By Taylor Davis
Assistant News Editor
At the 23rd annual Windham Lecture, an acclaimed author and three other speakers discussed when Tennessee Democrats ousted their own governor and put Republican Lamar Alexander in office in 1979.
The four guest speakers included Keel Hunt, author of “Coup,” Alexander, former U.S. attorney Hal Hardin and John Seigenthaler, all of whom had first-hand experience in the ousting of then Tennessee Gov. Ray Blanton.
The lecture introduced the movement to drive out the governor, which began when Blanton signed pardons to release prisoners in return for payment.
“The governor’s power of pardon is absolute,” said Hunt, who explained that the decision could not be reversed once implemented.
The incident came to be known as the “Clemency for Cash,” or pardon scandal, wherein several government officials banded together to stop it from happening and transfer gubernatorial power to Alexander.
“The transfer of power is peaceful. We don’t have these coups like some other countries,” Alexander said.
The speakers described the swearing in of Alexander as a funeral instead of what was supposed to be a celebration.
Blanton signed clemency documents for 52 offenders with more documents to come before his own officials ousted him.
Hardin took the information about more pardons given to him by the FBI and spoke with Alexander before they could be signed. The decision to take the issue to Alexander instead of involving the U.S. Attorney General was something Hardin described as keeping it an “in-state” matter.
Reporters at the time swarmed the area, aware that something was going on, according to Hardin, and in a time before cell phones the communication tools were limited between the officials involved.
The main lesson taken away from that day was that no roadmap to situations such as these existed, according to the panelists. They followed the law despite the fear that Blanton could use his influence to stop them if he found out or that they could be cast as usurpers in the view of the public.
Hardin was the first judge sworn in by Blanton, according to the panelists, and he was the one to do what was right for the people of Tennessee.
“This was not so much a story about bad guys doing wrong, but of good guys doing right,” Hunt said.
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