Lewis Donelson has written a highly anticipated autobiography that covers a lot of ground – just as he has from his role in the formation of the modern Shelby County Republican Party starting in the mid 1950s to his one term on the City Council to being the man who told Ray Blanton he was no longer governor and beyond.
The book, “Lewie,” is a valuable contribution to understanding why our politics is what it is today – warts and all.
In Wednesday’s edition, we’ve focused on what Donelson has to say in the book and in an interview at Rhodes College, his alma mater, on the events of 1968.
Donelson’s view is that it forever changed the relationship between the mayor and council from what the charter commission intended the relationship to be. He should know, he was on the charter commission that drafted the charter for the conversion to the mayor-council form of government.
Here are Donelson’s observations on a few other subjects from the book and from our interview:
On Term Limits:
“Give me about five exceptions,” he said in our interview. “I hoped that by serving one term, I would make it easier for other citizens to serve one term. … It could sort of be a tradition that able people would come and serve one term.”
On Ray Blanton:
“Blanton wasn’t an evil man, but he proved the Peter Principle and rose high above his level of competency.” That’s from the book detailing the early swearing in of Lamar Alexander as governor to succeed Blanton who was about to make dozens of last minute prison pardons.
On running for office and writing a book:
“If ten of your friends ask you to run for office, a hundred can’t talk you out of it.” That’s the book and the interview.
On being offered an appointment to the U.S. Senate by Alexander as then Senator Howard Baker was running for President in the 1980s:
“I said, ‘If we can work it out to where I can be governor and you can be senator, I’d be for that.’” The book and the interview. No deal. But Alexander is currently one of our two U.S. Senators.
On Education Reform:
“I think we’ve made some progress in education. The thing about education that’s so hard is it takes 12-15 years to know whether you’ve done any good – to make a change,” he said in our interview. “The one thing we are is not patient. We’re not patient. That’s what makes education reform so difficult. People want an immediate transformation.”
On Political Power and Race:
“We act like a city that is majority white when we are majority black. We’ve got to get over that. … We’re getting close to it,” he told us. “The negative talk about Memphis among Memphians has declined. Maybe 10 years ago everybody was talking that way.”
On Tennessee Job Conference:
“I pushed to use some of the money for the zoo. Abe Plough agreed to match anything up to $10 million. … Unfortunately, the Jobs Conference types were not interested in zoos, only in urban projects. The money went to Beale Street, the Orpheum Theatre and other projects. … Perhaps I should have had more control over that money, but Lamar and I felt the public should decide. In retrospect, we chose the wrong vehicle; other public groups might have been better able to select projects of long-range benefit to Memphis.”
From the book, but in our interview Donelson said the $20 million was used for worthy projects, just ones with a different priority than the one he had which came with matching private money.