Retiring U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander, who, like any seasoned politician, knows how to pull a punch, didn’t pull many in discussing President Donald Trump with members of the Rotary Club of Memphis this week.
Alexander addresing Rotarians
Addressing an online Zoom audience on Tuesday made up of Rotarians from various local clubs, Alexander emphasized the importance of wearing face masks in public during the still ongoing Covid-19 crisis and made no exception for the President, who is notoriously reticent to be seen masked in public.
Early on in his dialogue with Rotarians, Alexander, who was speaking remotely from Washington, was asked about the mask issue. “I just came from a hearing with Dr. [Anthony S.] Fauci. And Dr. [Robert] Redfield and ...all the top people, really a group of extraordinary individuals who run those agencies. The thing that came through to me right now, and something I've talked about last couple of days is we need to be wearing masks.”
The Senator observed: “We've gotten into this political debate. That's if you're for Trump, you don't wear a mask and if you're against Trump, you do wear a mask. And that's just such nonsense because all the health officials tell us that there are three things we can do that would make a big difference in containing this virus and one is wearing a mask.” The others, he said, were social distancing and frequent hand-washing.
Alexander continued, speaking in diplomatic but direct terms, “One way that would help in this politicalization of the mask issue is for the President occasionally to wear a mask. I'm not sure I understand why he doesn't. Because he gets tested. Everybody around him gets tested. And so they're not infecting each other. He doesn't wear one when he's speaking and he's speaking a lot of the time. So there are really very few occasions when he could wear a mask. But if he would wear a mask sometimes — he has a lot of admirers. In Tennessee, about 90% of Republicans say they approve of him — so I think if he wore a mask if he made it clear it was important then I think millions of his followers would wear a mask — they'd follow his lead, which is a compliment to him not a criticism and our country would be better off we'd be more likely to contain the disease.”
Responding to questions, the Senator tackled other controversial issues. One concerned the fact that Vice President Mike Pence refuses to repeat or acknowledge the phrase ‘Black Lives Matter.’ Alexander himself approved the phrase and then said, “But It's so difficult for the vice president to say that. I don't know this, you know, if I spent every day trying to give a running commentary on what the President and the Vice President do, I wouldn't be able to do anything else. So what I try to do is say what I think and show respect for their offices and other offices here and let other people judge them and judge me.”
The Senator acknowledged the need for Americans to periodically reconsider their approved icons but advised moderation in the process: “I like to take American history teachers on the floor of the Senate, They go to my desk where Howard Baker and Fred Thompson once sat, they go to Daniel Webster's desk, they go to the desk the Kennedy brothers had, and they go to Jefferson Davis’, who resigned the Senate to be president of the Confederacy, and on that desk are some chalk marks. And the story goes that when the Union occupied the Capitol, this Union soldier started chopping at the desk with a sword to destroy it. And his commanding officer stopped him and said, 'Stop that. We're here to save the Union, not to destroy it.' Well, we could go burn Jefferson Davis's desk, but I think we ought to keep it right where it is. Why? Because I'd like for American history teachers to be able to teach their students An example i that we had a civil war. We had senators who resigned to be officers on both sides.”
Another question concerned the ongoing controversy over the treatment of African American citizens by police. The Senator told a story about his Senate colleague Tim Scott (R-S.C.0, who is black: “Two years ago, he was stopped seven times by police for being a black man in the wrong place while he was chairman of the county council in Charleston, and so I said to him a few weeks ago, I said ‘Tim, can I tell that story publicly?’ He said sure, because It happened again last month. So I told that story on the Senate floor. I wrote a column about it. And what I said was that maybe one step in understanding racism and how African Americans feel about it is trying to put ourselves in this in the position of a white man who might be stopped for being a white man in the wrong place and a community that's mostly black.”
One more controversy the Senator addressed concerned efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Alexander, who voted against the Act in 2009, made clear he still had misgivings about it but said, “I thought the lawsuit that the government brought was pretty flimsy. I mean, basically, what they're arguing is that Congress, this Congress repealed the Affordable Care Act when it voted to eliminate the penalty for the independent mandate. Well, I didn't hear any United States Senator say they thought they were repealing the entire Affordable Care Act when they voted to get rid in effect of the independent mandate. So I thought it was a pretty flimsy case.”