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Elder Statesman

Lewis Donelson, honored again Monday night, ain't going nowhere.

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"I long for the days when the middle was the respected place, when [politics] was not as far toward the fringes," said Michael Adams, the current president of the University of Georgia and the man who, once upon a time, was a Republican activist in East Tennessee and a political colleague of one Lewis Donelson, whom Adams characterized Monday night as "a monumental figure ... one of Tennessee's greatest citizens ever."

Donelson, whose great-great-grandfather, Andrew Jackson Donelson, was raised by Old Hickory himself, President Andrew Jackson, was being honored by the Shelby County Republican Party before a turnaway crowd — not all Republicans — at the Racquet Club. At 94, the man, who, more than any other, is responsible for building a viable Republican Party in Shelby County and, arguably, for developing a two-party system in Tennessee, is surely entitled to his party's gratitude.

And to that of many others. Tennesseans at large should be grateful for Donelson's lifelong efforts to keep politics and government civil. As current state Safety and Homeland Security director Bill Gibbons, who served with Donelson in the cabinet of then-Governor Lamar Alexander in 1978, observed, Donelson was someone who entered public life as a reformer, not as an ideologue. And yes, as one who operated from the middle of the road.

It was not mentioned from the dais Monday night by any of the GOP eminences on hand, but Donelson was so upset a generation back by fellow Republicans' condemnations of a proposed income tax that he publicly threatened to quit the Republican Party and become a Democrat. And, for the record, the income tax proposal he was discussing at the time was that of Governor Ned Ray McWherter, a Democrat, not the later one (which Donelson also defended) made by Republican governor Don Sundquist.  

What was mentioned from the dais was the fact that Donelson was instrumental in working with the then-Democratic state establishment to bring an abrupt end to the regime of former Governor Ray Blanton, who was selling pardons, and arrange for the early swearing-in of GOP governor Alexander, who told that story to the audience via a prerecorded video. It was Donelson's job, too, to secure Blanton's office and to prevent valuable papers from being spirited away.

And it was also mentioned that Donelson, as a member of the Memphis City Council in 1968, had done what he could to resolve the fateful sanitation workers' strike prior to the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Among the many attesting to Donelson's stature were such longtime friends as Ira Lipman, Bill Watkins, and Sundquist, who now lives in East Tennessee and was returning to his own point of political origin after many years of absence.

At the end of it all, Donelson, who still runs the Baker Donelson law firm, which is arguably the most distinguished and influential in Tennessee, brought the house down by saying, with his patented Cheshire grin, "I've been so overpraised that I feel obligated to die!"

He delivered the same line and got the same delighted laugh on a similar occasion in 2007, when he was being honored at the venerable Homebuilders site, now demolished. And Lewis Donelson will probably be saying it on other such occasions in the future. "I feel good!" he said Monday night.

And so did his audience.

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