Work at Making Friends of Adversaries

As the commissioner of education for the state of Tennessee, I had the privilege of joining Governor Ned Ray McWherter in a press conference issuing our state’s first-ever state education report card.

I had the opportunity to work with and for seven Tennessee governors during my time of leadership in government and education. Each brought a unique skill set to the office. I was fortunate to have a positive relationship with each one.

Among the seven, Ned Ray McWherter was my favorite. I got to know him well during my six years as chancellor of the University of Tennessee at Martin, a time when he was representing the Martin area in the Legislature and serving as speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives. Not once in all my years at Martin did he ever ask me to do anything, to hire anyone, or to second-guess my decisions. We developed a strong friendship.

A few months after I left Martin to become vice president for administration for the University of Tennessee system in Knoxville, McWherter was elected governor. Within days, he asked me to be his commissioner of education. It was the beginning of a fascinating ride to the top of state government with a man who knew from day one why he wanted to be governor and precisely what he wanted to accomplish.

Shortly after he began his first term as governor, I received a call directly from McWherter, asking if I could come to his office. When I walked in, McWherter was seated alone in his rocking chair, and the trademark unlit cigar was dangling from his mouth. He asked me to be seated. It was obviously going to be a one-on-one meeting.

After exchanging a few minutes of small talk, the governor asked if I knew Nelson Andrews, a prominent Nashville businessman with strong Republican ties and, at that time, the chairman of the State Board of Education.

I responded yes, and then a curious line of questioning began.

“How well do you know him,” the governor asked.

I told him that Andrews had been a member of my support council when I was chancellor of the University of Tennessee at Nashville and that I had worked with Andrews in creating a group known as Leadership Nashville.

“Do you like him?” he asked.

“Yes,” I responded.

After each exchange, McWherter paused for several seconds, nodding from time to time, and chewing on his cigar. “Has he been a good chairman of the State Board of Education?” he asked.

I noted that I couldn’t answer that question from personal knowledge, because my previous roles in higher education had not included participation with the state board. However, I had no reason to doubt his effectiveness.

“Could you work with him if we kept him as chairman?” he asked.

“Yes,” I responded.

At that point, again with long pauses, McWherter shifted from questions to comments. “Commissioner,” he said, “let me tell you my concern. As you may not know, Nelson was a close adviser to Winfield Dunn (the Republican nominee), and I can’t get out of my mind that it was Nelson who was standing over Winfield, coaching him prior to each of our debates.”

I responded that I understood.

At that point, the governor leaned back in his chair and began to rock, saying nothing for many seconds. Then, suddenly, he began asking me the same questions in the same order in which he had asked them earlier. Long pauses again punctuated each question and my responses.

When the second round ended, McWherter again leaned back in his rocking chair, and the seconds ticked off. He was clearly in deep thought, seriously weighing the options. I sat quietly.

Then came the verdict, clearly articulated. “Commissioner, if you are comfortable with Nelson, so am I. Let’s keep him,” he said.

With that, the meeting ended, and I left. To me, it was a defining moment. Political statesmanship was on clear display. I had just participated in a process that convinced me that I was working for a man who truly cared about people, practiced fair play, and respected the political process. Moreover, I saw firsthand that this governor was committed to putting the good of the state above partisan politics.

The rest of the story is simply this: Nelson Andrews was retained, and he served as chairman of the State Board of Education during McWherter’s two terms as governor. Throughout that time, they had a positive relationship built on mutual trust, respect, and open communication without regard for party affiliation.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 24, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.

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If You Have to Eat Crow, Eat It While It’s Hot


My wife Shawna Lea, son Chip, daughter Tandy and myself in a feature story in the UT Martin alumni publication.

One of the great lessons to be learned from the infamous Watergate scandal during the Nixon administration is that human beings tend to forgive acknowledged mistakes. However, obstinate refusal to admit mistakes or, even worse, an attempt to cover up mistakes is a sure-fire recipe for failure. In literally hundreds of examples over my career, “eating crow while it was hot” made the penalty of mistakes much less painful.

One such mistake occurred during my chancellorship at the University of Tennessee at Martin. Historically, our campus had been a leader in providing interns for members of Tennessee General Assembly. The bulk of our interns had traditionally been assigned, for logical reasons, to West Tennessee Democrats who dominated the legislative seats in the Martin campus service area.

One day I received an early morning call from Jim Kennedy, the chief of staff of the Speaker of the House, alerting me that I had been the topic of discussion at that morning’s Democratic caucus breakfast. He further advised that I would be receiving a call from the caucus leader, Frank Lashlee, a temperamental senator from a small town near the campus. The problem was that somehow one of our interns had been assigned to a prominent Republican House member from Memphis.

This came as news to me, and I recognized immediately that we had a problem. I thanked the Speaker’s chief of staff and moved quickly to determine what had gone wrong. Within minutes, I discovered that the faculty member who staffed the intern program was on leave of absence and that his stand-in had decided to assign an intern to the Memphis Republican, unaware of the long tradition that had provided rural West Tennessee Democrats with this service.

Recognizing the error of his way, the faculty member was receptive to corrective action. In short, we made a quick decision to fund an additional internship and assign that individual to the Democratic caucus.

Without waiting for the caucus leader to call me, I placed a call to him. The initiative clearly startled him. Without hesitation, I told the senator that my daddy had always told me that if you had to eat crow, you should eat it while it is hot. “We’ve screwed up,” I told the senator, “and we apologize. Moreover, here is what we plan to do to rectify the situation.”  

When I finished talking, I held my breath and waited for his response. I will never forget his words. “Mr. Chancellor, thank you and have a good day.” That was all he said, and I never heard another word from him or any other member of the caucus.

We had dodged a bullet. Had we tried to defend or cover up the indefensible, we would have paid a huge price. Mistakes had been made and corrected. Proper apologies had been issued. The crow had been eaten while it was hot.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 13, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.