Fifty years ago today – November 3, 1970 to be exact – a Tennessee election result shattered my dream and forever changed my career planning. That was the day Winfield Dunn defeated John Jay Hooker in the governor’s race. Final vote tally: Dunn, 575,777 and Hooker 509,521. So close but yet so far away.
When I signed on as Hooker’s press secretary in January 1970, he was considered a runaway favorite to defeat Republican Maxey Jarman, the millionaire shoe magnate. It was to be Hooker’s youth versus Jarman’s age. Then suddenly a charismatic dentist from Memphis came out of nowhere to defeat Jarman in the Republican primary. It was game on pitting two young, charismatic candidates against each other.
I shall never forget that fateful day. With the strong probability we were going to lose clear and evident, I remember flashing back to late January of 1970 – a day when Hooker interviewed me for more than 12 hours. He candidly laid out his campaign plan and spoke forcefully about what he wanted to accomplish as governor. He went even further by sharing with me his long-range plan to run for the presidency in 1976. As a 29-year-old at that time, I was fascinated by all that Hooker had to say that day. Given all that happened after the loss to Dunn, it may seem far-fetched to think that Hooker might have had a chance to win the presidency. However, Hooker had positioned himself well by contributing large donations to national candidates. He had strong connections to the Kennedy loyalists and national media and show business stars. Many political insiders – including even his enemies – viewed Hooker as better suited for a national campaign that for a race in Tennessee. As history unfolded, Jimmy Carter became the Southern Democrat who won the presidency. Could Hooker have been the one if he had won the Tennessee governorship in 1970? Obviously, we will never know.
As for me, my career pathway returned to Knoxville, the University of Tennessee, and a half century in leadership roles in education. Ironically, the pathway that could have taken me to Washington in the 1970s was replaced by another pathway that eventually took me to the nation’s capital more than three decades later. A further irony is that my service in Washington was with Republican President George W. Bush’s administration. Life takes many interesting twists and turns. What might have been was never to be, but the alternative route proved to be immensely fulfilling and satisfactory.