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

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

by Keel Hunt

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Coup is the behind-the-scenes story of an abrupt political transition, unprecedented in U.S. history. Based on 163 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

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Coup is the behind-the-scenes story of an abrupt political transition, unprecedented in U.S. history. Based on 163 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."

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
The story of Alexander's early inauguration—the only one of its kind in American history—is told with page-turning intensity"
The Claremont Institute

"There is so much to enjoy about this book whose title of Coup, connoting anarchy, violence and warring factions, ironically relates a success story of political rivals in transitioning power. It is a testament to the character of the people involved and also a testament to the cando state of Tennessee."
Tennessee Bar Journal

"A recommended read for anyone interested in Tennessee history or politics."
—Tom Humphrey, Knoxville News Sentinel

"...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"
—Betty Bean, Shopper News

"There was a time when government was willing to act. Keel Hunt was a key player on one such occasion in Tennessee and tells the story with elegance and precision. This book tells about government doing what's needed—quickly, without hand-wringing and without seeking partisan advantage. Every elected official in America should read it."
Philip Bredesen, former Governor of Tennessee

"This is a story about men of different political parties who found ourselves in a place none of us wanted to be and how we worked together over a few hours to do something unprecedented but necessary that none of us wanted to do. What fascinates me 34 years later is how much I did not know about what had happened until I read Keel Hunt's book."
Lamar Alexander, U.S. Senator

"Keel Hunt gives us a fascinating account of an important moment in Tennessee history. It's a story of a time when Tennesseans of both parties came together to resolve a crisis that had rocked the state."
Fred Thompson, former U.S. Senator

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

By Keel Hunt

Vanderbilt University Press

Copyright © 2013 Vanderbilt University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8265-1934-4


The Stranger

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. He opened the office door, and the stale smell of the cigar moved with him into the small suite.

Inside he found attorney Jack Lowery alone, standing at the desk of his secretary Gail Crook, talking on the telephone. She had departed for the weekend just minutes before. Seeing the unscheduled visitor, Lowery put the phone down and greeted him.

The stranger introduced himself as "Bob Roundtree," but this was a lie. And the brief conversation that followed is how the world began to unravel for Governor Ray Blanton and his circle.

Jack Lowery was a well-known figure in Lebanon, Tennessee, twenty miles east of downtown Nashville. He was also known at the state capitol.

To pay his way through Cumberland School of Law, he had once worked as a police officer in the town. He was elected to a term in the state legislature in 1966. Ten years later, on the day "Bob Roundtree" came briefly into his life, Lowery was a solo practitioner, with mainly a criminal defense practice. He was also Lebanon's part-time mayor.

The windows on the west side of Lowery's corner office overlooked the Lebanon town square. From his office he could see, in the middle of the square, the monumental statue of the Confederate general Robert H. Hatton, called the "Reluctant Rebel," killed in the Battle of Fair Oaks, Virginia, in 1862. Like Lowery, Hatton had been a graduate of the Cumberland School of Law, a successful lawyer in Lebanon, and a legislator in Nashville. His statue on the square faces south.

At this time—May 1976—Lowery had a client named Will Midgett, from nearby Watertown. Midgett had been convicted of second-degree murder in the death of a motorist. He was now serving his sentence in the state prison at Nashville.

"His family had prevailed on me to see if I could get executive clemency for him," Lowery told me. "I of course spoke to Eddie Sisk [Blanton's legal counsel] about it, because the governor would have to approve an executive clemency. I went and got the medical proof, the judge didn't object, and I filed all this information. Mr. Midgett said that if he got out, he would move to Florida. I delivered the information to Marie Ragghianti (then the staff extradition officer) because she was Eddie Sisk's right-hand girl.

"A few days later, a gentleman showed up in my office, late in the afternoon after my secretary left. He was wearing a green Hawaiian shirt, and smoking a cigar. Said his name was Roundtree."

Lowery recalled the following conversation.

Roundtree: I need to speak to you. I believe I can help you.

Lowery: What do you mean?

Roundtree: I can tell you the terms of his release, when he'll be released, and he won't have to go to Florida.

[At this point, "Mr. Roundtree" also stated that his fee would be $20,000.]

Lowery: I'll call you.

Roundtree: No. I'll call you.

The stranger departed. Lowery moved to his west window overlooking the parking area, and he observed the man leave the building and get into the rear seat of a black sedan.

Lowery said the stranger's mention of Florida "surprised" him "because nobody had that information, so I knew this man who had nothing to do with the state somehow had access to the file."

"I watched him get into a black Chrysler Cordova," Lowery told me. "I couldn't see the whole license plate, but I saw the number started with a '4' so I knew that meant the car was from Chattanooga. I was mayor at the time. I called the police chief, Royal Jones, and said we have to stop this car."

The vehicle from Chattanooga was stopped in Murfreesboro, south of Lebanon.

"In the car with this guy were two individuals who had robbed and kidnapped a banker in Georgia, and Georgia had been trying to extradite these two guys for over a year. Tennessee had not extradited these guys. I didn't know that information at the time, but learned it later."

Lowery said he reported the encounter to the district attorney, Tommy Thompson, telling him, "I think it's a criminal act, so log the call." He said he phoned Ragghianti the next day and recalled that she expressed shock when he recounted the conversation, especially Roundtree's mention of the Florida detail. He says Ragghianti made the comment: "Oh, my God, I don't know how high up this goes." He never heard from "Roundtree" again. But Sisk phoned him two days later, asking about the encounter and the mysterious visitor. This conversation was brief.

"The guy [Roundtree] didn't call me back," Lowery remembered. "I did get a call from Eddie Sisk, at my house, on a Sunday night. Eddie says, 'Will you work with the TBI?' (Tennessee Bureau of Investigation)."

"I said, 'I just want my man Midgett out of jail.' Eddie asked me to write up a summary. I did, and I delivered it to Ragghianti."

Agents of the FBI later questioned Lowery about the incident and also asked him about his written report to Ragghianti. Apparently she had shown the report to an assistant US attorney, who had turned it over to the FBI.

Fifteen months later, in August 1977, Governor Blanton fired Marie Ragghianti as chairman of the Board of Pardon and Paroles.

Four years later, in 1981, Jack Lowery would testify in federal court about his late afternoon encounter with the cigar-smoking stranger. This sensational federal court trial put the governor's counsel, Eddie Sisk, and an accomplice behind bars for selling pardons for cash.


The Sharecropper's Son and Nixon's Choirboy

Most men are a little better than their circumstances give them a chance to be. —William Faulkner, Go Down, Moses

Ray Blanton liked to tell his constituents that he was born "dirt-poor" 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. The Blanton family got by on hard work, love, and modest means. Leonard was a sharecropper and also worked on construction jobs in the area, when he could find them. Ray was one of three children, and the house the family lived in at this time, near the site of the Battle of Shiloh, was less than modest.

"I can remember visiting their home in Adamsville," his lifelong friend Shorty Freeland recalled years later. "There were cracks in the floor, and you could see the chickens underneath there. They would move one of the boards sometimes, and you reach under there and get eggs from a hen that just laid."

The combination of farming and construction jobs sustained the hardworking Blantons. In time Leonard established a family construction business that he named B&B Construction Company (for Blanton and Blanton), and over the next decade the enterprise began to grow on the strength of government building projects, chiefly road work for the counties and the state highway department. This was competitive work, highly prized among builders across the rural South, and it required good relations with public officials. That, in turn, stirred the father's suggestion that Ray consider becoming a politician himself. It could be good for business.

By now Blanton had worked his way through college, at the University of Tennessee at Martin. He was a handsome man, with wavy, dark hair above a high forehead, and he wore his sideburns moderately long in the style of the day. His handshake was sure, his winning smile easy, his dark eyes engaging. In his first campaign, in 1964, he ran for a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives.

He proved to be a tireless campaigner. He enjoyed rising early, working late, and the long hours of small talk, listening, and handshaking on the town squares, and he won this first election.

As a freshman member, Blanton's desk was on the back row of the large house chamber. His biographical entry in The Tennessee Encyclopedia of History and Culture states that in his early service Blanton "distinguished himself by his habit of sitting in the back of the chamber, wearing his sunglasses, and observing the proceedings." But in the evenings he would ask administration officials—usually Harlan Mathews, then head of the Department of Finance and Administration, and Mathews' deputy, Tom Benson—to help him understand the proposed legislation.

"I first met Blanton when he came to the legislature," Benson remembered. "He would come downstairs almost every night to Harlan's office and ask us to explain to him how the bills worked. He was bright. He would ask good, intelligent questions about what the bills would accomplish. About half the time, he would offer to buy us dinner."

Blanton served only one two-year term in the state legislature. He gave up his seat in 1966, when he spotted an opportunity to run for Congress, challenging Congressman Tom Murray, a twelve-term incumbent in the Seventh District. Blanton defeated Murray in an upset and would go on to serve three more terms.

His time in Congress came to an end following the 1970 census, when the legislature combined his district with that of the popular congressman Ed Jones. Blanton bowed out. In 1972, he ran instead for the US Senate, challenging another incumbent, Senator Howard H. Baker Jr. Blanton won the Democratic nomination but lost badly to Baker in the November general election.

In all these campaigns, Blanton cultivated the same homespun and populist profile he had in 1964. He did the same when he ran for governor in 1974.

In 1940, Lamar Alexander was born in Maryville to an elementary-school principal and a kindergarten teacher.

A New York Times reporter once wrote that Alexander "had grown up in a lower middle class family in the mountains of Tennessee." This description did not sit well with Flo Alexander, his mother, who considered the Times comment a slur on her family. When her son called home the next week, she was reading Thessalonians for strength.

"We never thought of ourselves that way," she told him. "You had a library card from the day you were three and music lessons from the day you were four. You had everything you needed that was important."

While both Blanton and Alexander grew up modestly, there was one major cultural difference. Blanton sprouted from the heartland of the Confederacy in West Tennessee, which had voted Democratic since Reconstruction. Alexander had descended from Lincolnites, East Tennessee mountaineers loyal to the Union. His great grandfather, when asked about his politics, said, "I'm a Republican. I fought for the union and I vote like I shot." The Second Congressional District, in which Alexander grew up, has not elected a Democrat to Congress since Abraham Lincoln was president.

But like Blanton, Alexander learned to work at an early age. He recalled that when he was ten the alarm clock was set to ring at four each morning. He pulled on jeans, tennis shoes, and a flannel shirt, stepped carefully down the squeaky stairs so as not to wake his sisters, raced on his bicycle to Broadway Food Market, and picked up seventy-five copies of the Knoxville Journal. He threw them onto porches one by one. By 5:00 a.m. he had crawled back into bed for another hour's sleep.

He was up again at six to practice the piano because this left his afternoons free for sports. He played the piano well enough to win superior ratings each year at music festivals, and as a high school student he won two state piano competitions. Piano playing, he said, taught him to practice, to be prepared, and to "play the piece just a little slower than you CAN play it."

Alexander was fair-haired, lean, and popular. He was elected class president three times and sang in the choir at New Providence Presbyterian Church. In 1957, he attended the American Legion's Volunteer Boys State, an intensive summer week of civic leadership training then held at Castle Heights Military Academy in Lebanon, Tennessee. The other delegates elected him their governor—by a landslide of three votes—and Tennessee governor Frank Clement spoke at the inauguration, exhorting the teenagers that "someday one of you boys will grow up to be the real governor of Tennessee." In his inaugural address Alexander, sixteen, defended the state's right-to-work law, called for lowering the voting age to eighteen, and urged civil rights for all races. This was the year President Eisenhower sent paratroopers into Arkansas to desegregate Little Rock's Central High School.

Alexander earned scholarships to Vanderbilt University, where he became president of Sigma Chi, helped set a school record in the four-hundred-yard relay, and edited the student newspaper, the Hustler. In 1962, as sit-in demonstrations mounted in downtown Nashville, his Hustler editorials chastised Vanderbilt administrators for refusing to admit blacks to the undergraduate college. This helped to provoke a campus referendum—in which students voted not to desegregate—but the controversy succeeded in forcing the Vanderbilt Board of Trust to open the university to African Americans later that year. (Not all Alexander's editorials were so serious; in another opinion piece, he recommended that Vanderbilt cheerleaders be attired in "good and short skirts.")

He earned honors in Latin American studies and joined Phi Beta Kappa. At age twenty-one he traveled to Paraguay, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil in a group of a dozen students from other college campuses, a six-week excursion organized by the National Student Association. (He later wondered if the trip had been sponsored by the CIA.) He was impressed with the student demonstrations he observed. Another member of the group, Duke student Karen Hanke Weeks of St. Louis, remembers the pro-democracy demonstrations as "transformative. Che Guevara was running all over South America urging revolution."

Vanderbilt nominated Alexander for a Rhodes Scholarship, and he was selected as one of Tennessee's two candidates but was rejected by the regional selection board. Instead, he accepted a Root-Tilden Scholarship to New York University law school. When he arrived in Greenwich Village in September 1962 (his first visit ever to New York City), he met another Root-Tilden Scholar in the registration line: a former Georgetown University basketball captain named Paul Tagliabue, later the commissioner of the National Football League. Alexander learned that Tagliabue had also been rejected by the Rhodes committee. The two young men became roommates and lifelong friends.

After law school, Alexander became law clerk to federal judge John Minor Wisdom of the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Actually, he was Judge Wisdom's messenger, but the distinguished jurist agreed to treat the young man as if he were a law clerk. The messenger's salary was only $300 per month. To make ends meet Alexander played trombone, washboard, and tuba at night in a banjo band on Bourbon Street at a club called Your Father's Mustache. (Ten years later, his memory of that banjo band would give Alexander an idea that would become an important part of his campaign for governor of Tennessee.)

He returned to Tennessee following the New Orleans clerkship and worked in Baker's 1966 Senate campaign, first as a volunteer and later as a paid staff member. For the next few months, he lived with his parents at 121 Ruth Street in Maryville, "although my mother made it clear if I stayed longer than 2–3 months I would be paying rent." Baker won by more than a hundred thousand votes and became the first Republican popularly elected from Tennessee. After the election, Alexander worked for a Knoxville law firm for a couple of months, then drove his 1966 Ford Mustang to Washington, DC, to joined Baker's staff. He became the senator's legislative assistant in January 1967.

Blanton and Alexander thus arrived in Washington in the same month of the same year—January 1967—but they did not meet at this point.

Their respective jobs generally kept them separated on opposite ends of the US Capitol building, Blanton beginning his first term as congressman from Tennessee's Seventh District, Alexander working for Baker, the Republican junior senator.

They would meet, in earnest, seven years later.

Tom Ingram grew up in a strict Church of Christ family, and at David Lipscomb College in Nashville he studied to be a social worker. While an undergraduate, and to help pay his Lipscomb tuition, he became a campus correspondent for the Democratic Nashville Tennessean.

In the fall of 1966, Ingram was assigned to cover the US Senate campaign of the Republican nominee, Howard Baker. This was unprecedented inasmuch as the Tennessean was then known for attacking, not just covering, Republican candidates. The appearance of fair coverage in the Democratic daily probably caused some voters in Middle Tennessee to open their minds to Baker, the young Knoxville attorney, who was seeking to be the first Republican senator ever elected from Tennessee.


Excerpted from Coup by Keel Hunt. Copyright © 2013 Vanderbilt University Press. Excerpted by permission of Vanderbilt University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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