The Milk Drinker

A visit with Lamar Alexander, who's been there and done that.



On at least a half-dozen occasions, voters could have done worse than choosing Lamar Alexander. And usually they did.

The Republican senator came by the Flyer's office Tuesday for a chat. We don't get a lot of U.S. senators dropping in, and when we do it is because of our reputation for political coverage built and nurtured for 17 years by my colleague Jackson Baker.

This column is no hymn to Lamar Alexander, who barely knows me from Adam. I have followed and occasionally written about his career for nearly 30 years, usually from afar. It seems to me to illustrate the possibilities and limitations of being a political moderate with a great resume at a time when John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama are all trying to appeal to moderates and independent voters.

History will be kind to Lamar Alexander. In hindsight, has anyone ever looked better in comparison to the people he replaced and the people who replaced him? And in a week when the news was dominated by Eliot Spitzer, Dickie Scruggs, Bear Stearns, prostitutes, affairs, bribes, identity politics, bailouts, and charges of racism, has moderation and the straight-and-narrow path ever had more appeal?

Raised by school teachers in East Tennessee, Alexander, an Eagle Scout, graduated with high honors from Vanderbilt, where he was a Sigma Chi and known as a "milk drinker." Two of his fraternity brothers, John Gill and Hickman Ewing, became federal prosecutors. Alexander was editor of the Law Review at New York University and took a job in President Richard Nixon's White House.

In the wake of Watergate, he lost the 1974 Tennessee governor's race to Democrat Ray Blanton, who proceeded to make a mess of things and provide plenty of fodder for Gill and Ewing for the next 15 years. Wearing his famous checkered flannel shirt and walking across the state, Alexander beat Jake Butcher in the 1978 gubernatorial election and, in a dramatic palace coup, took office three days early in 1979 when it was feared that Blanton was about to issue wholesale pardons to state prisoners. Both Butcher and Blanton would later go to prison.

Meanwhile, "Lamar!" served eight years as governor, pushing incentives for Japanese car companies to come to Tennessee, calling for merit pay for teachers, and befriending, among others, Memphis City Schools superintendent Willie Herenton, Grahamwood Elementary School principal Margaret Taylor, and writers Alex Haley (author of Roots) and Peter Jenkins (author of A Walk Across America and other travel books).

I watched his campaign in East Tennessee in 1982. One night we were at a high school homecoming football game. It was cold and very wet. Alexander and the queen were alone in the rain at a far corner of the field while the marching band and master of ceremonies droned on and on. He never covered his head or left that girl's side.

He was no dilettante. After he left the governor's office, he took several months off, grew a beard, and moved with his family to Australia. Then he wrote a book about it.

He came home and was president of the University of Tennessee from 1988 to 1991. His successors included J. Wade Gilley, who resigned in 2001 over an affair with a subordinate, and John Shumaker, who resigned in 2003 over financial misspending.

Alexander was U.S. secretary of education from 1991 to 1993 and had the sense to leave the no-win job before such federal brainstorms as No Child Left Behind. Back in Tennessee, voters elected Republican Don Sundquist as governor in 1994. In 1996, Alexander ran for president, but he couldn't beat Pat Buchanan and Bob Dole in New Hampshire and lost the nomination to Dole, who lost to Bill Clinton.

Alexander won a Senate seat in 2002, beating conservative Ed Bryant in the primary and Democrat Bob Clement in the general. In 2005, he failed to become Republican whip by one vote, losing to Trent Lott, who later resigned.

Richard Nixon, Ray Blanton, Jake Butcher, Don Sundquist, Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan, Wade Gilley, John Shumaker, Trent Lott — are you detecting a pattern here? I am. We should all have such foils.

Lamar Alexander: piano player, milk drinker, Sigma Chi, straight arrow, family man, moderate, university president, presidential candidate, senator. Been there, done that. The modern presidency is probably closed to such people. I'm not sure that's good.

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