A Man For All Seasons

A political and civic force in Memphis for three-quarters of a century, Lewie Donelson has seen – and done – it all.

(page 2 of 3)

He keeps moving, that’s for sure. One of the laments of Lewie Donelson’s life these days is what has happened to his golf game. Only three years ago, at the age of 91, he not only shot an 84 but, he says, scored a hole-in-one. Now, he worries about getting back under 100.

Donelson plays golf twice a week at the Memphis Country Club, on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Just the day before, he’d been playing in his regular quartet, landing in traps and, he groused later, “hitting grounders and slices.” But he still hopes to fix all that. 

One of his frustrations derives from his very longevity, which, as he told his Sunday School class, vexes him in the same measure as, understandably, it pleases him. When Donelson was in his early sixties, reckoning perhaps on the likelihood of the standard three-score-and-ten, one friend and protégé, Senator Howard Baker, was running for president with what pundits thought was a fair chance of winning, and another, then Governor Lamar Alexander, sounded Donelson out on taking an appointment to the Senate, just in case a victorious Baker needed to be replaced. 

“I told him no, it was too late in life for me to get started on a Senate career,” Lewie remembers ruefully. The point, of course, became academic when Ronald Reagan began to clean up in the GOP primaries on his way to ousting Baker and other rivals. A decade later, still being pragmatic about his likely life span, Donelson began transitioning out of day-to-day control of his law firm. And while, as will be seen, he isn’t so pleased with the political path his party has taken, he is at peace with how his firm, with partner Howard Baker aboard, is progressing. 

Baker Donelson (full name: Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell, and Berkowitz, PC) is the latest incarnation of law firms Donelson has maintained since branching out on his own in 1954. It has branches in (get ready) Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Birmingham, Chattanooga, Houston, Huntsville, Jackson (Tennessee), Johnson City, Knoxville, London (yes, that London), Macon, Mandeville (Louisiana), Montgomery, Nashville, New Orleans, Orlando, and Washington, D.C. 

Though he no longer serves as chief executive officer of the firm, Donelson still has clients, big ones, and he still tries cases for them as becomes necessary. He drives himself to work every day from where he now lives, in The Parkview, the posh senior facility overlooking Overton Park, to the First Tennessee Building downtown, where he has an office on the 22nd floor. The firm occupies several floors in the towering bank building, a testament to the working partnership Donelson established years ago with First Tennessee, whose expansion, simultaneous with that of the law firm, he helped orchestrate.

Friends in High Places: Lewie Donelson aboard Air Force One with former President George H.W. Bush in 1990


To the eternal surprise of people who Google his office telephone number or get it from 411, Lewie Donelson answers his own phone. On a given day his callers could be visiting executives from Guardsmark, the Memphis-originated security firm now headquartered in New York, here as clients for a luncheon meeting. Or his grandson Mason, saying hello. Or representatives of a pro-life organization looking for a donation and whom he will tell, as he does all such solicitors, to write him instead. (For the record, he emails but otherwise has no truck with the cyberworld.)

Donelson’s tone can be polite, tender, or blunt, as the case requires. And when he is finished with a call, he resumes whatever conversation he happens to be having precisely where he left it off. Donelson’s powers of recall are impressive, as they would need to be, given the sheer volume of his life experiences. What he says in a casual chat turns out to dovetail almost perfectly with what he says in Lewie, a reminder that he dictated the text to transcribers, a fact that makes the book something of an oral history project.

On the first page of his Introduction, Donelson offers this unapologetic caveat: “After some consideration, I decided to tell the story as I remember it; even with factual errors, wrong dates, and perhaps confusion of characters, it would be better than a researched historical version. I apologize for any errors, but this is what I remember. I hope it is not too far from the facts.”

Readers of Lewie don’t have to wait too long to encounter a lapse or two. There is, for example, the reference on Page 13 to the abbreviated presidential tenure of Benjamin Harrison, when William Henry Harrison (of “Tippecanoe and Tyler, Too”) is meant. But Donelson’s confidence is well-placed. The occasional incidence of such errata, especially when one has been forewarned, is somehow reassuring as to the emotional truth of what is being told. As his doting mother is quoted on page 26 as having said, “Lewie is so plausible.”

Historical figures necessarily figure in Donelson’s family saga. As he notes, the family tree includes several of them, from Andrew Jackson Donelson, the forebear who was son of Andrew Jackson’s wife Rachel and stepson of Old Hickory himself, through the many Donelsons and allied families who have left traces of themselves in place names throughout the long span of Tennessee and elsewhere since their first arrival on the American continent in the seventeenth century. And Lewie Donelson has personally known many of the movers and shakers of contemporary American history. One of his classmates at the elite Choate prep school was a fragile Boston youth, born in 1917, the same year as Donelson himself, named Jack Kennedy. 

“He was a year behind me at Choate. He was in my house [residential facility], and I saw him every day when he was there. He was sick so much, maybe a third of the time. I never would have thought of him as a future president.” It was otherwise with Jack’s older brother Joe, an outgoing “very entertaining” lad who was “president of the 6th form, captain of the football team, and a very good student.”

History, like life itself, is erratic and unpredictable, of course. Joe’s promise was snuffed out when the plane he was flying over occupied France in World War II on a volunteer mission took a hit from a German anti-aircraft gun, while his younger brother, beset by so many illnesses that he literally had to fake his way into military service, heroically survived the capsizing of his PT boat by a Japanese destroyer and went on to political stardom and ultimate martyrdom.

Donelson also knew Lyndon Johnson when he, Lewie, was a law student at Georgetown, and the young LBJ was a Texas congressman’s aide. Donelson knew Johnson through his roommate, another congressional aide named Bryce Harlow, who would go on to be an influential advisor to several Republican presidents. The Johnson that Lewie remembers is the same one, it is clear, that LBJ’s biographer Robert Caro chronicled so well in The Path to Power, the first of Caro’s several definitive tomes on Johnson.

“At that time he was What Makes Sammy Run?,” Donelson recalls, evoking the hustler figure of Budd Schulberg’s classic novel. “He knew all the angles, knew who he should be cultivating, who had the power. He never relaxed. Never. He was always being obsequious to the right people.”

Lewie also knew Richard Nixon, whose 1960 presidential campaign he had chaired in Tennessee, and spent time with him during the exile years between Nixon’s defeat in a follow-up 1962 California gubernatorial race and the indefatigable politician’s return to presidential contention in 1968.

“He was a tragic figure, no question about that. Very bright. Extremely well organized. He always carried a notebook with him, and there was never a time when he wasn’t prepared for whatever he was doing. But he was totally paranoid. He thought everybody was against him. He was always seeing plots against him and talked about it. He was surprisingly open about all that.”

During his long career, Donelson has had proximity to others of the nation’s leaders. He never met FDR, though he saw him once or twice being driven in his open-top presidential limousine and he once had a friendly conversation with Eleanor Roosevelt, the president’s wife, when the both of them happened to be walking The Mall in Washington at the same time. He met Harry Truman when the future president was a U.S. Senator gaining a reputation as chair of the wartime “Truman Committee,” which investigated corruption among defense contractors. Truman, who impressed Donelson as he did most people as a plain and honest public servant, tried to hire the young Tennessean for his investigative staff. 

“I was tempted,” Lewie recalls, but conversations with Truman’s aide Clark Clifford, who seemed too fixated on power and influence as ends in themselves, turned him off.

Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton — one way or another Lewie Donelson encountered them all, but his closest relationship he reckons as that he enjoyed with George H.W. Bush, who served a single presidential term between 1989 and 1993. Donelson is prone to direct the attention of those who visit his office to one of the framed photographs on a wall of memorabilia. It is a picture showing Donelson aboard Air Force One with the first President Bush and several Bush aides, including Lee Atwater, the young shaggy-haired operative who earned a reputation for hard-nails campaigning and also played a mean blues guitar. Atwater, Donelson notes sadly, was to die only months later from the effects of a then-unsuspected brain tumor.

The picture, however, is an upbeat reminder to Donelson. He laughs, “Bush told me when he sent this to me that I’d like it. If you’ll notice, I’m talking, and everybody else is listening.”

The subject of that conversation, Lewie recalls, is how the Republican ticket could carry Tennessee for the senior Bush’s reelection try in 1992. That year, however, the Mid-South-based Democratic ticket of Arkansas governor Bill Clinton and Tennessee’s U.S. Senator Al Gore would prove too formidable to overcome. The formula he recommended, however, was what Donelson still regards as a sound one that had already proven itself in several previous statewide victories, notably those of U.S. Senator Howard Baker in 1966, 1972, and 1978; the 1970 wins of Memphis dentist Winfield Dunn for governor and Chattanoogan Bill Brock for the state’s other Senate seat; and those of Lamar Alexander for governor in 1978 and 1982.

"I think the Republicans that got in there did a sorry job. They beat the death out of the gun issue and two or three others, but they haven't done anything about controlling the size of the government or eliminating the waste that goes on."

The idea was to rely on the traditional East Tennessee Republican vote, couple it with the big Republican vote in Shelby County (one that Donelson himself had largely midwifed into being), and fill in the blanks in Middle Tennessee and rural West Tennessee with some relatively moderate positions.
It is a formula that still played well in the later Senatorial victories of Alexander, Bill Frist, and Bob Corker, but one which may have since run its course. 

Or so it would seem from the rapid decline of statewide Democratic prospects in the last couple of election cycles. Now, it would seem, in the advent of a virulent Tea Party, that the whole of Tennessee has turned a bright-red Republican shade. It is a circumstance that presents Lewie Donelson with decidedly mixed feelings. “I jovially announced to some of my Democrat friends, “Maybe we ought to change off [and] get y’all back in power.” On another occasion he is discussing his pride in having contributed to the remodeling of Tennessee in the 1960s and ’70s as a two-party state. “It was an amazing transformation. [Pause] I may have to go back to being a Democrat.”

If that is a jest, as it likely is, it is one that has an edge to it and is recurrent in Donelson’s conversations about contemporary politics. It should be recalled that there was a time, more than two decades back, when the state Republican Party, then under the chairmanship of one Tommy Hopper, began adopting the brand of right-wing populism that has since become its signature. That was the first time Lewis Donelson publicly made such a statement about renouncing his party, and he wasn’t smiling when he said it. 

This was back in 1991, when Democratic Governor Ned McWherter, a Donelson friend despite their party differences, proposed a state income tax, and GOP Chairman Hopper made a point of putting the Republican Party on record against it. Lewie’s reaction was memorable. In something of a rage at Hopper’s position, he threatened, explicitly and for quotation, to change parties. 

Not only had Donelson counseled McWherter on behalf of a state income tax, he had previously offered such advice to another Democratic governor, Ray Blanton, a corruption-prone chief executive whose exit from the governor’s chair days before the scheduled end of his term Donelson, destined to be Alexander’s Commissioner of Finance and Administration, would be called upon by the state’s officialdom to expedite. But that, as they say, is another story. 


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