, I was reminded, more than once, of the anecdote about Colonel Davenport, often recited by John F. Kennedy during his 1960 presidential campaign. The point of the future president’s story was that in times of crisis, leaders must stand with vision and courage against the clamor of the crowd. ...

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1. The Stranger

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pp. 1-3

A light rain was falling on the small town square, at the end of the day on a Friday, when the man in the flowery green shirt appeared. He was holding a cigar in his hand.
He entered the door off the sidewalk on East Main Street, next to the Davis Dress Shop, and climbed the stairs to the law office on the second floor. ...

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2. The Sharecropper's Son and Nixon's Choirboy

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pp. 4-19

Ray Blanton liked to tell his constituents that he was born “dirtpoor” in the cotton fields of West Tennessee, and this familiar story was true.
His birth, in 1930, came at the toughest of times for the American economy and for most American families, but Ray’s father, Leonard, was resourceful....

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3. The Red-and-Black Plaid Shirt

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pp. 20-34

Ice was forming on the darkened streets of Nashville by the time Lamar and Honey Alexander sat down in the warmth of their home for a candlelight dinner. It was the fourth day of January, 1977, their eighth wedding anniversary.
The two were now alone. Honey had tucked into bed the three children— Drew, seven; Leslee, four; and the two-year-old Kathryn—and had prepared...

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4. The Murders

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pp. 35-42

In the middle of the arc of his life, the sharecropper’s son knew presidents and moguls and captains and kings, but at the end, only one name— Roger Humphreys—would be linked to his own above all others. In this low finale, both Shakespearean and mean, the governor was the master of his own misery....

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5. The Madness

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pp. 43-58

As sometimes happens with public scandals involving senior elected leaders, the larger portion of the Tennessee Democratic Party establishment remained utterly silent on the Humphreys case throughout 1978. There is no record of minor politicians anywhere in the state urging Blanton to reverse his position on the pardon issue....

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6. A Man of Great Promise

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pp. 59-64

The first US attorney to be posted in Nashville was Andrew Jackson. During his early career, in 1788, the future president was appointed solicitor of the Western District.
Like Hal Hardin 190 years later, Jackson served at different times as the federal government’s attorney and also as a trial judge. Both men were tall and physically imposing, and both bore a visible facial scar on the right...

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7. The Dominion of the Editor-in-Chief

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pp. 65-78

The multiline rotary phone on the editor’s desk, nearly hidden behind the clutter of newspapers and circulation reports, rang insistently. The initials on the blinking button read “ACE.”
“Can you come up here?” asked Amon Carter Evans, owner and publisher of the...

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8. The Attorney General and the Rule of Law

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pp. 79-86

William McMillan Leech Jr. was the son of a judge, and though his career centered in the urban state capital of Nashville, throughout his life he was firmly rooted in the more rural counties beyond the city.
He was born in 1935 in the small town of Charlotte, just west of Nashville in Dickson County. The Leech family was politically connected to the...

Illustration Gallery

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pp. 87-98

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9. The New List and the Ticking Clock

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pp. 99-104

The baby came at a quarter of nine on the morning of the fateful day.
The birth of Will Leech (seven pounds, ten ounces) on Wednesday was joyful and otherwise uneventful. It was also a relief. Donna Leech, thirty, had been ordered into Baptist Hospital on Monday by her obstetrician, Dr. Larry Arnold, concerned about her elevated blood pressure. The Leech...

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10. The Turmoil

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pp. 105-112

Hardin returned to his desk on the east end of the eighth floor of the Kefauver Federal Building and sat down for a long moment. He then took a step that in the short space of a dozen hours would change the trajectories of a dozen careers, including his own.
In this momentary pause, he made a few notes and looked out the window facing the old Customs House. This time, the hands on the clock of...

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11. The Call

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pp. 113-125

Hardin looked again out his office window at the clock in the high tower across the street. Time seemed to be moving faster. He then decided he would call Alexander, directly and immediately, but that he would do so “as a Tennessean,” not as the US attorney.
After all, he had not yet conferred with any of his superiors in the Justice Department. He had not given so much as a heads-up to his big boss, Griffin...

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12. The Rise of The Speaker

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pp. 126-134

In January 1969, seven-term congressman Robert A. (Fats) Everett died, and Ned Ray McWherter’s career as an elected official began.
Though a generation of years separated them, these two men had much in common and in time knew each other well. Both hailed from rural West Tennessee, Everett from Union City, McWherter from Dresden, twentyfour...

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13. The Cosmos of the Lieutenant Governor

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pp. 135-141

He was the longest-serving lieutenant governor in America, a lawyer by training and a cotton gin owner, lender, farmer, and pilot also. Yet to most who knew John Wilder—politicians, journalists, and friends—he was, underneath it all, an enigma.
His law office was on the town square in Somerville, Tennessee, east of Memphis, but the farm where he lived, which had been in his family since...

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14. The Dance

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pp. 142-156

Only a dozen people were now aware of the secret deliberations going on across Nashville—over landlines and in private rooms downtown and in suburban Green Hills—hurried conversations that, at first, were awkward and halting.
Except for McWherter and Wilder, who had worked together in the legislative halls for years, all the principals in this emerging coup were simply ...

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15. The Decision

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pp. 157-164

The final decision involved reaching an agreement on two interconnected points—the legal or constitutional basis for the extraordinary action, and a consensus on who would been seen as having initiated it.
Leech had become the central facilitator, managing the essential communications over the one telephone in room 416, where he and the other lawyers were working together. In Koch’s recollection, this process—getting...

Illustration Gallery

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pp. 165-176

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16. The Yellow-Dog Chief Justice

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pp. 177-183

The chief justice of the Tennessee Supreme Court was recovering from a heart attack, at his downtown Nashville apartment, when his call came.
He did not like the idea of an early swearing-in. He resisted it as a departure from inaugural tradition. It was also contrary to his personal constitution to help any Republican get into any office early, a mortal sin against his...

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17. The Arrival

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pp. 184-195

Larry Daughtrey thought he had it figured out at 2:00 p.m. In fact the decision had not been made by then, but he wasn’t wrong.
More than just a “nose for news,” Daughtrey, a native of Abilene, Texas, had a roster of sources that ran deep and long in the capitol and legislative offices. He had, by now, been a reporter for the morning...

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18. The Oath

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pp. 196-202

“The scene inside the court chamber struck me as something out of All the King’s Men,” Howell Raines told me, “with all the dramatic personae arrayed as if in a scene from a novel or stage play about Southern politics. I remember being impressed with how McWherter and Alexander handled themselves.” ...

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19. The Scramble

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pp. 203-209

The deed was done.
The officials stepped down from the dais, and the courtroom quickly erupted in noise and more movement. Reporters swarmed McWherter, Wilder, and Secretary of State Gentry Crowell, asking them more questions. The UPI’s Fred Sedahl rushed out of the room to the one payphone across the lobby....

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20. The Long Night

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pp. 210-223

For the new governor, the day had been long, but the night was far from over. There would now be a round-trip to Jackson, Tennessee—a journey of 240 miles—before he slept.
An unmarked highway patrol car was waiting at the curb outside, as Alexander stepped through the supreme court lobby, accompanied by Winstead, a plainclothes officer and former Marine MP....

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21. The White Morning

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pp. 224-232

News of the coup dominated front pages of the next day’s newspapers, and still more elected officials spoke their minds.
“It had to be done to stop the insanity of Ray Blanton,” said Senator Victor Ashe, the Republican from Knoxville. He described the ousted governor as “an individual who went berserk.” Senator Joe Crockett, a Democrat from Nashville: “We kind of feel we’ve had our own little Watergate. It’s a sad time...

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Epilogue: What Became of Them

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pp. 233-246

They never spoke of it after.
Among the principals, there were no further meetings on the subject, ever. In later years, Wilder seemed the least inclined to discuss the coup or to revisit the decision or the day in any form. McWherter did not bring up the subject with the others; in a 2005 interview, he said he had never discussed the coup even with Wilder, whom he knew for forty-three years as legislative...


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pp. 247-250

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Postscript: A Note on Sources

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pp. 251-256

The people we meet in our lives come to us at different moments, often by chance, and yet each unexpected one helps to shape the larger narrative. Had any of them not come along when they did, your own story and mine might have worked out very differently. Had we chosen to walk through that door and not this one, turned down this street and not that, the journey would...

Sources: The Interviews

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pp. 257-260


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pp. 261-264


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pp. 265-268


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pp. 269-278

E-ISBN-13: 9780826519344
Print-ISBN-13: 9780826519320
Print-ISBN-10: 0826519326

Page Count: 248
Publication Year: 2013

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Tennessee -- Politics and government -- 1951-.
  • Political corruption -- Tennessee -- History -- 20th century.
  • Blanton, Ray, 1930-1996.
  • Alexander, Lamar, 1940-.
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