Skip to main content

The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Republican Lamar Alexander in Office Early, and Stopped a Pardon Scandal

Author(s): Keel Hunt, Lamar Alexander

Coup is the behind-the-scenes story of an abrupt political transition, unprecedented in US history. Based on 163 interviews, Hunt describes how collaborators came together from opposite sides of the political aisle and, in an extraordinary few hours, reached agreement that the corruption and madness of the sitting Governor of Tennessee, Ray Blanton, must be stopped. The sudden transfer of power that caught Blanton unawares was deemed necessary because of what one FBI agent called "the state's most heinous political crime in half a century"—a scheme of selling pardons for cash.

On January 17, 1979, driven by new information that some of the worst criminals in the state's penitentiaries were about to be released (and fears that James Earl Ray might be one of them), a small bipartisan group chose to take charge. Senior Democratic leaders, friends of the sitting governor, together with the Republican governor-elect Lamar Alexander (now US Senator from Tennessee), agreed to oust Blanton from office before another night fell. It was a maneuver unique in American political history.

Expanded edition, with a newly discovered account of the events by Senator Lamar Alexander:

"In December 2015 something unexpected happened. Keel [Hunt] delivered to my Nashville office a brown three-ring binder. He had only recently discovered it in a box that had been in storage for thirty years." —Senator Lamar Alexander

This binder contained the forgotten typescript, written in 1985, of Alexander's recollections of the events leading up to his early inauguration on January 17, 1979. In this expanded edition of Coup, the Senator's 22,000-word text has been added as a lost footnote to Hunt's definitive account.

From the foreword by John L. Seigenthaler:

"The individual stories of those government officials involved in the coup—each account unique, but all of them intersecting—were scattered like disconnected pieces of a jigsaw puzzle on the table of history until the author conceived this book. Perhaps because it happened so quickly, and without major disagreement, protest, or dissent, this truly historic moment has been buried in the public mind. In unearthing the drama in gripping detail, Keel Hunt assures that the 'dark day' will be remembered as a bright one in which conflicted politicians came together in the public interest."

Biography of Author(s)

Keel Hunt is a columnist for the USA Today Network in Tennessee. He has been a reporter, editor, Washington correspondent, and editorial writer. From 1979 to 1986 he was Special Assistant to Governor Lamar Alexander.


  • "History can be opaque, but not this history: in Keel Hunt's capable hands a critical but often-overlooked chapter in American politics comes to vivid life. In the last days of a Tennessee governorship, the Democratic incumbent, soon to depart, began selling pardons, fundamentally betraying the public trust. A dynamic young Republican governor-elect, Lamar Alexander, came into the breach as Democrats reached out to him to take office early and save the state further chaos and embarrassment. And so he did. Now, in this expanded edition of Hunt's excellent narrative, we have, for the first time, Alexander's own long-missing recollections of these tense days. The result is a brilliantly evocative story of crisis management—a story everyone interested in American politics and power should know."
    Jon Meacham, author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House and Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power
  • "A recommended read for anyone interested in Tennessee history or politics."
    —Tom Humphrey, Knoxville News Sentinel
  • "The story of Alexander's early inauguration—the only one of its kind in American history—is told with page-turning intensity."
    Claremont Review of Books
  • "There was a time when government was willing to act. Keel Hunt was a key player on one such occasion in Tennessee and tells the story with elegance and precision. This book tells about government doing what's needed—quickly, without hand-wringing and without seeking partisan advantage. Every elected official in America should read it."
    Phil Bredesen, Governor of Tennessee, 2003–2011
  • "...a deeply researched, highly engrossing, minute-by-minute account of the day a bunch of Democrats ousted their crooked governor and installed a Republican before his scheduled inauguration."
    —Betty Bean, Shopper News
  • "There is so much to enjoy about this book whose title of Coup, connoting anarchy, violence and warring factions, ironically relates a success story of political rivals in transitioning power. It is a testament to the character of the people involved and also a testament to the can-do state of Tennessee."
    Tennessee Bar Journal
  • "Keel Hunt gives us a fascinating account of an important moment in Tennessee history. It's a story of a time when Tennesseans of both parties came together to resolve a crisis that had rocked the state."
    Fred Thompson, US Senator from Tennessee, 1994–2003