Remembering Ned Ray McWherter (1930-2011)

A Tennessee icon who transcended political divides and set models for the nation



Governor Ned McWherter in 1988
  • Governor Ned McWherter in 1988
The last time I spoke to Ned McWherter was back in early February. The former governor called me — from his home in Dresden, I presume — to let me know he was keen to follow up on a suggestion that had come from his son Mike and his good friend and mine, Trace Sharp.

The two of them had contacted me at the beginning of the year and proposed that I interview the former governor, who ran Tennessee from 1987 to 1995 and was Speaker of the House for a dozen years before that, about his life and times. I had the impression they had made the same pitch to Governor McWherter — or Ned Ray, as most of his neighbors in northwest Tennessee still called him.

“And, Jackson, I wouldn’t wait on it,” Mike, who had been a candidate for governor himself just months earlier, said. The comment was made in an understated way, but I was alarmed by it. Was the former governor seriously ill?, I asked. “He’s all right,” said his son, after a deliberative pause. “You’ve got some time right now, but I wouldn’t let, say, a year go by.”

In retrospect, it seems obvious — and Mike McWherter has confirmed — that Ned McWherter was manifesting some obvious warning signs, but there was as yet no drastic diagnosis.

I let maybe three weeks go by — a fact that I will regret for some time — while I disposed of some other matters that had piled up on me. I was both intrigued and flattered by the invitation to do the interview, however, and eventually put a call through to the former governor. I went through McWherter’s longtime administrative assistant, Madelyn Pritchett, who in turn passed my message to the governor.

At the time I didn’t know any of the special circumstances that I was shortly to learn about — the most important of which came from Governor McWherter himself when he called. “I’ve got cancer,” he told me in that February conversation. But he communicated a hope that he would shortly be out of the woods on that score, and he said, “I’m not sure when I could come to Memphis.”

No, no, I assured him. I’d be more than happy to come to him. That was fine, he said. It was just a matter of when, and he’d get back to me on the best time for me to arrange a visit — “in a few days,” presumably when he completed a round of treatment he was just then involved with. Meantime, he talked about several Shelby Countians who had loomed large in the politics and civic life of the last few decades and ticked off the names of several he had enjoyed working with. “I did a lot of things with Memphis,” he said. “It meant a lot to me. I can tell you a lot of stuff about me and Memphis.”

The “few days” would stretch out for a while and I grew concerned enough, at some point, to put a call through to Mike McWherter. “How’s your Dad?” I asked.

“Jackson, it’s not real good,” he said, in a voice that may have sounded graver than he intended. For he continued, “He’s on a painkiller now, and will be until March 9th, and he’ll probably be able to talk to you as soon as he gets off. It’s just that he gets so tired from the medication, and it’s not the best time for him to be trying to remember things.”

Mike would, he told me, call me on March 9th. A week or 10 days later, I still hadn’t heard anything; so I called Mike back. At this point he made no effort to disguise the gravity of things. His father was riddled with cancer, he said, and the outlook wasn’t good at all. Doing chemo?, I asked. “Yes,” said Mike. “Let’s just see how this works out, and we’ll talk again toward the end of the month.”

That was my last communication with anyone in the McWherter household. The end of March came and went, and the first week of April got started, and — you know the rest of the story. Along with everyone else, I learned about the former governor’s passing on Monday afternoon.

My print competitor and TV colleague Bill Dries of the Daily News, who was getting news flashes on his computer, leaned over to tell me about it during a typically agitated moment on the county commission, while the 4th District’s Terry Roland was going head-to-head with the 5th District’s Steve Mulroy concerning an aspect of the school merger crisis. Or something suchlike.

The effect — to scramble time and space — was a little bit like getting the news of Pearl Harbor or JFK or 9/11 while watching a WWE throwdown on pay-per-view.

I had never known Governor McWherter well, though I had interviewed him a few times — once, during the Democratic convention of 1988 in Atlanta, while he held the door of a busy elevator open for several minutes, stopping time in its tracks while he discoursed eloquently and fully on the world of contemporary politics in answer to a question of mine.

In addition to everything else, Ned McWherter was a courteous man, generous with his time. I was flattered — nay, honored — to have been invited to conduct what might well have become the final interview of his life, one that would have been the basis for a look-back — no doubt, a highly appreciative one — in the Flyer’s sister publication, Memphis Magazine. And, of course, I lament that his time ran out before that could happen.

I lament that his time ran out, period. As the avalanche of accolades and eulogies from all corners on Monday indicated, so did most other people — Democratic, Republican, what-have-you.

Reactions to McWherter’s death — from the high and mighty and regular folks alike — made it evident that both the former Tennessee governor and the political era he presided over held a special claim to the affections of his state.

McWherter and Clinton as fellow governors
  • McWherter and Clinton as fellow governors
And to his nation as well. Former President Bill Clinton, whose tenure as governor of Arkansas overlapped with that of McWherter 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….”

And the memory of McWherter’s common-sense, forward-looking approaches to the problems of Tennessee was attested to by the uniform out-pouring 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, 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 had 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 healthcare 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. Like Elvis, and like another up-from-nothing titan who fell this sad and tragic week, University of Memphis basketball immortal Larry Finch, he will be well and long remembered.

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