Politics: Starting Over

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WASHINGTON -- There were more than the usual number of Tennesseans on Capitol Hill this week -- given the swearing-in of several new and returning members of Congress, each of whom had friends and supporters on hand -- but the most concentrated and most momentous gathering surely occurred Tuesday night when former U.S. Senator Howard Baker and retiring Senator Fred Thompson returned to the Russell Senate Building caucus room.

That was the venue for the 1973 hearings of the Senate Watergate committee, which would bookmark a permanent place for both Tennesseans in American history. Baker, who served as chief Republican investigator on the committee, would make famous the phrase, “What did the President know, and when did he know?” And Thompson, a Baker protégé who served as the GOP members’ legal counsel, would ask the fateful question that unearthed the existence of Richard Nixon’s Oval Office tapes.

Baker and Thompson were revisiting the caucus room Tuesday night as the honored guests at a reception hosted by Tennessee’s newest senator, Lamar Alexander. Recalling the events of 30 years ago, Baker said he had been warned on the front end of the hearings “of two things: that Richard Nixon was the meanest son of a bitch around, and that he was still alive.”

But he made it through that minefield satisfactorily enough that he became for a spell a leading contender for the presidency himself, later serving as chief of staff for the man who bested him and other Republican contenders in 1980, Ronald Reagan.

Thompson, too, who attended the event with wife Jeri, recalled the moment of his first national attention in remarks that Alexander would characterize jocularly as “Fred Thompson’s last free speech.” (The now former senator is resuming his acting career, as a member of the cast of TV’s Law and Order.)

Tuesday night’s event was one of several involving Alexander, who was the honoree himself at a Capitol Hill reception Monday night. On that occasion he was accompanied by his Tennessee Senate colleague, Bill Frist, who is the Man of the Hour these days, having ascended to the post of Senate Majority Leader in the wake of Mississippi Senator Trent Lott’s resignation from that office.

Ironically, Frist was not able to make it to Tuesday night’s reception, but Lott, whose remarks extolling the segregationist past of another retiring senator, centenarian Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, would eventually ensnare him and cause him to give up his leadership post, was present.

“I’ve seen better days, but you’ve been fine,” the Mississippian told a female well-wisher. In his welcoming remarks later, host Alexander would make a point of acknowledging the presence of Lott, whom he termed an "old friend."

Also there Tuesday night was newly sworn-in 7th District congressman Marsha Blackburn, who has been named a GOP assistant whip and related with some awe the fact that she had been assigned “two cell phones, two Blackberries [email devices] and a pager.” (Blackburn was scheduled for a round Wednesday night on the Jim Lehrer News Report on PBS.)

Taking note of some partisan bickering on the Senate floor Tuesday (which, incidentally, Baker was visiting for the first time since he left that body in 1985), Alexander noted that he had toted his personal Bible in for the swearing-in and said, “If it stays like this, maybe I should bring it every time.”

Besides Alexander and Blackburn, other new members of the Tennessee congressional delegation sworn in Tuesday were the 4th District’s Lincoln Davis and the 5th District’s Jim Cooper, both Democrats. Cooper had previous represented the 6th District but vacated that post to make a 1994 run for the Senate against Thompson.

Among the Memphians on hand Tuesday night were District Attorney General Bill Gibbons, former Shelby County Commissioner Buck Wellford, GOP patriarch Lewis Donelson, Ed Roberson, David Kustoff, and Jim and Kathy Priestley.

Trent Lott was one of the friends who paid homage to a freshly sworn-in U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander as a new Congress got under way in Washington this week.

New Senate secretary Emily Reynolds (former state director for Senator Bill Frist) chatted Tuesday night at Alexander's reception for Howard Baker and Fred Thompson with D.A Bill Gibbons and Memphis lawyer Buck Wellford (barely visible at right).

Former Senate eminence Baker hobnobbed Tuesday night with his onetime aide and fellow honoree, outgoing Senator Fred Thompson, who attended the affairs with his wife Jeri.

Amog the shmoozers Tuesday night were Jeri Thompson and Livingston and Pepper Rodgers. Ex-Memphian Rodgers is now vice president for football operations of the NFL's Washington Redskins. ("We're one year away," he said of the team's rebuilding efforts.)

Thompson's gesture to the crowd Tuesday night in the historic Russell senate caucus room said it all: "Hail and Farewell."

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