published Saturday, May 18th, 2013

Lamar Alexander slams Obama, sees 'echoes of Nixon'


by Chris Carroll
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.
Photo by Tim Barber /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

WASHINGTON — By Thursday, after a week of fallout from a growing IRS scandal and the Department of Justice's raid on journalists' records, Tennessee's senior senator wasn't the first Republican to link President Barack Obama with President Richard Nixon — he of the enemies list, secret tapes and Watergate.

But unlike many of those Republicans, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., once worked for the disgraced president he took pleasure in linking with Obama. As a young lawyer in 1969, the future Tennessee governor worked for Bryce Harlow, Nixon's executive assistant.

For the purposes of slamming Obama in 2013, though, Alexander set aside any professional loyalties left from his earliest White House stint. (Alexander later served as education secretary under President George H.W. Bush.)

"I mean ... there are unpleasant echoes of the Nixon administration abuses in the Obama administration abuses," Alexander said in a Thursday interview on Capitol Hill. "The IRS scandal looks like the 'enemies list,' for example."

Fox News host Lou Dobbs said the same thing this week, comparing the IRS' targeting of tea party groups with Nixon using the federal government to investigate political opponents

But Democrats and experts panned what they derided as a flawed Republican talking point, calling it premature, inaccurate and a naked attempt to rally a conservative base that already scorns Obama at every turn.

Democrats noted that Alexander is running for a third Senate term next year.

"The tea party is sharpening its ax right now to go after Lamar over his Internet sales tax push," Tennessee Democratic Party spokesman Brandon Puttbrese said, "so he's obviously trying to curry some favor, pretending to be the tea party flag bearer on these issues."

Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, noted that, unlike Nixon's cover-up culture, the Obama-era IRS blew the whistle on itself and admitted unfair targeting of tea party groups. The acting IRS commissioner resigned Wednesday, and the Obama administration has vowed to investigate and fire anyone who broke the law.

"It's just not an apt comparison," Oppenheimer said. "Heads are rolling, and the Obama administration's cooperating with the IRS investigation."

Presidents since Nixon have garnered comparisons to the man critics still call "Tricky Dick." But Obama can say something Nixon couldn't: At this point, neither his aides nor his re-election staff has been accused of wrongdoing.

But Alexander insists that where there's smoke there may be fire. He said the Justice Department's seizure of Associated Press phone records was a bit like Nixon operatives attempting to discredit Daniel Ellsberg, the military analyst who leaked the Pentagon Papers that revealed details about the Vietnam War.

The Justice Department investigation is thought to be related to sniffing out who leaked information about a foiled Yemen-based terror plot to AP reporters.

"The AP issue is a long way from being [Nixon's] White House 'plumbers,' [but] it begins with a valid concern -- the leak of national security issues," Alexander said. "The danger is that it [led] to a fishing expedition for reporters' sources, and that's a dangerous thing to do."

Obama deflected the GOP's Nixon references when asked about it during Thursday's White House news conference.

"I'll let you guys engage in those comparisons," Obama told the press corps, "and you can go ahead and read the history, I think, and draw your own conclusions."

Thursday wasn't the first time Alexander used a 20th century example to criticize the president.

On May 11, he called on Congress to investigate Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius for raising money and working with private groups to help implement the federal health care law "outside of the government."

The ranking Republican on the Senate committee that oversees health care policy, Alexander likened Sebelius' actions to the Iran-Contra scandal.

That erupted when it was discovered that a Reagan administration official, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, sold arms to Iran and sent some of the money through private groups to arm Nicaraguan rebels after Congress refused to appropriate funds for that purpose.

Fox News recently interviewed Alexander on the subject.

"I would say Iran-Contra involved deaths," host Greta Van Susteren said. "It's a little bit different than here."

Staff writer Andy Sher contributed to this story.

Contact staff writer Chris Carroll at ccarroll@times freepress.com or 423-280-2025.

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