Tennessean: Lamar Alexander is not a shouter, but here's why we should quiet down and listen to him | Opinion
Posted on January 4, 2019
Tennessee’s senior U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander took to Twitter Christmas Day to denounce the most recent government work stoppage born of a lack of adults at the levers of power in Washington.
“This shutdown wastes taxpayer dollars, adds uncertainty to the economy and hurts small businesses around our national parks. A government shutdown should be as off limits in budget negotiations as chemical weapons are in warfare,” Alexander said in one tweet.
“This shutdown is a failure by negotiators, both Democrat and Republican, and will produce a success for no one,” he said in another.
Alexander, who announced last month that he will not stand for reelection in 2020, is far from the most voluble politician presently on the national stage, in a political scene that now rewards bombast over substance. But that doesn’t mean Alexander isn’t bringing anything to the table.
A powerful senator treated his lowly volunteer with respect
I have mentioned in previous columns that I spent a season working for Alexander’s 2008 reelection campaign. I turned 18 that summer, was just out of high school, and thought at the time I wanted a career in politics. Essentially a volunteer, I did stuff a lot of envelopes, but for the most part my work was done alongside the paid staff.
Some things stick out to me now at long remove.
I will never forget the way Alexander and his long-time chief of staff, Tom Ingram, treated everyone. In my own case, I was a gawky teenager blown in from Goodlettsville. Nobody from nowhere. Though I thought I knew everything, I actually knew little and had even less power. Like no power.
But these two men, long accustomed to power, never failed to acknowledge me or make me feel that my contribution mattered. They probably don’t remember any of that now, but it made a big difference to me. I learned during that time that we are never too big to justify treating people poorly or to make others feel small.
Working for Alexander during that time never felt like making a choice. We have been conditioned to believe in recent years that winning in politics is more about picking your team and your tribe. If we can narrowcast our message enough, and fire up our people enough, there’s no need to appeal to anyone else.
My memory may be faulty on this, but I believe the internal numbers from that campaign revealed that Alexander won something like 25 percent of the African-American vote. It didn’t happen by accident; it’s something that Alexander has taken seriously throughout his career and denotes a central aspect of his philosophy: bring as many people to your side as possible through an easy-going approach that doesn’t boast or slather thick our resentments.
But I didn't always see eye to eye with the senator and told him so
In the years since that time, and after I wrote my first newspaper story in college and knew in my heart that I had discovered what I really wanted to do, I have found sometimes sharp disagreements with Alexander. In one of my first columns during my slow transition from the news to the opinion pages, I criticized vociferously the nomination of Betsy DeVos for education secretary, whom Alexander steadfastly backed.
More recently, I gently urged Alexander to address the part that Republicans have played in making judicial nominations dysfunctional.
But I have never lost my respect for Alexander, his desire to do good and humble work or the warmth and passion with which he conducts himself.
Even people who lived through the events do not fully appreciate the remarkable ways in which Alexander’s career was shaped by scandal and bitter politics. He worked for Richard Nixon, only to see the president ushered from office in disgrace, helping to sink Alexander’s 1974 gubernatorial bid in the process.
As governor-elect in 1979, he saved this state from an embarrassing, corrupt and dangerous pardoning scandal, taking risks in the saving that no other constitutional official in Tennessee has ever been asked to undertake.
Do I wish at times that Alexander would more directly address the forces in this country that threaten to divide us, even the forces within his own party? Yes, I do wish that. But I also know if anyone is most prepared to choose his words carefully and knows best when to use them, it is Alexander.
We may have to stop our shouting to hear what he has to tell us, but that’s a problem within ourselves.