Former president Bill Clinton, former vice president Al Gore and scores of office holders at all levels of government attended services Saturday to remember the late Gov. Ned McWherter, a man known for his touch with ordinary people and as a lion in Tennessee politics.
“Above all, he was a friend,” Clinton told a crowd of several hundred inside Nashville’s War Memorial Auditorium. “For all the people of Tennessee, he was.”
Clinton, whose tenure as governor of Arkansas coincided with McWherter’s two terms as governor of Tennessee from 1987 to 1995, said he last spoke to McWherter two weeks before he died Monday after a battle with cancer. A shoe salesman and son of sharecroppers in Weakley County who rose to be one the most revered politicians in Tennessee history, McWherter was 80.
Clinton and McWherter became friends during the 1980s. Clinton joked the first time he met McWherter he checked his back pocket after McWherter delivered his “aw-shucks routine.” The crowd erupted in laughter.
McWherter made people both laugh and think, Clinton said. He described McWherter as a “fabulous politician” whose passion was to help the poor — both urban and rural. He said McWherter understood the “rhythms of daily life.” Clinton also said it was McWherter in 1991 who first introduced the idea of Gore, then a senator, to serve as Clinton’s running mate. McWherter proposed the Southern ticket when Clinton was still a heavy underdog in the Democratic primary.
“We’re here laughing and we want to cry because we know he was special,” Clinton said. “They don't make many people like Ned Ray McWherter anymore.”
McWherter, who served 14 years as Tennessee’s Speaker of the House, is widely viewed as one of Tennessee’s most successful governors. He helped reduce the number of Tennessee counties with double-digit unemployment rates from 42 when he arrived in the state Capitol to two when he exited. He increased funding to public schools and turned around Tennessee’s dysfunctional prison system. During McWherter’s governorship, Tennessee twice ranked as the nation’s best managed state government.
Gore, who has family who married into the McWherter clan, remembers McWherter for overseeing nursing home reform, piloting important health care initiatives, appointing the first African-American to the state supreme court and moving women into positions of leadership.
“He fused the demands of tough, executive management with the authentic touch of the common man,” Gore said. “You can trace Tennessee’s progress through the work of Ned McWherter as speaker and as governor.
“I mean no slight to any other leaders in our state when I throw my lot with those who say that Ned McWherter was the finest governor that we have ever had in the state of Tennessee.” Gore said.
Others in attendance Saturday included U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker, Gov. Bill Haslam, U.S. Rep Jim Cooper, Mayor Karl Dean and former Govs. Phil Bredesen, Don Sundquist and Winfield Dunn, along with seemingly every elected Democrat in Davidson County.
Appropriately, a string quintet played an instrumental version of Frank Sinatra’s “My Way” as McWherter’s friends left the memorial service.
Mike McWherter, Ned’s son who ran an unsuccessful campaign for governor last year, described his father as ambitious, hard working, honest and empathetic.
“He was a natural leader,” Mike McWherter said. “From childhood, others would follow his direction because they were attracted to his qualities. He exuded that in the way he led his life.
“He held himself to a standard of behavior that he wanted others to follow,” he said. “He wanted others to value their friends and their families ... He surrounded himself with those who lived their lives with dignity.”
Billy Stair, former senior adviser to McWherter, said his old boss appealed to people because of his values — honesty, fairness, compassion bipartisanship and fiscal responsibility.
"We loved him for what he had been,” Stair said. “We loved him for how he made us feel. But we also loved him for what he stood for, what public service could and should be.”