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.
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At the specific request of Governor Lamar Alexander, Blanton’s successor and a close Donelson ally, Lewie kept silent on the subject of a state income tax for the eight years of the Alexander administration, and he was on the political sidelines when another Republican governor, Don Sundquist, basically went to the mattresses on behalf of an income tax during a turbulent second term, alienating the GOP base and turning himself into persona non grata in party circles. But Donelson continues to believe strongly that the state sales tax that Tennessee relies upon is inherently regressive, penalizing the least among us for the sake of the more powerful, and stunting the state’s economy.
An incident featured in Donelson’s book, and one that frequently crops up in his conversation, concerns his one and only run for public office himself — his successful race for the newly created Memphis City Council in 1967. As he tells it in Lewie: “One TV station aired a forum with the 26 council candidates. I remember many tough questions. One was, ‘Would you vote for a tax increase?’ Twenty-five said, ‘no,’ and there was one ‘yes’ — mine. ‘I would vote for one if I thought one was necessary,’ I said. Financing government is a foremost responsibility of officeholders.”
Mind you, Donelson is a Republican’s Republican. His background was strongly Democratic, both politically and, via his genealogical connections to Andrew Jackson, ancestral. For him not only to break with that tradition, as he did in the mid-1950s, but to become the fountainhead of a statewide Republican resurgence — personally recruiting such future pivotal GOP figures as Winfield Dunn, Howard Baker, and Lamar Alexander — was a profoundly important fact in the political history of Tennessee.
It was Donelson who, as he recounts at some length in Lewie, labored long and hard to develop a new middle-class constituency for the Republican Party, in the process both wresting control of the local Shelby County party, then essentially dormant, from the Old Guard of “Lieutenant” George W. Lee, an African-American figurehead, and challenging a parochial East Tennessee GOP oligarchy for statewide dominance.
“Post office Republicans” is how Donelson describes such types — content to dole out patronage during periods of Republican presidencies while allowing Old South Democrats to control the state. As he explains, his own political changeover derived importantly from traditional Republican concerns about fiscal solvency, but also from a feeling that the one-party system of the old Democratic “Solid South” prevented the region from realizing its full potential or achieving true democracy. He notes that during the era of “Boss” Ed Crump locally, governmental affairs were so completely under the control of a single organization that officials were essentially appointed, without the need for ordinary political campaigning.
As a young man, Lewie had met Crump — whom he describes in his book as “an utterly charming man” — and had the opportunity to place himself under the Great Man’s wing if he had chosen to, and credits Memphis’ long-time political boss with governing well and efficiently for the most part. But he felt that local politics had grown stultified; that, as much as anything else, had moved him and such other local pioneers as the late Bob James into Republicanism.
“We thought a two-party system was necessary,” Donelson says flatly.
How does he feel now that the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction as to re-create a virtual one-party state government?
“I’m embarrassed about it. 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. You’re elected to govern, not to protest. It’s hard for me to support Republicans who, when they get in there, all they do is raise Cain about no more taxes, no more governing.
“I’m dismayed now. I used to tell people you don’t win in Tennessee by being ultra-right. But my kind of Republican is a dying breed.”
Unmistakably, Donelson is a fiscal conservative. But, at a time when Democrats themselves shy away from the term “liberal,” Lewie embraces it as a descriptor for his own social views. “Yes,” he says emphatically when asked if he is in fact a social liberal.
“When I first became a Republican, it was a very pro-integration group. It’s become less so over the years. I’m very strong on that issue.”
At a recent reading and book-signing at The Booksellers at Laurelwood, Donelson was asked by a member of his audience what the paramount local need was. Unhesitatingly, he responded, “The 25 percent of the people in poverty, without opportunity. We’ve got to deal with them before they get to kindergarten. By then it’s already too late. Everybody in Memphis ought to think that’s their Number One problem, and they don’t.”
Indeed, Donelson is best remembered by older Memphians not as the GOP eminence he has been for decades but as the City Council member who, in his one term as an elected public official, strove mightily to settle the ill-fated sanitation strike of 1968 before the situation got totally out of control, leading to the presence in Memphis of Dr. Martin Luther King and his tragic assassination here.
“It was so sad. [Mayor Henry] Loeb was not a racist. He was a plantation type, a typical Southerner. We were always one vote short. I never could get that seventh vote,” Donelson remembers.
He regards the failure to settle the sanitation strike as one of his two most serious disappointments in life. The other, more recently, was his inability, as chairman of the board of The Med, to convince the Shelby County Commission to allow the charity hospital facility to relocate in the old Baptist Hospital structure in Midtown after that hospital moved its major operations out east.
What Donelson describes as an “appalling” hearing on the matter by the Commission entangled the issue in rivalries within Memphis’ medical community and inner-city resentments of the “rich people’s hospital” for relocating out of the city center. The rejected building was later imploded to make way for a proposed research facility.
Lying in ruins also was what Donelson had seen as a “dream” solution, consolidating The Med’s scattered facilities, incentivizing its staff, and readying the institution for decades of stable progress.
He is likewise disappointed regarding the political vista. After reiterating recently his disenchantment with the Tennessee version of the Grand Old Party he did so much to revivify, Lewie had this to say:
“I’m trying to get out of politics. I have a story that goes along with that. I got on a train one day in Cincinnati in ’52 or ’53, and Mr. Crump was on the train. This was before I was in politics. He invited me to have dinner with him. We had a delightful evening. He was a charming man.
“At the end of the evening, he said, ‘You know, Lewis, Mrs. Crump is tired of politics,’ and I figured he meant he was tired of politics. And I said, ‘Why don’t you quit?’ He said, ‘I can’t do that.’ I said, ‘What do you mean? You could just say, ‘I’ve been at this 50 years, and I’ve had my time, I’m retiring.’ And he said, ‘No, it doesn’t work that way. There are all those people out there that helped me when I was running candidates. When they call me now, I’ve got to help them. That’s where I am now. I never dreamed I’d be in that situation. When they call me, I’ve got to help them.’”
Lewie paused. “And here I am, I’m 94 years old, and I’ve got no business trying to get involved.” I remind him that Crump remained a political power until his death at the age of 80 in 1954.
“Oh, hell yes, but he wasn’t anywhere near 94!”
Lewie Donelson has reached a stage of life that requires others to take ceremonial notice. In recent years he has been the subject of two separate testimonial dinners — one upon his reaching the age of 90 in 2007 and another earlier this year. At the conclusion of each, he smiled and had the same show-stopping line: “I’ve heard so many nice things said about me tonight that I almost feel obligated to die.”
But, as he often says in conversation, he takes no medication, keeps a full schedule, has a full annual physical, and claims, “My doctor tells me, ‘I can’t find a damn thing wrong with you!’” In mid-June, as this article was getting ready for press, he reiterated what has become a mock-pessimistic update: “I’m only going to live another 10 or 15 years.”
And he was still out there, on the links of the Memphis Country Club, at least two times a week, struggling under the early summer sun with his iron game and working intently at the goal of breaking 100.
Jackson Baker is a senior editor of the Memphis Flyer and a contributing editor of Memphis magazine. He recently wrote about the future of the Memphis and Shelby County Public Library system (“Still the Place To Go”) in our January 2012 issue. Read it online at www.memphismagazine.com.