Tennessee’s senior senator has hope today’s politicians could overcome partisan divides to do what is best for the state if the need arose.

“I hope they would do the right thing, but you never know,” U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander said after MTSU’s Windham Lecture Series held Thursday evening in Murfreesboro.

The panel discussion focused on the bipartisan cooperation needed for the unprecedented ouster of corrupt governor Ray Blanton and the swearing in of Alexander in 1979. The in-depth discussion included Alexander, The Tennessean editor emeritus John Siegenthaler, former U.S. Attorney General Hal Hardin and author Keel Hunt.

The “cash-for-clemency” scandal Blanton was involved in produced a need for cooperation never seen before or since in Tennessee history when Democrats and Republicans united on Capitol Hill and ushered in Alexander as the 45th governor of Tennessee, Hunt said.

To put it in perspective, the Democrats held power in state government then like Republicans do now, said Hunt, an MTSU alumnus.

During the panel discussion, Alexander compared the afternoon before he was sworn in as “a boot camp” in how to work across the aisle and the need for that now.

“I worked with them after that because of the relationship we developed on that day,” he said about the Democrats who worked to swear in Gov.-elect Alexander three days early.

The constitutional crisis arose after Blanton signed 52 executive pardons, including one for a political pal’s son and 20 convicted murderers, amid a growing federal investigation into a clemency-for-cash scandal.

Hardin said Blanton was even willing to “let James Earl Ray escape” for $75,000. Ray assassinated Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 in Memphis and was in the Tennessee State Penitentiary at the time.

On Jan. 17, 1979, Hardin learned Blanton planned to issue more pardons, including one for a convicted triple murderer, before the newly elected governor Alexander was to be sworn in Jan. 20, 1979.

“It was like a freight train that was getting ready to crash,” Hardin said.

Hardin, who also is an MTSU alumnus, worked with Alexander along with Democrats House Speaker Ned McWherter, Lt. Gov. John Wilder and Tennessee Attorney General William Leech to determine whether an early inauguration was constitutional.

They did.

And Alexander took the oath of office three days early Jan. 17, 1979, in the Tennessee Supreme Court chambers.

The bipartisan scramble effectively prevented any more early releases for dangerous criminals, Hunt said.

The events of that afternoon and the scandal are the topic of MTSU alumnus Hunt’s book “Coup: The Day the Democrats Ousted Their Governor, Put Republican Lamar Alexander in Office Early, and Stopped a Pardon Scandal.”

Hunt, a former Tennessean reporter and city editor who campaigned for Alexander in the 1978 election and later became his special assistant and speechwriter, was able to interview many of the surviving participants for “Coup.”

“In hindsight, it’s a pretty good episode of bipartisanship in our state government,” Hunt said about why he wrote the book.

At the lecture, he used McWherter as an example of bipartisanship.

“First I’m a Tennessean and I believe this is in the best interest of Tennessee regardless of party,” Hunt quoted McWherter saying to Alexander before he was sworn in.

Despite his bipartisan beginning, Alexander has come under fire by more conservative Republicans in recent years for his ability to reach across the aisle. One of his more outspoken critics is state Rep. Joe Carr, R-Lascassas, who is his opponent in upcoming Republican U.S. Senate primary.

“It was a different era then. I worked with extraordinary people to accomplish this,” Alexander said about 1979.

The discussion was part of MTSU’s Windham Lecture Series in Liberal Arts, which was established by William and Westy Windham through the MTSU Foundation.