As reactions to the death of Ned Ray McWherter poured in Monday — from the high and mighty and regular folks alike — it became evident that both the former Tennessee governor and the political era he presided over held a special claim to the affections of his state. And to his nation as well. Former President Bill Clinton, whose tenure as governor of Arkansas overlapped with that of McWherter's in his neighbor state, made it clear on Monday that his Tennessee counterpart's positive influence transcended state borders:
"His legendary ability to cut to the heart of a problem in a few blunt words was invaluable to me in the White House. Those of us who served as governors with Ned knew that under his leadership, there was no state better run than Tennessee because of his commitment to both continuous change and sensible management and his uncanny blend of old-fashioned common sense and progressive values."
The memory of McWherter's common-sense, forward-looking approaches to the problems of Tennessee was attested to by the outpouring of praise and remembrance across a Tennessee political spectrum that is otherwise highly fractionated these days — Alexander, Corker, Cohen, Haslam, Ramsey, Naifeh, Herron, DeBerry, et al. Former U.S. senator and Vice President Al Gore, whose service spanned state and nation, said it simply: "Regarded by many as the greatest governor in our state's modern history, he fused the demands of tough executive management with the authentic touch of the common man."
"The greatest": Gore was not alone in making that claim for a man who worked his way up to the governorship from long years of service as speaker of the House, whose attention to detail regularly earned Tennessee the title of the nation's best-managed state, whose far-sighted policies — in matters of health care and education, especially — became models for the rest of America and whose bipartisan spirit was best reflected in the strong votes this authentic Democrat always got in arch-Republican East Tennessee.
Like Elvis Presley, this political icon was a sharecropper's son. And in the modesty of his upbringing, he resembled that other titanic figure who left us this past week, Larry Finch, who achieved the historical hat trick of being both the greatest basketball player and, arguably, the greatest basketball coach in the history of the University of Memphis. Others may rival Finch on the latter score, but the number of his all-time victories transcends anyone else's and his ability as a recruiter and assistant coach fattened the win-totals of those who came before and after him.
Finch's sterling playing career as the sparkplug and scoring leader of the Tiger team that almost won the NCAA tournament in 1973 occurred during Ned McWherter's time as House speaker. His tenure as Tiger coach was almost exactly concurrent with McWherter's as governor. For legions of people in Memphis and elsewhere (this week's Flyer Viewpoint is explicit on the score of Finch's widespread symbolic value), the two of them represented an era of goodwill, unity, and accomplishment that may never be equaled.