In contemporary politics, nobody in either major political party owns up to the label "liberal" anymore, and that term's second cousin, "moderate," has scarcely many more takers, though more Democrats than Republicans are willing to be called by the name.
If there is a moderate among the newly sworn-in class of Republicans, however, Tennessee's junior U.S. senator Lamar Alexander certainly is that person -- at least on the issue of race. Alexander's vote percentages among African Americans -- variously estimated at between 10 and 20 percent in the election just concluded -- are unrivaled among his partymates and contributed heavily to his margin over Democrat Bob Clement.
Alexander claims to have supported the 1961 Nashville sit-ins and the desegregation of Vanderbilt University, where he was a student political leader. And, as governor during the '70s, Alexander earned much credit among Tennessee blacks by the appointment of an African American, George Brown of Memphis, to the state Supreme Court and by naming several blacks to top administrative positions at state colleges and universities.
How, then, has Alexander reacted to his party's Trent Lott debacle and to two recent controversial moves by George W. Bush -- the president's insistence on renominating U.S. Judge Charles Pickering of Mississippi for a federal appeals courts position and Bush's declared opposition to a University of Michigan affirmative-action policy now being adjudicated?
Pointedly, Alexander spent the whole of Monday -- the Martin Luther King national holiday -- in Memphis, holding a press conference at the National Civil Rights Museum and touring the facility during the morning. Later, along with J. Pitt Hyde, AutoZone founder and chairman of the museum's executive committee, Senator Alexander attended the afternoon's nationally televised Grizzlies-Portland Trailblazers game, whose halftime ceremonies honored several black pioneers in the NBA. Each of the ex-athletes was accompanied into the arena by a local civil rights figure, and the most moving episode involved NBA great Bill Russell guiding local University of Memphis basketball legend Larry Finch, recently felled by a stroke and heart attack, onto the floor in a wheelchair.
Interviewed courtside after the half-time ceremony, Alexander gave these reactions to the above-mentioned situations:
On change in Memphis: "It was a sight seeing how many principals of the civil rights movement of the '60s are still here. I mean, there's Ben Hooks. There's Maxine Smith. To think of what's happened in Memphis in the last 35 years is very positive. It takes a long time to get a big freight train moving, but after it gets going, it's hard to stop. And Memphis is like a big freight train. The Grizzlies coming, the new arena coming -- I just think so much good has happened the last 20 years."
On Judge Pickering, whose prior nomination by Bush was turned away last year by Senate Democrats on grounds of possible racist decisions by the jurist: "There are lots of my former colleagues at Vanderbilt University who are very good people who voted to keep it segregated in 1962 and who are now distinguished judges and lawyers and reformers. Judge Pickering was way out ahead of them. In the late 1960s, he was active in his own community in support of civil rights, and he had his own children in public schools in the late 1960s in northern Mississippi. I think the greatest suggestion that there's an unfair smear is when William Winter, the former [Democratic] governor of Mississippi, attests to Judge Pickering's credentials. I think that's a great statement. I think we should quit trying to look back into the past and characterize people who lived in a different era. I think we need to look ahead and think about how we can respect each other as individuals. I'm for Judge Pickering. I said that in the campaign. I've known him for 25 years. I would not want to vote against [him]. He has a better record than many people who have already been confirmed, some of whom are Democrats."
On Mississippi's Lott, recently replaced as Senate majority leader by Tennessee's other senator, Bill Frist, after Lott's remarks praising the 1948 segregationist presidential campaign of retiring Senator Strom Thurmond: "I don't condemn Trent Lott as a person. I've known him a long time. I condemn his words. Those are the wrong words, the wrong attitude for our countrymen and for the Republican Party. But I don't condemn him."
On Bush's opposition to the Michigan affirmative-action program: "I worked hard as a student at Vanderbilt University in 1961 to support sit-ins and in 1962 to integrate the student body, because I thought distinctions based on race are wrong. And I think they're wrong today. I think they're poison to our country, and we need to reach out and help everyone who needs help without regard to race. So you might say I'm for affirmative action without regard to race. I'm for college scholarships for Cambodian Americans and African Americans and Scotch-Irish Americans, and I don't see how in our country we can have admissions policies and college scholarships that are solely based on race. It may take awhile for us to move away from that, but I think we'll be a better country when we make our distinctions based on almost anything other than race. It's hard for me to support the government making distinctions based on race for any reason, even if it's to be helpful."