Journalists-turned-authors Erik Schelzig and Joel Ebert join host Michael Patrick Leahy and all-star panelist Clint Brewer in-studio on Thursday’s episode of The Tennessee Star Report to discuss Schelzig and Ebert’s new book, Welcome to Capitol Hill: 50 years of Scandal.
Michael Patrick Leahy: Good morning, Nashville; it’s 6:06 a.m.
We’re broadcasting live from our studios on Music Row in Nashville, Tennessee.
Boy, do we have an hour for you this morning.
Our all-star panelist and all-around good guy, recovering journalist, Clint Brewer is here. Clint, good morning.
Clint Brewer: Good morning, Mike.
Michael Patrick Leahy: We’re glad to have you here.
And a special day for us, two journalists long standing here have written a book about all the hijinks up at Capitol Hill here in Tennessee since 1972. It’s going to be published by Vanderbilt University Press on August 15th. Joel Ebert, welcome to The Tennessee Star Report.
Joel Ebert: Thanks for having me.
Michael Patrick Leahy: We’re glad to have you and Erik Schelzig. Welcome.
Erik Schelzig: Good morning. Thanks for having us.
Michael Patrick Leahy: We’ll move you a little bit closer to the microphone there, Erik.
So let’s start with Erik, your background – you worked for Associated Press for 15 years.
Erik Schelzig: That’s right. I worked for AP and then Florida, West Virginia, and mostly here in Tennessee at the State House.
Michael Patrick Leahy: Well, of course. Where are you from originally?
Erik Schelzig: You name it. DC’s pretty much my hometown, but I grew up overseas
Michael Patrick Leahy: Oh, okay. Military guy?
Erik Schelzig: No, just international work. My dad did international development stuff, and I was in the Philippines, and in West Africa, and as a kid, in Germany, and just all over.
Michael Patrick Leahy: And now you’re the managing editor of The Tennessee Journal, right?
Erik Schelzig: That’s right. It’s a weekly newsletter, mostly for insiders. I’ve been doing that for about five years now, it’s a lot of fun.
Michael Patrick Leahy: But you’ve got an online presence as well, right?
Erik Schelzig: There’s a blog called TNJ on the Hill that I try to keep updated, but that’s the free product. And, of course, the paid product is a “you get what pay for” sort of thing.
Michael Patrick Leahy: Well, yeah, we read the free product all the time.
And Joel Ebert welcome. You’ve you wrote for The Tennessean for a long time.
Joel Ebert: I did, yeah. From 2016 to 2020. So pretty much the entirety of the Trump administration.
Michael Patrick Leahy: And now you’re in Chicago?
Joel Ebert: I am.
So, I’m originally from Illinois, and I did a tour around the country covering state legislatures in West Virginia, South Dakota, Tennessee, and now back home.
Michael Patrick Leahy: So let’s talk about why you decided to go through the pain and misery of writing a book. Because I wrote a book published about 11 years ago by Harper Collins.
It was, like, 250 pages of pure misery. But, you know, it was, it was fun to do. Why did you, Erik, decide to write a book?
Erik Schelzig: Well, largely it was due to a misunderstanding of how the pandemic would run. We thought we’d have all kinds of time on our hands, and as you point out, it was a lot more work than we expected.
And ended up being quite a chore to write. But we had both covered. Tennessee politics and just politics in general for a long time. And there is a lot of weird stuff that happens that people might pay attention to in the moment but then tend to forget about. And our idea was that we might wanna track back and immortalize some of this stuff and some of the crazier incidents and, let people remember what happened.
So maybe they won’t repeat it again in the future, though our hopes aren’t too high.
Michael Patrick Leahy: Yeah, Good luck with that one, Joel Ebert. How is it – so you are up for The Tennessean for four years – how is it that you and Erik decided to work together on a book?
Joel Ebert: Yeah. When I came to Tennessee, I thought I walked into a press corps that was very collegial.
I’ve worked in other state houses, as I mentioned, and a lot of times you have sort of that, that dog-eat-dog mentality with other State House colleagues. Erik was one of those people who was very friendly from the day I got here. And so we had a friendship. We played softball together with, you know, other friends.
And it was just basically something where I didn’t see him as a competitor so much as somebody who was a good friend to work around. And when it came time to think about writing this book, it occurred to me I didn’t want to do it by myself. Him and I had talked about this idea generally, and so I said, “Hey, do you mind at, one point if I pitch Vanderbilt” and so be it. We move forward.
And you know, I think we’re better off for it, that we did it together.
Michael Patrick Leahy: The book is Welcome to Capitol Hill: 50 years of Scandal.
In Tennessee politics, of course, we love talking about scandals here. It’s going to be published by Vanderbilt University on August 15th, University Press.
Erik; University Press – why did you choose the University Press as opposed to one of the mainstream publishers?
Erik Schelzig: Well, they’re an academic press, and they’re very rigorous. It was actually an interesting experience to be sort of peer-reviewed and have to footnote everything and to be very sort of controlled and you know, it’s helpful for us to let people check our notes if we hopefully didn’t get anything wrong, but might’ve.
You know, frankly, it was the first press we asked, and we didn’t know anything about publishing, and we were really nervous and thought it would be a long process of back and forth and whatnot.
And essentially, we finished our materials and heard back almost immediately, “Yes. Do it.”
And then, suddenly, the task was upon us. We realized, “Oh no. Now we have to write this thing.”
Michael Patrick Leahy: Yes. And “labor of love” would be the best way to describe it.
Erik Schelzig: Absolutely. Yeah. And, and the ironic part is during this process, I had another labor of love – I actually had my first child
Michael Patrick Leahy: Well, that was your wife’s labor of love.
Erik Schelzig: Yeah. But you know, it was quite a process to do both. You know, a book and a child at the same time.
Michael Patrick Leahy: So what’s interesting about this, to me, is you start off with the Blanton Scandal.
Erik Schelzig: That’s right. We had to start somewhere.
Michael Patrick Leahy: And, that’s a great place to start. Clint, you were here in Tennessee when the Blanton Scandal.
Clint Brewer: Yeah, I was like, one.
Michael Patrick Leahy: You were one year old?
Clint Brewer: Yes.
Erik Schelzig: So it’s Clint’s fault, basically.
Clint Brewer: Yeah, it was clearly my fault.
Michael Patrick Leahy: Erik, can you just kind of give the outline to the Blanton Scandal?
Erik Schelzig: Let me defer to Joel ’cause he wrote most of that chapter, and it was actually one of the things that got.
Joel Ebert: Yeah. So basically, we wanted to go back and look – everybody knows in Tennessee Keel Hunt’s book, The Coup, which was basically the end of Blanton’s time in office that led to him being drummed out early because of–
Michael Patrick Leahy: He was governor.
Joel Ebert: He was governor at the time.
Michael Patrick Leahy: And the allegation was, he was selling what, prison pardons?
Joel Ebert: There was this suggestion that he was, he ultimately never got nabbed by the feds for that specific case. Many in his administration did, though. And so Lamar Alexander was sworn in early.
Michael Patrick Leahy: So this was – to set the stage, what, 1978?
Joel Ebert: ’78. He was elected in ’76, but then he leaves office in ’79 – or ’75. I’m sorry, ’75 to ’79.
Michael Patrick Leahy: Got it. So a four-year term.
Joel Ebert: Yep.
Michael Patrick Leahy: And he – Lamar – beats him.
Joel Ebert: Yep. Yep.
Michael Patrick Leahy: And I guess that everybody was so concerned about his crookedness.
Joel Ebert: Sorry – Lamar actually wins over Jake Butcher.
Michael Patrick Leahy: Oh, that’s right. Butcher.
Joel Ebert: Because, at the time, the governors would only be able to serve one term.
Michael Patrick Leahy: Thank you.
Joel Ebert: Yep.
And so the Blanton administration, the entirety of it, was basically scandalous. They were flying the plane to random places like Jamaica and calling it an economic development trip where they were trying to export soybeans, I believe. And the governor–
Clint Brewer: Is that wrong?
Joel Ebert: Well, this is the kicker. The governor also had his private physician and a campaign funder on the trip with him.
There were all kinds of other scandals within the administration. There was one called the “surplus car scandal” where members of the administration were selling state-owned vehicles for profit, essentially.
Blanton wasn’t touched a lot of times during these scandals. But ultimately, he ends up getting out of office. And going to prison after another scandal.
Michael Patrick Leahy: We’ll talk a little bit more about that – the drama where Lamar Alexander is sworn in early – we’ll talk about that.
And then 50 years of scandal. We only have 45 more minutes.
Joel Ebert: You’ll have to read the book.
Michael Patrick Leahy: We’ll have to read the book.
More when we get back.
This is the Tennessee Star Report; I’m Michael Patrick Leahy.
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