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.

Now available in paperback!

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.

True Friends are Hard to Find in Politics

  John Jay Hooker (L) and myself on my first day as editor of the Nashville Banner.

In my lifetime, I’ve seen firsthand several true friendships formed and sustained relationships in the corridors of power. One stands out as a gold standard of what can be achieved when mutual trust, respect, and open communications are alive and well in a relationship. My reference point is the friendship of Winfield Dunn and John Jay Hooker, which lasted over four decades. It was a most unlikely alliance, forged between two men who waged a tough and competitive fight for the governorship of Tennessee in 1970. Dunn won, and in doing so, shattered a storybook dream for Hooker.

Dunn’s name was not on the political horizon when I met with Hooker and his campaign team in January 1970. At that time, Hooker was the odds-on favorite to win the governor’s race. No Democrat appeared likely to launch a competitive challenge in the primary. On the Republican side, shoe magnate Maxey Jarman was the presumed nominee-to-be. Thus, when I accepted the offer to become Hooker’s press secretary in early 1970, the campaign focus was on Jarman.

The plan was to run a personality contest, pitting the youthful and charismatic Hooker against the aging senior citizen Jarman. All seemed to be in order to deliver Hooker to the governor’s office. Then in April of 1970, the relatively unknown Dunn threw his hat into the Republican primary. His entry attracted very little attention. The smart money was still on a Hooker-Jarman general election. The polls at that time supported that notion.

In the meantime, Dunn had other ideas. In his memoir, he wrote that his initial impression of Hooker was that the Democratic candidate was a charismatic and intelligent individual who would be a tough adversary if both made it to the general election. However, he was not intimidated.

                                                   Governor Winnfield Dunn

In those early days of the primary campaign, Hooker was clearly impressed with Dunn, even noting more than once on the record to reporters that Dunn was an impressive candidate with a great chance at winning. In retrospect, there is great irony in Hooker’s prognosis. Still, inside our campaign tent, Jarman was the one we expected to win the GOP primary.
Suddenly, on primary election night in August of 1970, lightning struck. While Hooker won the Democratic primary convincingly, Dunn upset the favorite Jarman by piling up a huge vote advantage in Memphis and Shelby County, his home area.

I shall never forget the ride with Hooker from our campaign headquarters to the Nashville hotel where the victory celebration was scheduled. The new Democratic nominee for governor was despondent, telling me with great candor that he knew in his bones that we were going lose to Dunn. His few words on that short ride in downtown Nashville proved prophetic: “Pal, Winfield’s win has taken away the greatest advantage we had. Like me, he’s young, charismatic, and articulate, but he doesn’t have my baggage.” By the time we made it to the victory celebration, he had regained his composure and delivered his typical rousing speech.

Clouds of concern, however, continued to hang over our campaign as we moved into the fall of 1970. The critical moment came in October when Hooker and Dunn engaged in three back-to-back debates, starting in Nashville in the wee hours of the morning, moving to Springfield courthouse in mid-day, and concluding at the Jackson courthouse in late afternoon. It was obviously an exhausting day, particularly for the candidates.

For reasons I never understood, our schedulers had booked Hooker to speak at a union event in Memphis that night. I was designated to fly alone with Hooker from Jackson to Memphis. It was a moment I will never forget. For most of the flight, Hooker was totally silent, deep in thought, with a serious look of concern on his face.

Shortly before we landed, he leaned toward me and slapped me gently on the knee. “Pal,” he said, “the debates today confirmed what I’ve believed for several weeks. Winfield is tough, a very strong debater. I tried my best today, but I couldn’t put him away. We are going to lose, my friend.”
Less than a month later, Hooker’s prediction came true. He lost by less than a percentage point, but the dream had been shattered.

Hooker was crushed, but when he took the podium to concede to Dunn, he regained his composure and delivered a gracious and memorable salute to Dunn. It was the end of a very tough and emotional campaign but the beginning of a respectful and genuine friendship between two heavyweights that would span more than four decades.

The true strength of their friendship became more visible in Hooker’s final year of life. In June 2015, Hooker was scheduled to make what would be his final public appearance at a committee hearing before the Tennessee General Assembly. Confined to a wheel chair and grappling with terminal cancer, Hooker still was able to display his trademark tenacity and his ability to articulate clear and emphatic constitutional arguments, this time about the right to die.

The Hooker family had invited my son, Chip, and me to join them for the event. When we arrived, we noted that Hooker’s former wife, Tish, and their children were seated on the front row. Seated next to Tish was Winfield Dunn. For Chip and me, it was a defining moment, a moment that spoke volumes about the value and joy of a true friendship. It was a moment we shall never forget.

In opening his testimony that day, Hooker acknowledged Dunn’s presence at the hearing and thanked him for his friendship over the years. He had warm praise for Dunn and called his administration the most honest he had witnessed in his lifetime. He also half- jokingly noted that he (Hooker) deserved credit for creating the Republican Party in Tennessee by losing to Dunn.

Following the hearing, Dunn rushed over to Hooker’s wheelchair and leaned over to give him a long embrace. Watching that moment was heartwarming and brought tears to my eyes.

Seven months later, Hooker died. Preparatory to a public memorial service, a private, invitation-only event was held at the home of Hooker’s brother Henry. About twenty-five close friends gathered to pay their respects. When I walked into the home, the first guests I saw were Winfield and Betty Dunn. As we embraced, tears were flowing from his eyes, as they were from mine.

I’ve known every governor of Tennessee since Frank Clement. While all of them had many good qualities and successes, I don’t believe any one of those other governors ever developed or maintained a friendship relationship with the general election nominee they defeated.

That’s what made the friendship something special, something worthy of praise, respect, and replication.

I was deeply grateful and touched to see Governor Winfield Dunn attend my book signing party at Parnassus Books last September. He walked in just as I was telling the crowd this story about him from my book. This picture was taken right after I presented him with an autographed copy. Thank you, Governor! (photo courtesy of Dana Coleman)

That’s what made the friendship something special, something worthy of praise, respect, and replication.

-adapted from Journal of a Fast Track Life, Chapter 25, © 2018 Charles E. Smith. All rights reserved.