Tennessean - Larry Bivins
WASHINGTON — The rookie from Tennessee was no stranger to the veteran from Utah, so when the two U.S. senators bumped into each other recently in an elevator their thoughts gravitated to their first encounter here more than two decades ago.
Lamar Alexander had just arrived in early 1977 to run the Republican leadership office for then-Sen. Howard Baker. Orrin Hatch had just been elected to his first term as a senator from Utah. There were just 38 Republican senators then, compared with 51 today.
Although Alexander returned to Tennessee after three months to run for governor, the impression he made on Hatch endured.
"This is as good as they get," Hatch said, nodding toward Alexander as they shared a subway car in the bowels of the Capitol.
While Alexander acknowledges that he still is green in some areas as a first-year senator, veterans like Hatch give him high praise and note that the 62-year-old, twice-failed GOP presidential candidate is not your typical newcomer.
They say Alexander's experience as governor of Tennessee, president of the University of Tennessee and U.S. education secretary has served him well as he settles into his role as legislator. One of 11 freshmen, Alexander already is making his mark.
"I thought he was a great secretary of education, and I was overjoyed when I heard he was going to run for the Senate," said Hatch, now in his fifth term and chairman of the Judiciary Committee. "He's not only knowledgeable but also very bright. He's very forceful but nonoffensive in the way he handles everything."
But how does a man who is used to directing the play adjust to being a member of the cast? With no problem, Alexander said.
During an interview in his new office - he and staff spent the first three months in cramped temporary quarters in the basement of an adjoining building - Alexander reflected on his first few months as the junior senator from Tennessee.
"I feel very fortunate to be here. It just seems to me to be a very comfortable fit."
Freshman with experience
Alexander has landed three subcommittee chairmanships with the committees on Energy; Health, Labor and Education; and Foreign Relations. He also was chosen to head the Tennessee Valley Authority Caucus, composed of House and Senate members from the power agency's seven-state service area.
Alexander was the first among the freshmen to deliver a "maiden speech" on the Senate floor when he introduced legislation to boost the teaching of American history and civics in the nation's schools. The legislation has 20 co-sponsors, including Sens. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., and Assistant Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, and is scheduled for a committee vote Wednesday.
The Tennessee Republican also has sponsored legislation to increase funding for the Office of Science at the Department of Energy, which oversees the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. And he pushed through an amendment to an energy bill that includes President Bush's fuel cell and hydrogen car initiatives.
So far, Alexander said, he is doing what he promised when he campaigned for the seat vacated by Fred Thompson. He pledged to push for lower taxes, confirmation of President Bush's judicial nominees, cleaner air in the Tennessee Valley and putting history back in American classrooms.
People are taking notice
"Senator Alexander is proving to be a tremendous United States senator and voice for the state of Tennessee," said fellow Tennessean Bill Frist, the Senate majority leader. "His experience as a governor and former secretary of education bring a critical perspective to Congress."
Alexander said that unlike some former governors who are now senators, he has come to terms with his new role.
"I've known several governors who've come to the Senate and been miserable here because they were accustomed to setting the agenda, setting the schedule and directing the choir. I knew before I came that wasn't the nature of the job, so I'm happy with it."
He's also happy with his new office space but not yet content with its decor.
He says he intends to assemble a team of Tennesseans to help him give the suite a more distinct Tennessee flavor.
He's off to a decent start, with a few pictures by Tennessee artists adorning the walls and Sam Houston's walking stick resting in an acrylic case near his desk.
The office has two conference rooms — one filled with pictures of Alexander and other governors, the other bearing photos of the senator with President Bush and former presidents. In one, Alexander is shown adjusting a microphone for Ronald Reagan during a September 1980 campaign stop in Knoxville.
While colleagues say Alexander has grown into his job, he conceded he still has a lot to learn.
"A generous word for what I am would be 'seasoned.' But I'm still a rookie senator, and I know that. So I've tried to keep my head down and learn the ropes. It takes awhile to learn how 100 people, each of whom have equal authority more or less, work together. About the only way I know to learn how the Senate works is to spend a lot of time with the senators."