7 Questions with US Senator Lamar Alexander

Posted on June 21, 2006

"We are what we repeatedly do, Excellence is therefore not an act but a habit." –Aristotle When I read that quote a long time ago in some tenth grade class, I hoped I could find such a habit. After Senator Alexander agreed to this interview and I began to put all of the information together for this article, the quote came back to me as being a fair description of arguably the most important Tennessean in the last thirty years, former governor, former university president, former cabinet member, two-time Presidential candidate and current United States Senator Lamar Alexander. I am not even close or have ever claimed to be a journalist, however I do think our group is part of the new media that has its place. I see growth in groups/blogs/newsletters like ours only to continue to skyrocket in the years ahead. As a very young man Senator Alexander inspired other young people to help him become Governor of Tennessee. It is not surprising that as the highly intuitive Senator Alexander approaches his 66th birthday on July 3rd, he reaches younger Tennesseans who may not know his history in this electronic medium. For full disclosure purposes, I am an unabashed fan of Lamar Alexander. Not because of one single vote or because of his leadership during the Blanton years or his commitment to education and serving us all in the senate, but because I trust him. I am privileged to have gotten to know the Senator a little and have enjoyed our talks. He is one of the smartest people that I have been lucky enough to know. Some argue that Senator Alexander it too moderate or perhaps too conservative. His record speaks volumes and surprising to some, Senator Alexander’s voting record is more akin to those conservative values that most Tennesseans share than other senators from other states that happen to get on television to scream and yell. Senator Alexander has proven throughout his career than he did not have to raise his voice in order to be heard, that he did not have to always argue in order to make his point, and that he did not have to be credited on the front pages of the newspaper to make a difference. I may or may not agree with every single vote that Senator Alexander casts in the US Senate, I do not have to worry because I believe in the end he is looking out for what is best for me, my family and for Tennessee. Below are the questions and answers that Senator Alexander took the time to answer for all of our readers. I am deeply appreciative for him taking the time to do this for us and our readers. Some answers are serious, some highly informative and some might make you laugh. Read on: First, thank you Senator Alexander for taking the time to answer our questions. Please tell us how you met your spouse, tell us about your kids, your background. LA: I grew up in Maryville, Tennessee, the son of a kindergarten teacher and an elementary school principal. I am seventh generation East Tennessean. When asked about his politics, my great-grandfather John Alexander said, “I’m a Republican and a Presbyterian. I fought to save the Union and I vote like I shot.” I met my wife, Honey, in 1967 at a staff softball game in Washington. I was working for Senator Howard Baker and she was working for Senator John Tower of Texas. Honey still denies sliding into first base, but she did. And the slide, plus her bright red shorts, sent me reeling. We were married in 1969 and have four children: Drew, Leslee, Kathryn and Will, and two brand new granddaughters. The best thing we’ve ever done as a family was move to Australia in 1987 and live for six months after I was governor. Honey insisted that we do this because she felt that, after my eight years as governor (and one unsuccessful try before that), we needed time to reconnect as a family. The children were then three teenagers and a seven year old. In Australia they would tell me, “Dad this is very unfair. We have to go to school. Mom does all the work, and you just sit around.” Now, looking back, we all agree that we are much stronger as a family for having done that. I wrote a book about our experiences called Six Months Off. What was your biggest success and biggest failure outside of the political realm? LA: Success: 36 years of marriage, four children and two granddaughters. Failure: Daydreaming about politics when I should have been a more attentive father. What is your favorite movie? Why? LA: “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” because of the music and because every character reminds me of someone I have met. What is your favorite flavor of ice cream? LA: Anything chocolate. What is the best part and worst part about being in public life? LA: The best part is setting the agenda, and making things happen for the good of your country, your state and other people. The worst is loss of privacy. How different is the Republican Party today in Tennessee than it was in 1960s and 1970s? LA: When I graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1962, the Republican Party fielded no candidate for governor and no Republican had ever been popularly elected senator. The last Republican governor had been elected in 1920 during the “Harding Sweep” after World War I. There were Republican congressmen in the first and second districts, but that was it. Bill Brock’s election to Congress in 1962, Howard Baker’s election to the U.S. Senate in 1966 and Winfield Dunn’s election as governor in 1970 began to change all that. This Republican resurgence helped to rejuvenate two-party competition and restore Tennessee as a center of American politics. In the last half of the 20th century, Tennessee has sent a steady procession of leaders to the national stage—Senate majority leaders, governors, party chairman, White House chief of staff, vice president, presidential candidates and ambassadors—of both political parties. And the end of this procession is not yet in sight. Today in Tennessee there are more Republicans than Democrats, our party is truly statewide and is still growing. For example, I spoke at the first Fayette County Lincoln Day Dinner in history this year. But we still have a ways to go. We have a Democrat governor and Democrat majority in the state House of Representatives. A majority of our U.S. congressmen are Democrats. Independent voters still have the balance of power in statewide elections. That is why we have never elected a statewide Republican candidate who didn’t attract strong support from independents and some support from Democrats, and I believe it will be sometime before we do. Who is the smartest and most gifted politician you have ever met and why? LA: Howard Baker. During the last 40 years, Howard Baker has inspired three generations of political leaders to try to be at our best. When he was majority leader of the United States Senate in the 1980s, senators were polled to determine the most admired senator. Both Democrat and Republican senators chose Howard Baker. Former vice president and senator, Dan Quayle, said it best: “Well, there's Howard Baker...and then there's the rest of us senators.” Senator Baker is smart, public spirited and can be tough when he needs to be. He is completely honest. Best of all, he always took time to help younger Republicans coming along, which is something I try to remember. The Republican Party is supposedly dominated by old rich white men, how does the Party change that image? LA: That’s the wrong impression. The Republican Party is more diverse in some ways—economically, for example—than the Democrats. But America is filled with people of so many different backgrounds that we need to do a better job of listening if we want to understand mainstream America, because it is always changing. One way to do that is to recruit candidates from communities that are not now well represented, which shouldn’t be hard since Hispanics and African Americans tend to share Republican values of work, church and family. That is – the value of hard work and opportunity, the importance of faith, and putting family first. What are some of the most important lessons you learned from being a Presidential candidate? LA: Wear your red and black plaid shirt, but not when you announce that you’re running for President of the United States. Politics is a tough business would you encourage/discourage young people to enter the political arena? LA: I would encourage them to enter politics, but with these three suggestions: (1) to get started, find an elected official or some candidate for office whom you respect and volunteer to work for them; watch them and learn from them – doing whatever they ask that is appropriate and legal; (2) before you run for office, stand in front of a mirror and answer these questions 100 times: “Why am I running?” and “What do I hope to accomplish?” (3) Aim for the top. There's more room there. (Which is the advice my grandfather once gave me.) What is something that people would be surprised or shocked to learn about you or something that you would never want anyone else to know? LA: My staff was surprised – and some were downright disrespectful – when I was chosen in 2005 as one of the NCAA’s “100 Most Influential Student-Athletes.” Obviously I don't belong in the same league of Wilma Rudolph and Michael Jordan and some of the others who were chosen. But I was a member of the 440-yard relay team that broke the school record at Vanderbilt University in 1961, and I was proud to be included among a list of student athletes who made contributions to society.