Maryville Daily Times - Duncan Mansfield
Sensing an important moment in American history and an opportune time for Tennessee, Sen.-elect Lamar Alexander is anxious to get to work.
Accompanied by Tennessee colleague and new Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Alexander will take the oath of office on Tuesday, succeeding retiring Sen. Fred Thompson.
"I felt a few years ago that our politics were getting very trivial," Alexander said in an interview last week, "that we were more interested in making money as a country and the issues seemed small.
"I don't feel that way today." His list of concerns is weighty.
"We may be at war within a month after I am sworn in," he said. "We've got terrorism to deal with for the foreseeable future. We have serious problems in our state with clean air, health care and a lot of very difficult issues to grapple with."
Calling them "serious times," Alexander said, "It is a privilege to serve our country and our state when so much is at stake."
To prepare for his new role, the senator-elect resigned from nearly 20 corporate and nonprofit boards to avoid conflicts of interest.
Some were lucrative, such as Nashville-based Education Networks of America, whose state software contract is under investigation. Most were charitable, such as the Museum of Appalachia in Norris.
"The Senate ethics rules don't require resigning even from all corporate boards. They make some exceptions. But I am not going to make any. I think it is better to be completely free of affiliations," he said.
Alexander seemed most disappointed in giving up the chairmanship of the Museum of Appalachia, an extensive collection of log cabins and frontier mementos organized by longtime friend John Rice Irwin.
"But if I was chairman of the board, I couldn't help (the museum) as a senator," Alexander said. "If I am not chairman, I can help and I would like to."
Alexander is excited about his first committee appointment - to the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
"The issues that I care about are the same issues I have always cared about - better schools, better jobs, clean air, better roads," he said. "And the Energy and Natural Resources Committee covers almost all of those."
The committee oversees the national park system, including the Great Smoky Mountains; the Energy Department, including the Oak Ridge National Laboratory; and the potential deregulation of the electric utility industry, including the Tennessee Valley Authority.
Alexander, who was governor in the 1980s when his mentor Howard Baker Jr. was Senate majority leader, knows that Frist will have a "tremendous opportunity" to help Tennessee as the new Senate leader.
He also knows that with the Republicans in rare majority control of the White House, House and Senate, Frist will have a host of national concerns on his plate. Alexander wants to help.
"He may have less time to make calls on behalf of Tennessee interests, but every call he makes will have about five times as much clout," Alexander said. "So maybe I can do some of the footwork and make sure that our state takes advantage of his position."
Meanwhile, his first priority will be "learning the ropes."
Alexander, 62, is no stranger to Washington. He first came to the nation's capital in 1967 as an aide to then-newly elected Sen. Baker, now U.S. ambassador to Japan. He met his future wife, Honey, a former Senate aide herself, in Washington and served briefly in the Nixon White House.
"I'm not new to Washington," he acknowledges. "But I don't have one day of experience as a United States senator."
Thompson suggested Alexander's learning curve will be short.
"He is going to be a leader in the United States Senate on the first day he walks in," Thompson said during the fall campaign. "He already is respected by the people there. They know him and they respect him."
Though one of 10 new faces in the 100-member body, Alexander and fellow Republican newcomer Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina arrive with unique credentials. Both served in the Cabinet of former President Bush in the 1990s and both ran for president against his son in 2000.
All bygones now, Alexander said of President George W. Bush, whose appearances in Tennessee last fall raised $1 million for Alexander's Senate campaign.
"He is not the kind of person who dwells on things like that," Alexander said. "He knows that I respect him and that I look forward to being on his team. We have a good, easy, personal relationship."
Embarking on his new job, Alexander said it will be important "to make sure I stay connected with the people who sent me here, Tennesseans."
How will he do that? "The same way that I did when I was governor. I found that it helped to get out of the office a lot," he said.
"I am going to make sure that our staff and I remember that we are ambassadors from Tennessee to Washington, and not ambassadors from Washington to Tennessee."