Posted on April 30, 2010
Like the plaid shirts that became his trademark, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, BA’62, is patterned from contrasts.
He’s an ambitious former Tennessee governor who twice threw his hat into the presidential ring, but he avoids the grandstanding that earns headlines. As chair of the Republican Senate Conference, he formulates party strategy and policy in a hyper-partisan political climate, but his record betrays bipartisan leanings. He’s a multimillionaire who owns residences in Washington and Nashville, earned his law degree in New York, and has traveled the globe for months at a time, but East Tennessee continues to draw him home.
Even as a Vanderbilt student, Alexander resisted playing to type. He walked the high-achieving straight and narrow—as a fraternity brother, track athlete, and Phi Beta Kappa graduate—while using his platform as Vanderbilt Hustler editor to oppose a status quo supported by a majority of his fellow students: the undergraduate school’s racial segregation. In the early 1990s, The New York Times, referring to his work as education secretary for President George H.W. Bush, described him as “quietly subversive.” Today Alexander seems flattered by the characterization.
“That’s probably true,” he says with a chuckle.
The Thousand-Mile Walk That Launched a Career
A magnolia with a distinguished Tennessee pedigree grows outside Alexander’s log house on the edge of the Smoky Mountains. The tree’s lineage begins with President Andrew Jackson, who took a sprout from his home at The Hermitage and planted it at the White House. President Reagan gifted a cutting from that tree, which still graces the South Lawn, to Sen. Howard Baker Jr., Alexander’s former boss, mentor and friend. Baker shared cuttings with John Rice Irwin, founder of the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, Tenn. From the museum’s magnolia, Irwin gave a cutting to his friend Lamar.
“When I visit him, we go outside to see how it is doing,” Irwin says. The tree now stands about 40 feet tall.
Alexander’s family, like Jackson, arrived in eastern Tennessee in the 1780s, when it was still part of North Carolina. Alexander speaks proudly of his family’s deep roots in the region, and during his long career, they have given him strength. When he successfully ran for governor in 1978—his second attempt, after a humiliating defeat four years earlier—he launched his thousand-mile campaign walk across the state from his parents’ front porch in Maryville.
“At first my walk embarrassed quite a few establishment Republicans,” Alexander writes in his memoir Six Months Off. “Playing my old high-school trombone—or sometimes the washboard—in ‘Alexander’s Washboard Band,’ a ragtag collection of four University of Tennessee band members and me! Wearing the same red-and-black flannel shirt each and every day, even to dinners, even in the summer, even on TV! … [My wife] Honey was absolutely my No. 1 chief defender. She would tell them, ‘It’s Lamar, through and through. Let him be.’”
Some observers found Alexander’s campaigning contrived, but his record reflects the tangible impact his personal background has had on him. A son of educators whose father left his post as a school principal to earn better money at the nearby Alcoa aluminum plant, he made educational reform and job creation centerpieces of his governorship. To this day his environmental policies, inspired by his deep love for the Smoky Mountains, promote land conservation, pollutant controls, and alternatives to coal-fired electricity.
“So many politicians or statesmen have an interest that revolves around their profession, but he’s just fascinated with the people and with the culture,” says Irwin, who met Alexander when he was governor. “He has a true heartfelt love for the mountain people and the mountains from which they come.”
Alexander tried to bring his Tennessee style to the national political stage, but it did not resonate in the less intimate setting. Preparing for the 1996 presidential primaries, he traded his feet for a red Ford Explorer and drove almost 9,000 miles across the country, again wearing plaid, again staying in people’s homes. He did not survive the New Hampshire primary. Four years later he dropped the plaid, but spent long months politicking county-by-county in Iowa. He left the race after the state’s straw poll.
“I remember after his presidential race, he was just tired and dogged and worn out,” Irwin says. Irwin, who retired in 2009, regularly traveled the Appalachian region to meet people, hear their stories and collect artifacts. Alexander, who served as the Museum of Appalachia’s board chair for years until being elected senator, sometimes would tag along.
“When he got home, we went out into the mountains,” Irwin says. “We would go to the country store and buy Cokes and crackers and bologna, and lounge around out in the country and visit the old folks and relax. And he didn’t want to talk about politics or anything.”
Against his father’s hopes, Alexander decided not to apply to his town’s local college; he tried for the University of Tennessee, Duke University and Vanderbilt University instead. As he puts it, he was ready “to go afield, but not that far.”
Duke offered him a scholarship.
“I called [then-Director of Admissions for the College of Arts and Science] James Buford,” Alexander says, still sounding a bit amazed that his call worked. “I said, ‘I’ve got a scholarship to Duke, but I’d prefer Vanderbilt. Can you give me a scholarship for Vanderbilt?’ And he did.”
Alexander became an active, high-profile student.
“I don’t think anybody who knew Lamar in college was surprised that he has gone into politics and been successful at it,” says writer and humorist Roy Blount Jr., BA’63, who followed Alexander as Hustler editor and was his fraternity brother in Sigma Chi.
“He was sort of statesmanly, without being pompous; serious enough and also light-hearted enough, in a dry sort of way—cool enough, let’s say, but not slick or back-slapping, to be widely popular, despite the fact that two-thirds of the student body in a referendum voted against letting black students in.”
Blount is referring to the referendum he and Alexander vocally supported. They had written editorials in the Hustler in favor of the undergraduate school’s integration, and then had joined forces with fellow student John Sergent, BA’63, MD’66 (now a Vanderbilt physician and professor), who brought the issue before the student senate. When the senate voted against recommending desegregation to Vanderbilt’s Board of Trust, the three organized the school-wide vote.
After the vote failed, they kept up their advocacy. They were quietly encouraged by Chancellor Harvie Branscomb, who invited Alexander to share his opinions with Harold Stirling Vanderbilt, Cornelius Vanderbilt’s great-grandson and chairman of the Board of Trust. The board voted to integrate the university in the spring of that year.
Not all of Alexander and Blount’s work as Hustler scribes was as serious as their lobbying for desegregation.
“There was this time a report reached the Hustler newsroom that Burl Ives was in the Krystal on West End, so Lamar and I sped to the location on his motorbike,” Blount says. “As it turned out, Burl Ives—at least the Burl Ives—was not in the Krystal, but if he had been, we would have had us a story.”
After college, Alexander kept moving. He got his law degree at New York University. He worked as a law clerk to Judge John Minor Wisdom, most renowned for his civil rights decisions, on the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. His work as a legislative assistant to Sen. Baker took him to Washington, where he went on to a job in the Nixon White House.
Politics drew him back to Tennessee. He returned in 1970 to manage Republican Winfield Dunn’s campaign for governor. Dunn’s win put Alexander in position to run four years later; at the time Tennessee governors could not serve consecutive terms. Unfortunately for Alexander, being a Republican who had worked for the Nixon administration did not help candidates in 1974. He lost to Democrat Ray Blanton by nearly 12 points.
By Alexander’s own account, he had trouble recovering from the defeat.
“Wallowing is just the right word for the process, which became uncomfortably long for the wallower—me—and uncomfortably messy for those who had to watch,” Alexander writes of the experience.
Nonetheless, the campaign set the stage for future runs. His friend Lew Conner, BA’60, JD’63, with whom he helped found the law firm Dearborn & Ewing in 1971, is one of several from the campaign’s team who remain part of Alexander’s circle today. Conner met Alexander in college and became his longtime campaign finance chair.
“We borrowed $37,000 the last week,” Conner says, referring to Alexander and a core group of supporters during Alexander’s second gubernatorial attempt. “We thought if we ran the ads, we’d beat Blanton. We four all signed the note. We all said, ‘God, you have to run again or we’ll never get out of debt.’”
Alexander did run again, and this time he won handily, aided by scandals plaguing the incumbent Democrat, Ray Blanton, who did not run for re-election.
Alexander’s term had an inauspicious beginning. To prevent Blanton from releasing prisoners implicated in a clemency-for-cash investigation, the U.S. attorney, Democrat Hal Hardin, JD’68, wanted Alexander sworn in early. With the assent of Democratic legislators, Alexander took his oath of office three days before the official inauguration. He was 39 years old. He went on to become the first Tennessee governor to serve two consecutive terms, winning re-election by nearly 20 percentage points.
Alexander is still friends with Hardin, who practices law in Nashville. This year he invited Hardin to be his guest at President Obama’s first State of the Union address.
“He could have invited someone more influential, but not more grateful,” says Hardin, describing himself as a history buff and yellow-dog Democrat. “It was a remarkable event, to be at dinner with 100 senators and their guests. And the speech—that was pretty overwhelming.”
The Tennessee Brand
The 2008 elections left the Republican Party reeling, but not in Tennessee. John McCain carried the state by 15 points. Alexander did even better: He trounced his opponent 65 percent to 31 percent, and carried every county save small, rural Haywood in the western part of the state. So-called “Lamar Democrats” helped to keep his margins high, and even with the nation’s first African American presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket, Alexander was able to garner about 26 percent of the black vote. During the campaign he described himself as having “conservative principles and independent views,” and he released lists of Democrats and independents who had endorsed him.
“I would call him a reasonable Republican, and someone who tries to work with the other side,” Conner says. “When he was governor, his longest suit was working with the Democratic legislature. He was a successful governor because of that.”
While many of Alexander’s colleagues burnish their ideological bona fides with heated rhetoric, Alexander references history.
“I’m a Lincoln Republican. I grew up in an East Tennessee congressional district that has never sent a Democrat to Congress since Lincoln was president. Most people there supported the Union in the Civil War,” Alexander says. He then repeats a favorite anecdote. “My great-grandfather Alexander was once asked about his politics and he replied, ‘I am a Republican. I fought to save the Union, and I vote like I shot.’”
Still, as part of the Republican leadership at a time when partisanship rocks the nation’s Capitol, Alexander has a thin line to walk. A 2009 survey of his colleagues, reported by The Hill newspaper, identified him as one of the Senate’s most partisan members. Paradoxically, a Congressional Quarterly review of that same year’s legislative votes identified Alexander as one of the more bipartisan senators, voting against his party about 23 percent of the time.
“Most of my colleagues laughed out loud at [the Hill survey],” Alexander says. “I don’t know how that came out. The second [report] is pretty reflective of my time here.”
As proof, Alexander touts recent bipartisan legislation he has supported, including an energy bill he introduced with Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and amendments to the Clean Air Act that he introduced with Sen. Tom Carper of Delaware.
“We’re both recovering governors,” says Carper, who sits on the Senate’s Environment and Public Works Committee with Alexander. “We see eye to eye on a couple of issues, and we’re results oriented. We want to get things done.”
The bill would significantly cut mercury, sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. Carbon emissions, now part of the contentious cap-and-trade debate, were left out of the bill, though they had been included in previous versions. The two senators could not reach common ground.
“I think he got a lot of push-back,” Carper says. “I found that on the Democratic and the Republican side, when people move into leadership positions, they tend to become less bipartisan; it’s just the nature of the job. It happens to some extent to most everybody.”
Marguerite Kondracke, president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance, predicts that Alexander will be actively involved in the long-awaited reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. Kondracke served in Alexander’s cabinet and as staff director for the Senate Subcommittee on Children and Families, which he chaired. They founded the day care company Corporate Family Solutions together in 1987.
“Lamar was ahead of his time on education,” Kondracke says. She points to issues he emphasized as governor and as U.S. education secretary that now are part of the mainstream debate, such as charter schools, teacher performance, and site-based after-school care. “He thinks Education Secretary Arne Duncan is the best appointment Obama has made.”
Alexander says his leadership goal as conference chair is to help Republican senators do a better job of presenting a constructive message.
“Unfortunately, during 2009, a lot of it had to be about what we’re against, with the health-care bill,” Alexander says. “I don’t miss being a governor, but I enjoyed it very much. Being a governor is like singing a solo. Being a legislator is more like being in the chorus. This lets me be something analogous to the choir leader.”