Wednesday, April 08, 2015
[Book Review] COUP by Keel Hunt
Marilyn reviews COUP: 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, 2013)
Coups have been known to happen in foreign countries, not in the United States. Nevertheless on January 17, 1979 at 5:55 p.m. in the State of Tennessee of the United States of America, a coup happened: Governor-elect Lamar Alexander became Governor Lamar Alexander three days early.
The events leading to the early inauguration of Governor Alexander became the subject of the book Coup by Keel Hunt. The book is a fantastic read of the behind the headlines events of the Tennessee Pardon Scandal of 1979. The scandal held national attention for the few weeks leading to Governor Lamar Alexander’s early swearing-in.
The whole scandal begins when a man in a black Chrysler Cordova approaches lawyer Jack Lowery. Lowery’s client, Will Midget, was requesting executive clemency while serving a prison sentence. For a certain amount of money the man told Lowery that Midget would be released. Jack Lowery reports and writes a summary of the encounter to Marie Ragghianti, Chairman of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, who shows it to the assistant U.S. Attorney. The assistant U.S. Attorney shows the summary to the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Thus, the selling of pardons is exposed.
More corruption is spotted by newspaper reporter Lee Smith, who published a small article on the back page of the Tennessean Journal newspaper after he sees convicted murderer, Roger Humphreys, working freely in the public. The state news media republishes the story and the scandal becomes national news. Tennessee Governor Ray Blanton adds fuel to the fire when he announces that he is going to pardon Roger Humphreys, who killed his ex-wife and boyfriend. Humphreys is pardoned on January 15, 1979 and more pardons are scheduled, according to an FBI informant, before Governor Ray Blanton leaves office on January 20th. The investigation by the FBI was in full swing but powerless to stop any more pardons. U.S. attorney Hal Harding felt powerless to do anything but with this knowledge, he picks up the phone and calls state officials. The ouster is started.
Keel Hunt thoroughly interviewed participants and researched the ouster of Governor Ray Blanton. He was able to see the whole perceptive because he was teaching a class at Vanderbilt University on the day of coup. Earlier he had worked on Lamar Alexander’s gubernatorial campaign. He writes in a suspenseful, engaging style that builds into the four hours of the coup with background information on the participants, achieving his purpose of telling how the coup unfolded.
Of special interest are the roles played in the coup by Memphians like former Memphis city councilman Lewis Donelson, and the capture of former Tennessee Highway Patrolman Fred Taylor who was recorded talking about obtaining pardons and the release of some notorious criminals in Tennessee prisons. Hunt also makes references to the Crump-McKellar and Clement–Ellington political machines.
I enjoyed the intriguing political maneuvering part Memphis played in the coup, and the courage shown by those who executed the coup. For readers who do not remember Gov. Ray Blanton or the pardon scandal, this tale is a suspenseful read into Tennessee politics and a reminder to all that Memphis’s influence extends beyond the borders of Shelby County.
Marilyn, Central Library
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