Yep, the plaid shirt guy


Back on this post, I made a gratuitous name-dropping reference to covering Lamar Alexander back during his gubernatorial campaign in 1978, and Kathryn replied with a suitably unimpressed, “Plaid shirt guy. Swell.”

Indeed, as name-dropping goes, “Lamar” isn’t the same as “Elvis.” So it was a forgettable reference.

I only return to it because, coincidentally, I was going through even MORE files from my newspaper career just hours later, and ran across these two shots from that week I followed Alexander in 1978. I practically lived with the guy that whole time. I flew on his campaign plane with him (with my paper paying a pro rata share of the cost), went where he went, ate where he ate… I’d get about five or six hours away from him at night, and spent a couple of hours of that in my hotel room writing. We used to do stuff like that in those days — actually cover political campaigns.

This was a pretty exciting experience for me, my first exposure to statewide politics as a reporter. The following week, I was following his opponent, Jake Butcher, just as closely. We sort of tag-teamed the candidates in the last weeks of the election.

Anyway, the photo above, with Lamar’s tasteful plaid shirt clashing with a really ugly plaid sofa (be grateful it’s not in color) in the back room of a political headquarters in Nashville, captures a tense moment for the candidate. He had just been interrupted during this Nashville leg of his celebrated walk across the state by a reporter from the Tennessean with legal papers in hand. The legal papers — affidavits, I believe — had something to do with a business deal Alexander had been involved in. I want to say it had to do with ownership of some Ruby Tuesday restaurant franchises.

Anyway, somebody was alleging there was something irregular about it, and the candidate was being confronted with it. Big drama. This was his first look at the document, and there he sits with a suitably furrowed brow while we stare at him and wait for a reaction. One of us (guess who) is actually taking pictures of this potentially bad moment for Lamar Alexander. We were all about the next political scandal in those days, and Lamar had served in the Nixon White House, so he knew to take such things seriously, and soberly, and not complain about the pesky press.

But I will confess now to a bit of feeling bad for the guy at that moment. We weren’t supposed to feel that way, but I did. Even as I was dutifully taking the picture (if this is the end of his candidacy, I captured the moment!), I was sort of thinking it would be kind of nice if the guy had a moment to read this in privacy and compose his thoughts — if only so we could get actual facts from him instead of a gut reaction. But we didn’t allow him that.

Anyway, to balance that, here’s a happier moment below. It was taken on his campaign plane, as it was preparing for takeoff, early on the morning of Oct. 18, 1978 (going by the newspaper). The Yanks, as you see, had just won the World Series again. Check out Jimmy Carter and Moshe Dayan. The day was going well so far — no scandals yet — and was filled with possibilities.

I like the way the light works in the picture. I was a pretty fair photographer, for a reporter.

Sorry if I’m boring y’all. Don’t know why I’m taking y’all down memory lane. Oh yes, I do: This is my way of getting y’all to think, Ol’ Brad has been covering this politics stuff up close and personal for a long, LONG time, so maybe sometimes his reflections are based in experience and not just gut reactions.

Is it working?

Anyway, it’s certainly been a long time. Burl and I graduated from Radford High just seven years before this…


17 thoughts on “Yep, the plaid shirt guy

  1. Burl Burlingame

    Seven years? I was working as chief photog and designer at a chain of weeklies at this time.
    Brad does have a good sense of what the photogs call the “decisive moment,” the instant of visual harmony that tells the story.
    Here, I’ll drop a name. Just got this email from a manager: “David Sedaris is on tour, and does not have a minute for an interview to promote his tour in your city.”
    Shrug. No publicity for you, Mr. Sedaris.
    BTW, I remember Lamar Alexander’s “walk” across Tennessee. I used to live in Sewart Air Force Base near Murpheesboro and paid vague attention to Tennessee news thereafter.
    Oooh, name-dropping! While interviewing Sam Houston Andrews from Big Brother and the Holding Company, we discovered we were both Air Force kids in the same housing project at Sewart, and used to play in the same abandoned antebellum mansion off in the woods. He was a few years before me.

  2. Greg Flowers

    Speaking of Tennessee politics it is almost the antithesis of South Carolina in that the only state officials elected on a statewide basis are governor and, I believe, public service commission. Seems to work pretty well.

  3. Brad Warthen

    That’s right, Greg. Maybe things have changed, but when I was there, not even the lt. gov. was elected. He was a senior member of the Senate, chosen by his peers. I guess here, that would make McConnell the lt. gov.

    And the governor had a real Cabinet. An interesting thing about Alexander is that when elected, he faced a Democratic legislature, and he worked with them very well. He even had a bipartisan Cabinet, and his top political advisor (I think he became chief of staff after the election) was a Democrat.

    When I came here, at the start of Carroll Campbell’s administration, I found myself comparing Campbell to Alexander, and Campbell didn’t look all that great. He was all about building the GOP, and getting Democrats to defect, and having press conferences to rub it in the opposition’s face. Alexander would never have done anything like that. Consequently, he got a lot done, including education reform that the TEA was dead set against, but which he got Speaker Ned Ray McWherter and other top Dems to help him push through.

    Having said that about Campbell, I must add that the sad thing is that today, we’d love to have a Campbell as governor.

    And Burl, remember Priscilla Gummerson? She had lived in England just down the street from Charlie Watts.

  4. Kathryn Fenner

    So, Brad, you were trying to be Lamar Alexander’s equivalent of the TV news guys at the house fire/car wreck asking the victims or their loved ones how they feel? Swell again.

    Somehow being the guys on the plane with Lamar Alexander lacks the kind of gonzo journalism feel one might hope for, but I guess you ARE the most famous journalist I’ve eaten lunch with, so I’d best play you up.

    I was interviewed by Bob Greene, erstwhile columnist for the Chicago Tribune as someone who lived in Chicago and also came from Refrigerator Perry’s hometown. I did not make the column or become another notch in his famous typewriter, despite being considered rather strikingly attractive in my late twenties. Alas….perhaps he didn’t dig tall chicks—or smart-mouthed ones

  5. Brad Warthen

    You know, I don’t think either of these pictures was used in the paper. I shot a lot of stuff that was never used.

    I’d send in my film and the photogs would process it (I could do it at home, and did with my personal Tri-X, but generally sent the work stuff to the office), and somehow my stuff didn’t get picked all that often. Human nature.

  6. Kathryn Fenner

    My Lamar Alexander person– I waited on Andy Williams. Someone whom you have to be at least a certain age to have heard of….Oh yeah, “Moon River” guy, swell.

    I did ride in the elevator with Scott Turow frequently when I worked in Sears Tower, and I worked closely with someone who is now one of the Gitmo defense attorneys….

  7. Phillip

    amazing how much stuff you can find in just a fragment of the above-the-fold of a paper from 30 years ago…not just Ma Bell as Brad points out, but also still an “HEW,” though not for long as education got its own department not long after, I think. Also note Carter’s apparent desire to “slow Baker,” a reminder that Baker was for a while considered a serious 1980 Prez contender. And meanwhile, the Mideast stalemate lingers on and on and on and on…

  8. Brad Warthen

    And the Yankees are poised to win the Series AGAIN — Only back then, you’ll note, we managed to wrap it up in actual October…

    Two years later — actually, more like 15 months — I was up in Iowa covering Howard Baker on his brief run at the presidency. I don’t think Jimmy slowed him down, but Reagan and Bush certainly did.

    And Kathryn, I had to look up Scott Turow (he said, with a sniff of superiority). I’d heard of him, but couldn’t place him for a moment. On the other hand, I remember Andy Williams. I also remember his wife, Claudine Longet. She put out some albums that, as I recall, consisted mainly of sexy whispering in her French accent…

  9. Bart Rogers

    Yep, and years ago I had a conversation with Jim Palmer, former Oriole pitching great, in the USAir lounge at BWI just after he had finished his first photo shoot for Jockey underwear. Information I just didn’t need at the time.

  10. Kathryn Fenner

    As a youngster, I also had not only Andy Williams albums, but Claudine Longet albums (I was a weird kid). Claudine Longet was later notorious for shooting and killing her lover, skier Spider Sabich.

    If you haven’t read Presumed Innocent, do. It’s perhaps the best lawyer book I’ve ever read–a page turner and legally accurate to boot, He also wrote One-L, which is more of an insider tome. Turow is a real lawyer–no John Grisham he. Not knowing who Scott Turow is is hardly grounds for superiority, especially in a newsman. Knowing who Claudine Longet is gets props, though.

    Didn’t Ted Sorensen’s wife die in one of the 9/11 crashes?

  11. Greg Flowers

    Kathryn, it was Solicitor General Ted Olson’s wife.

    And my, you are so right about Turow, a real writer in genre fiction. Makes you despair for the future of the world to realize that John Grisham outsells him by such a substantial margin. Did you see him at the South Carolina Book festival earlier this year. A real delight, as friendly and unpretentious as could be. Spent hours over and above the requirements signing books and engaging everyone in a brief conversation. He is one of those writers with the sensibility of a poet. Some of his sentences you have to go back and read over and over again because they just sing.

    I think that he is a popular writer who will be read fifty years from now.

  12. Kathryn Fenner

    I didn’t make it to the book festival, but his aunt was one of the secretaries at my firm and he worked right upstairs–which sounds funny in a 110 floor building, but it was in the same elevator sub-module, so he was around a fair bit. At the time, he was already a local celebrity, having not only written One L, but also been a huge local star as a prosecutor in the Greylord judicial corruption cases before joining Sonnenschein–yet you sure couldn’t tell it. Then Presumed Innocent came out, and we figured he’d be gone, but he was still nice to his auntie!

  13. Brad Warthen Post author

    OK, how about this on the name-dropping…

    I once went into the Reds’ locker room and got Pete Rose to autograph my glove. He was sitting on top of a table after the game with his shirt off, being interviewed by a sports writer….

    Yeah, I’ve interviewed Barack Obama and George Bushes (both of ’em, the Dad a couple of times), John Kerry, John McCain (multiple times), John Edwards, Dick Gephardt, Howard Dean, Jesse Jackson (more than once), Ted Sorensen, and Ralph Nader.

    But there’s something mystical for me about getting Charlie Hustle’s autograph when I was a kid. Even though he didn’t speak to me or even look at me. He just kept talking to the reporter, took my glove, signed it, handed it back.

    And you know the cool part of the story? The cool part is that I did not take that glove and encase it in plastic or display it under glass. I kept playing with it, through my high school years, and on through church league men’s softball a decade later… until the autograph completely faded away…


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