U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, who has spent much of 2007 distancing himself from George W. Bush policy-wise, found himself in close proximity to the president on Monday, very much by choice.
Bush was the guest of honor at an afternoon fund-raiser for Alexander that purportedly raised some $600,000 for the senator's reelection coffers. The $1,000-per-head affair was hosted by entrepreneur Brad Martin and drew a who's who of political, business, and civic leaders, some of whom crossed partisan lines to attend.
The Bush visit also drew abundant numbers of protesters, most of whom were bypassed by the president's circuitous motorcade route to Martin's Chickasaw Gardens home.
Earlier Monday, after speaking at a morning assembly at East High School (see Pay For Grades by John Branston), Alexander was asked about his point of divergence with the president.
The senator measured his words carefully. "My relationship with him is one of respect," he said before continuing. "I said to the people of Tennessee I would be an independent voice, and I have been." He went on to note that he had made public his differences with Bush in several policy areas, notably concerning Iraq and health-care issues.
As he noted, Alexander, along with Tennessee GOP colleague Bob Corker, recently voted for an expansion of the federally funded State Children's Health Insurance Program that would have benefited Tennessee and The Med in Memphis but was vetoed by President Bush.
Alexander also took issue with the president's No Child Left Behind program, which decertifies schools that don't meet performance standards.
Said the senator: "In No Child Left Behind, it sounds like we're giving out C's and F's. I'd like to see us give out more A-pluses, A's, and B-pluses, because 75 to 80 percent of Tennessee's students are meeting or exceeding standards."
Citing innovative programs that had just been touted at the East High School assembly, the senator went on: "Id like to give more flexibility to schools so they could use more programs like the tutoring program at East. ... I'd like to see more A's for effort, as well as A's for achievement. We ought to honor any school that makes a grade's worth of progress in one year."
Alexander said he intended to introduce "a pilot program that would allow up to 12 states to create their own way of doing things within No Child Left Behind." The implication was that one of those states would be Tennessee.
As for Iraq, Alexander has cosponsored a resolution, along with Democratic senator Ken Salazar of Colorado, calling for withdrawal of American troops from combat operations in Iraq and for observance of other recommendations made by the Iraq Study Group, presumably including the initiation of diplomatic talks with Iran and Syria.
Alexander said he believed his efforts toward compromise may have borne fruit. "I can see the effect of them in actions taken by the president," including a partial withdrawal of troops now advocated by General David Petraeus. "I know the president has been a good listener to me. He's let me make the case that it's time to finish the job honorably rather than to continue as we are."
Still, overt support for the senator's resolution has been hard to come by. Alexander cracked wanly, "I've unified the president and the Democratic leader of the Senate [Nevada's Harry Reid], but not in the way I'd hoped to. They were both opposed to my amendment."
Alexander was asked about his likely Democratic opponent in 2008, West Tennessee businessman Mike McWherter, son of former Tennessee governor Ned McWherter.
Alexander pondered. A thousand-and-one. A thousand-and-two. Then he said, "I know him. His father was one of my best friends in Tennessee." He said he and McWherter had often worked together closely when the latter was House speaker in his pre-gubernatorial days.
"I've known Mike and respect him as Ned McWherter's son," he concluded.