Even if he weren't 95 years old, Lewis Donelson would be regarded as the dean of Tennessee politics, and of much else, besides. Baker Donelson, the state's largest law firm, and the Tennessee Republican Party, both of which he willed and worked into being, are but two of the physical testaments he has erected on the landscape of the Volunteer State.
Among the other credits attributable to Donelson (or "Lewie," as this highly approachable legend is called by almost everyone who knows him) is the fact that, as a member of the Memphis City Council in 1968, he began the efforts toward settling the fateful sanitation strike of that year — efforts that bore fruit, alas, only after the tragic assassination of Martin Luther King. And, as a stripling of 70-something in the 1990s, he waged and won the seminal lawsuit that gave equality in state funding to Tennessee's then under-financed rural school districts.
Continuing such a list would take more space than allotted for this editorial. Besides, we want to concentrate on the political message Donelson brought to the Memphis Rotary Club last week as its featured speaker on Tuesday, election day.
To start with the obvious, Donelson described himself as "the kind of Republican the Tea Party doesn't cherish." As he explained it to the Rotarians last week, his primary motive for founding the skeleton organization called the "Republican Association" back in the age of Boss Ed Crump, who controlled all of Memphis politics and most of Tennessee's, was to create a "two-party system." Thanks in large part to rivalries in the ranks of state Democrats after the passing of Crump in 1954, and in even larger part to recruitment by Donelson himself, GOP candidates like Howard Baker, Winfield Dunn, and Lamar Alexander began to run for — and win — state office, and the Republican Party was able to escape its historical East Tennessee cul-de-sac and become a major statewide force.
For the first time, Donelson said, issues began to be discussed and began to be the major themes of election contests — not the personalities of the candidates. Donelson's Republican Party was fiscally conservative but socially egalitarian. "We stood for integration when the Democrats campaigned on 'Keep Memphis Down in Dixie,'" he said.
Things have changed, however. The GOP now has the kind of unrivaled sway in a newly one-party Tennessee that a Crump could only have dreamed of. And the Tennessee Republican Party has become the bulwark of a kind of social dogmatism that Donelson regards as anathema. "For men to be popping up telling women what to do is uncalled for," Donelson said. "The party is much more socially concerned with issues like abortion than it used to be." As for former Senator Baker, a moderate, "I told Howard that he couldn't get nominated if he ran today." A onetime convert from the Democratic Party of his forebears, Donelson said last week, "I've been teasing some of my friends that I'm going to switch back again."
We assume he was joking, mainly because he may not, realistically, have enough lifetime left for the decades-long task of rebuilding yet another political party. But we'd like to see him try.