Staying True to His Roots

Posted on March 12, 2008

Crossing the threshold into Sen. Lamar Alexander’s suite in the Dirksen Senate Office Building, it feels as though you’ve left Washington and entered the backwoods of Tennessee. Rather than covering his reception area with the crisp coat of paint that’s standard on Capitol Hill, the Tennessee Republican mounted a graying barn wall decorated with relics from Appalachia. “My thought was that Tennessee and Tennesseans are more interesting than I am,” Alexander said during a recent tour, as he admired the wall. The relics, which include a miner’s hat and a fox-skin scarf, are on loan from the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tenn. “The eastern part of Tennessee was settled real early after The Revolution,” Alexander noted. Hanging near the center of the wall is a large guitar made out of tiny brown sticks. “That’s a guitar made by a prisoner out of matchsticks,” the Senator said, pointing to the large instrument. “He had some time on his hands.” When Alexander first ran for governor of Tennessee in 1978, he began his campaign by walking across the state and meeting his future constituents. He walked 1,000 miles over the course of six months and spent the night at various homes, where he had the opportunity to talk with fellow Tennesseans and eat home-cooked meals. “I was in the best shape of my life,” the Senator said, gesturing to the framed map that he used to plan his route. “[Tennesseans would] have me to dinner at their houses. They’d be cooking all day and they’d give me second and third helpings. So I was eating a lot and exercising a lot.” Alexander wore red and black plaid flannel shirts while he walked so the people in the Volunteer State would recognize him. One of these famed shirts hangs in his office in a glass case. He also has been known to break out a plaid shirt on special occasions in his home state, such as parades. Alexander came to the Senate in 2003, as a successor to Fred Thompson (R), whose photo hangs alongside Al Gore’s (D) and other former Senators from Tennessee in the conference room. “These are my predecessors,” he said, pointing to the photos. “You notice a lot of them have one bad affliction: They all run for president.” Alexander ran for president himself, in 1996 and again in 2000. But unlike Gore, he never made it to the nominating convention. Still, he keeps a colorful chessboard in his office with playing pieces reminding visitors of the Tennessee-centric race that could have been if he and Gore ever had the opportunity to face each other in the general election. The piece representing Alexander is dressed in a plaid shirt. The board was a gift from a craftsman in Iowa. Even though he has not had a chance to be president, Alexander, who first arrived in Washington as a legislative aide for then-Sen. Howard Baker (R) in 1967, has had the opportunity to meet many presidents. Over the course of his 40-year political career, Alexander has met or worked with Richard Nixon, Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Reagan. Pictures commemorating the meetings also hang in the conference room. “This is Richard Nixon in a Republican leadership meeting in 1970 when I was working in the White House as a Congressional relations aide,” Alexander said, gesturing to a black and white framed photo. “The other young man on the corner over here is Pat Buchanan. We were the two aides. I got to see a lot of stuff — still do.” The hallway leading visitors from the conference room to Alexander’s personal office contains one of the more unusual items in his suite: a photo of a bug that was named after him. The Cosberella lamaralexanderi was found one summer in the Great Smoky Mountains. The researchers who discovered the insect named it after the Senator because they thought it looked as though it was wearing a red and black plaid shirt. “It’s a pretty cute bug, actually,” Alexander laughed. “I might put it on my résumé.” The Senator’s personal office pays homage to two of his heroes: his former boss, Baker, and former Tennessee and Texas Gov. Sam Houston. Alexander sits behind a desk that once belonged to Baker, while a portrait of Houston looks over his right shoulder. “Sam Houston is one of my favorite people in American history and I admire him,” Alexander said. “He grew up in my hometown of Maryville and he was the governor of Tennessee before he was the governor of Texas, which most people forget.” The office is also filled with dozens of walking sticks, some of which were gifts during Alexander’s campaign across Tennessee and others that he’s collected. One belonged to Franklin Delano Roosevelt while another, kept in a glass case, was once Houston’s. The stick was broken and left at Tulip Grove on Andrew Jackson’s estate shortly after Houston visited Jackson on his deathbed. Alexander received the walking stick 20 years ago and added it to his collection. Hanging above the cane is a handwritten note that Houston composed while in Congress. The letter, a reminder of how times have changed, reads: “My dear sir, when will you be in? If you come by I will be happy to see you.” “That’s what Senators used to do,” Alexander said, smiling. “They didn’t have these staffs.” The rest of Alexander’s office is peppered with mementos from his Southern state. There is a gold record commemorating Elvis Presley, photos of landscapes and framed concert posters from Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. “What I’m trying to do is help people,” the Senator said of his office. “If they’re Tennesseans and they come here, [I want them] to feel comfortable. And if they’re not Tennesseans, [I want to] give them a taste of Tennessee.”