Tennessee's New Governor Finds Good Fortune in a Cookie

updated 02/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

Folks in Tennessee will tell you it was his fondness for vanilla wafers that put Ned McWherter in the governor's mansion. It began as one of those impromptu things that pop up on the campaign trail. Democrat McWherter, 56, had been chasing the governorship for close to a year without really getting his message across. Then one day during last summer's primary race, he came up with a catchphrase to convince voters that as an experienced pol he didn't need any costly commissions or task forces to tell him what needed doing: "Swear me in at 10 in the morning," said McWherter, "give me four vanilla wafers and a cup o' coffee and I'll be ready to go to work."

A mountain of a man (he weighs 260 pounds and stands 6'2" tall), McWherter says the line about vanilla wafers "came as natural—I never thought about it. I've been eating vanilla wafers in banana pudding ever since I was a kid." The remark did the trick, capturing the imagination of voters who wanted a savvy governor who knew which way the cookie crumbled. Over the next several months, McWherter was greeted at every campaign stop by voters waving vanilla wafers. Meanwhile, the State House in Nashville, where McWherter had been Speaker for 14 years, was deluged with hundreds of boxes containing the suddenly famous vanilla biscuits. McWherter's victory margin in last November's election was anything but wafer thin: He won by a 10 percent margin.

The whole cookie business came to a head on Jan. 17, when McWherter was sworn in with great hoopla as the Volunteer State's 46th governor. There was a parade through downtown Nashville, featuring the usual array of marching bands and floats. And there was plenty to eat, too, as some 20,000 packets of Nilla Wafers were handed out to the faithful. After he took his oath of office came the moment the crowd had been eagerly anticipating: The new governor lofted a cup of coffee, then ceremonially chomped his way through the requisite four wafers to wild cheers from the crowd of 8,000. The former college dropout, who made millions through trucking and a beer distributorship, then left the podium, still chewing. "Let's go to work!" he said.

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