In March 1995, I had multiple media obligations, one of which was that of regional correspondent for Time magazine. The magazine was generous to its scrubs, never more so than when it asked me to accompany Tennessee's own Lamar Alexander on his announcement tour for a run for the presidency in 1996.
The tour began in Alexander's hometown of Maryville, and it ended in Florida after a week's travel to stops in Iowa, New Hampshire, Texas, and several other states where the then-ex-governor would be on the GOP primary ballot the next year.
The nature of such tours is that the candidate, accompanied by his campaign entourage and a press pack, flies to pre-planned venues and makes the same speech over and over.
Alexander's themes were typically Republican ones of the time (holding down taxes and deficits) and were couched in generalities. At one point along the route, as I reported to Time, he got a phone call of encouragement from Ross Perot, the third option from the presidential race of 1992. (Asked about that on C-Span later that week, Perot clammed up, other than to grouse about "some reporter evidently sitting too close on the plane." Actually, it had been an ad hoc chartered bus. In any case, I basked.)
Two points continually repeated by the candidate stood out — his lamentation that school kids no longer felt free to take a pocketknife to school (an obvious metaphor whose import escaped me) and his insistence on abolishing the Department of Education (an odd position, I thought, for a recent former U.S. Education Secretary and UT president).
I was most impressed (and grateful) at a meet-and-greet at the Sioux City airport when, in sub-freezing temperature, Alexander's speech, in its entirety, went: "I know you all want your next president to be a man of good judgment. My judgment tells me we've got to get in out of this weather." Much more than the pocketknife thing, that made for a human connection.
It seemed natural then — as it has ever since — to think of this personable man as Lamar, especially since his given name, plus an exclamation mark, was in fact his campaign slogan, festooned on bumper stickers, wall signs, and everything else.
He came close to making it all the way in the Republican primary, being edged out in the last week of the New Hampshire primary by Bob Dole, who paid for a blizzard of last-minute TV commercials attacking Alexander, improbably, as a mad taxer.
I always thought of Alexander as an executive personality and later, when he mounted a political comeback as a senatorial candidate, wondered how good a fit the legislative role would be for him. Even now, with the three-term senator retiring, I still wonder, since so much of that job consists of toeing, or having to confront, a party line laid down by somebody else. The senator's problems of that sort became acute under the yoke of Donald Trump, and never more so than when Trump was defeated for re-election and seemed determined to ignore that reality and to fight to remain in office.
Lamar's first few responses to that were hamstrung to the point of setting the bar for forthrightness at ground level. Example: "If there is any chance whatsoever that Joe Biden will be the next president, and it looks like he has a very good chance, the Trump Administration should provide the Biden team with all transition materials, resources, and meetings necessary to ensure a smooth transition so that both sides are ready on day one."
If? Both sides? This was two weeks after the election, when there was no mystery whatsoever as to who had won.
More Lamar: "Al Gore finally conceded 37 days after the 2000 election, and then made the best speech of his life accepting the result."
That's a false equivalence if there ever was one. There were some 537 votes at issue between Gore and George W. Bush, in one state, Florida — unlike the many tens of thousands of votes dividing Biden from Trump in multiple swing states!
This week, Lamar got closer: "Since it seems apparent that Joe Biden will be the president-elect, my hope is that President Trump will take pride in his considerable accomplishments, put the country first, and have a prompt and orderly transition to help the new administration succeed."
Leaving aside those "considerable accomplishments," that was pretty much on target. Congratulations, Senator Alexander, and thanks.. As you concluded, "When you are in public life, people remember the last thing you do.”