Knoxville News Sentinel: 2000-12: A new millennium: Lamar Alexander rises to power in Washington, D.C.

Posted on November 25, 2012

Lamar Alexander, who likes to walk a lot, has gotten a lot of mileage out of a story he enjoys spreading around East Tennessee.

He tells of going to the grocery store in Walland, near a home he has near there, and handing his debit card to the cashier. She took a look at it and asked if he had any connection to the highway that ran through Walland to Townsend and Maryville.

Lamar Alexander Parkway is, of course, named after the guy buying groceries that day. Although at one time or another a U.S. senator, governor, presidential candidate, U.S. Secretary of Education, University of Tennessee president, author, musician and traveler, Alexander has always seemed to occupy the fringe of the spotlight.

He is likely the most influential and powerful man in East Tennessee and has been for nearly a decade. Yet, the names Bill Haslam, Bob Corker, even Peyton Manning might spring off the tongue first.

Maybe it's because he's a flannel shirt in an era of designer suits. A classical pianist in a time of screaming guitars. Or perhaps it's because the flavor-of-the-minute issue is not always his focus.

In his second term as U.S. senator, Alexander revealed a little of that attitude to News Sentinel Washington reporter Michael Collins this past January when he announced his decision to step down as chairman of the Senate Republican Conference.

"If I'm on a team, I'd like to be the quarterback. I can play wide receiver and let somebody else call the plays, and I did that for four years — and I hope I did a good job of it. But I just feel more comfortable being able to set my own agenda and not having to worry so much about whether I'm staying within the parameters of leadership."

In other words, he wants to pursue the issues he feels are most important to America.

"I'm tired, and I think most people are tired, of Congress and a president who can't get any results, such as finding a way to reduce the debt, finding a place to put nuclear waste, fixing No Child Left Behind, cleaning up the air without bankrupting businesses," he said.

Then, as now, most of the country has focused on the need to reduce the national debt, but who else even in an election year is talking much about nuclear waste, clean air and No Child Left Behind?

The road less traveled has been Alexander's highway throughout his public and private life.

His journey can take up a book of which he has written more than a half dozen. He served two terms as governor, nearly four years at UT president, three years as U.S. Secretary of Education and 10 years so far as senator.

After his governorship, he took a six-month break to explore Australia and write a book on the experience.

He ran for president twice, both times dropping out well before the convention.

Alexander has always been about family values and down-home appeal. In his second run for the governorship, he walked nearly a thousand miles, wearing red-and-black flannel shirts and shaking as many hands as he could. In his 2000 presidential run, he rejected planes and buses to tour the country in his SUV.

And he has a history of not wavering on his political convictions that call for focus on the environment, states' rights, education and the need to work together to get things done.

"To get results, you have to have some Democrats and some Republicans," he said in the Collins' interview. "I was able to do that as governor, working with Ned McWherter when he was speaker. We made some real progress on schools and roads and jobs, and I'd like to bring some of that same common sense way of getting results that I used in Nashville here (to Washington)."