Monday, January 25, 2016

John Jay Hooker, Statesman at Large

Two-time gubernatorial candidate and champion of numerous causes succumbs to cancer at 85. His last crusade was for assisted-suicide bill.

Posted By on Mon, Jan 25, 2016 at 10:10 PM



Tennessee has lost John Jay Hooker, the flamboyant, charismatic, and determined figure who was twice a candidate for governor and who, even in political decline, continued to represent issues close to his heart.

The most recent cause pushed by Hooker, literally to his dying breath, was a bill, characterized as Death with Dignity, which would allow assisted suicide in Tennessee.
John Jay Hooker
  • John Jay Hooker
Hooker advocated the measure in response to his diagnosis in January 2015 as having four metastatic melanomas. He spent the last year of his life campaigning for such a bill with the same intensity, health permitting, as he had evinced in pursuing other causes, such as judicial-election reform.

Hooker died in Nashville on Sunday, from the effects of his cancer. He was 85.

A Democrat, a friend of the Kennedys, and as gifted an orator as the late Governor Frank Clement was, Hooker failed to reach the statehouse in two tries — the first foiled in the Democratic primary in 1966 by Buford Ellington during the period of a “leap-frog” arrangement with Clement whereby the two establishment politicians took turns holding the office; the second as Democratic nominee in 1970, when Hooker was upset by Republican Winfield Dunn of Memphis.

That second defeat owed much to negative publicity accruing to questions regarding the financial collapse of the Minnie Pearl chicken chain during a time of Hooker’s proprietorship.

The youthful firebrand eventually became an old soldier at the political game, never quite regaining his onetime promise but never fading away, either. Up through his last year, he was a familiar presence in Nashville’s Legislative Plaza —a tall, dignified, gregarious figure dressed in an old-style politician’s frock-coat and hat, lobbying for this issue or that.

He advocated for other personages, too — for Jesse Jackson as a presidential candidate, for Muhammad Ali during the champion’s time of exile from boxing. Quite literally, Hooker became a statesman at large.

Hooker’s last political hurrah as a candidate in his own right had been in 1998, when he won the Democratic nomination again, almost without opposition, and unsuccessfully opposed Republican incumbent Governor Don Sundquist. Though his time had long passed, he was still able to make an enthralling speech and delivered one that year to an assembly of Flyer employees packed into a conference room.

For all the controversy that attended Hooker during his lifetime, it is fair to say that he was universally beloved in death, or as close to that state of things as a politician can be. 

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