FLAG POND, Tenn. (WJHL) – The world wide web was just a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye when a youngish Lamar Alexander trekked across the state of Tennessee seeking the governorship.
More than four decades later, the Maryville native is retiring from politics and returning to his home of Blount County with nothing having changed more in politics — and life — than perhaps our modes of communication, which he believes drive more wedges between people than may actually exist.
“I think we have these divisions because we live in what I would call an internet Democracy now,” Alexander said during a visit to Rocky Fork State Park. “When Lincoln was president, if he got mad he wrote a hot letter and put it in the drawer. If President Trump gets mad he pulls out his Twitter and 72 million people see it and all of a sudden we’re fighting. And it drives us to the left and to the right.”
A Republican who served two terms as governor and three as a senator, with stints as University of Tennessee president and U.S. Secretary of Education in between, Alexander reflected recently on his life in politics, on America and on partisanship in the age of Twitter.
Alexander did just a little trekking during his conversation with News Channel 11, walking partway up Rocky Fork. He helped preserve roughly 10,000 acres of the Unicoi County watershed that now includes the 2,076-acre state park that former Gov. Bill Haslam named in his honor.
A classic traditionalist
Spend a few minutes with Alexander and he seems born for the traditional deal-making and collegiality of the upper house. Even what one could infer are strong opinions he couches in careful phrases.
In fact, Alexander got as direct as he did about any subject when asked about about commonly floated calls to pack the Supreme Court, abolish the electoral college or pursue the “nuclear option” of abolishing the senate filibuster.
“Those are really bad ideas, and a big complicated country needs a few strong institutions to hold it together. Like the Supreme Court and perhaps the most important is the United States Senate, because our role really is to take big complicated issues like civil rights or fixing schools or the great outdoors and come to a compromise – talk something through until we can get something most of us can vote for.
“And if we can then the country can live with it. So our job is to create more of the unity in the country, not to just go up there and shout at each other.”
Ranked objectively, Alexander has tended to fall about in the middle as far as bipartisanship — at least according to one measure. The Lugar Center-McCourt School Bipartisan Index ranked him 50th in the 2019-20 Congress, 66th in the 2017-18 Congress and 47th in the 2015-16 Congress. His highest ranking was in the first Congress of his first term (2002-03) when he ranked 18th.
That said, Alexander pointed to a list of laws he’s been closely involved in working to pass. They include the recently passed Great American Outdoors Act, an act that he said guarantees fair compensation for songwriters — Alexander is an accomplished pianist — and a reworking of the No Child Left Behind Act.
Alexander said the Democrats with whom he’s worked the most are Washington’s Patty Murray (who ranks as the fifth least bipartisan senator on the latest Lugar index) and California’s Dianne Feinstein (ranks 74th).
“They’re both very liberal and we don’t agree on a lot, but we’ve found a way to work on student loans, to end the Common Core mandate and move power from Washington back to the local schools, to fund the national laboratories.”
Sometimes that penchant for aisle-crossing has gotten Alexander labeled a RINO (Republican in Name Only), though no serious primary challenge was ever mounted against him. He said he shrugs that kind of criticism off.
And he said the heat being produced by social media doesn’t have to represent a threat to the American experiment.
“If you pay too much attention to it, it is. I mean, these political Pharisees who walk into Sunday school and say ‘I’m a better Christian than you are, I’m a better Republican than you are,’ I’ve never paid too much attention to them.”
Alexander said both Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and president-elect Joe Biden, a former senator, are cut from the deal-making cloth to at least some extent.
“(Biden) and Senator McConnell during the Obama years worked on two or three agreements that – one of them was the tax bill that stopped taxes from going up further — so yes, they know how to get an agreement. Hopefully the parties will allow them to do that if they’re in those positions.”
Alexander said the country certainly needs some progress in Washington, whether the subject be infrastructure, health care, immigration or the economy.
“They’re a very talented group of United States senators … but they’re like most of America. We haven’t really figured out how do we live in this internet democracy where all this arguing is going on. So I think most senators think that with all that talent in the senate and all the issues we have to resolve we could be doing a lot more.”
On humor, race and economic opportunity
Asked who the funniest in-person Washington insider he knows, Alexander said it was a cross between fellow Republican senators John Kennedy of Louisiana and South Carolina’s Lindsay Graham.
“Kennedy sounds like he is a hayseed from the other side of the creek, but he was a Vanderbilt Phi Beta Kappa, University of Virginia Law Review graduate and was educated at Oxford University.
“But they both are very funny, and having a good sense of humor is an important part of politics because if you can tell stories and enjoy each other you might have time to find out a way to work together.”
One story Alexander has learned is that of Graham’s fellow South Carolinian Tim Scott — the senate’s only Black Republican. It’s a story the 80-year-old who grew up in the Jim Crow South said has informed his understanding of white privilege.
“He told a Bible study group one morning that he had been stopped seven times in his home county for being a Black man in the wrong place while he was chairman of the county commission,” Alexander said.
“And he said more recently he’d been stopped as a United States senator for that reason. Well, we white people don’t think about that. I mean how would we like to be stopped for being a white man in the wrong place?
“So we have to take that into account. It’s not part of our experience. And the radical part, all of the riots, all that is wrong. But we need to be sensitive to the feelings of people like Senator Scott who has been stopped for being a black man in the wrong place and see what we can do about that as a country.”
Alexander also thinks the nation’s leaders need to continue taking into account the economic struggles faced by vast areas of the country that haven’t benefited as much from the technological revolution as many cities have.
His suggested solutions align with Republican orthodoxy.
“There is difficulty and in a country as wealthy as ours – I mean this is a country that produces 20 percent of the money in the world for about 4 percent of the people in the world – we need to keep looking for ways to allow that to be distributed more widely.”
He touted the Tennessee model that he said began during his governorships and focuses on the state becoming a major player in the auto industry. The biggest plants landed in Middle Tennessee, “but there are lots of plants now in almost every East Tennessee county and that’s raised family incomes in upper East Tennessee.”
As he said those words, Unicoi County was registering one of the state’s 10 highest unemployment levels. Alexander said he supports leveraging outdoor features such as Rocky Fork to help rural counties in Northeast Tennessee grow through tourism.
“I think we have to keep looking for ways to give people more opportunity to make a living and make money. I don’t think you do it through socialism though, I think you do it through giving people ways to move up the ladder.”
From Alexander’s point of view, that was happening under a Republican administration and divided Congress before COVID-19 interrupted.
“The lower taxes, the lower regulations – all of that created an environment where low-income Americans were going up. There was a lot of competition for employees and so salaries were going up. Everything was going in the right direction among many people who had had low incomes before.
“So I think the thing to do is remember what we were doing when COVID hit and do more of it.”
Listen more, tweet less, accept the process
Alexander said his granddaughter has been attending an outdoor school with no electronics, where she’s learning to write letters, love the outdoors and live without the internet.
He said “it would help if we put down our devices and listened to each other a little bit.”
Alexander recalled one of his mentors, the late Tennessee Senator Howard Baker, saying success in that arena came from being “an eloquent listener, because the other fellow might be right.”
“That’s pretty good advice in our everyday lives. I mean I try to listen. I might learn something, right? But even if I disagree with it I may have to say, ‘well, I don’t agree with you but if we’re going to do something together we’re going to have to do something you want to do and something I want to do and that both of us can live with.’ You can do that in a marriage, in a business, in a church and in the United States Senate.”
That kind of progress in Washington won’t be easy without an acceptance of the electoral process, Alexander said. He was among the first to call for President Donald Trump to allow Biden’s transition team access to the traditional process.
He said he was heartened by the presidential contest’s record turnout.
“The more people vote the better, even if they’re mad. That’s what it usually means, it means they’ve got a fever and they want to say things. But after the election the way we’ve historically worked is the loser congratulates the winner and tries to help him or her succeed in the new administration.”
“What I would hope President Trump would do if (Biden is officially declared the winner), which it’s likely to be, is to put the country first, take pride in his own accomplishments, which are very significant, and help the president-elect prepare for a successful administration. Because we should always want our presidents to succeed, because is they succeed our country succeeds.”
Alexander believes a successful America can continue to act as a beacon of freedom and democracy.
“We should be ashamed of ourselves if we don’t. Just look at what we have. Twenty percent of all the money in the world for 4 percent of all the people. Best universities, strongest military. We’ve got the pharmaceutical companies and the universities that have created vaccines for this pandemic in eight months instead of eight years.
“We’ve got goals that we never quite meet, like All Men are Created Equal, but that we’re constantly trying to create. Most countries in the world wish they had our government, wish they had what we have, and we should take advantage of it and be that kind of shining light.”
If America does take advantage of its promise, Alexander said he plans to be a calm and relaxed observer.
“I’ll be in home, I’ll be in Blount County, where I grew up and where my family’s been for a long time – six generations.
“I heard an announcer saying about a basketball player that if he quit trying so hard and let the game come to him he’d be a lot better player. Maybe that’s what I’ll do. Instead of trying so hard I’ll just let life come to me and enjoy it. It’s a big life, really politics ought to be a very small part of it, and I’m going to try to enjoy it.”
Lamar Alexander’s CV in a hickory nut shell
- Graduate of Maryville High (1958), Vanderbilt University (1962), NYU Law School (1965)
- Various clerking and assistantships including as legislative assistant to Sen. Howard Baker and staff assistant to President Richard Nixon (1965-1970)
- Co-founded Nashville law firm, co-founded Blackberry Farm, first run (lost to Ray Blanton) for governor (1970-78)
- Governor of Tennessee (1978-1986)
- More business foundings, UT president, Education Secretary, two runs for Republican presidential nomination (4th in 1996).
- Senator, 2002-2020. Chaired Senate Republican conference, 2007-2012).