Former governor, retiring U.S. Sen. Alexander aimed 'high' and often hit his mark

In a May 1, 1982, photograph, Dinah Shore, left, then-Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, President Ronald Reagan and Jake Butcher take part in the World's Fair opening ceremonies. (KNS Archive)
In a May 1, 1982, photograph, Dinah Shore, left, then-Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, President Ronald Reagan and Jake Butcher take part in the World's Fair opening ceremonies. (KNS Archive)

NASHVILLE - As governor in the 1970s and 1980s, he helped birth Tennessee's now-flourishing automotive manufacturing sector while also putting public education on the nation's front burner.

And as U.S. senator in the 2000s, he's been a primary force behind new laws and efforts that include restoring to states responsibility for creating their own education accountability systems while also accelerating research for medical cures and, most recently, funding an effort to begin addressing decades-old national park maintenance backlogs.

But as Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander prepares to leave office Jan. 3 after 18 years in the Senate, the former U.S. education secretary, University of Tennessee president and two-time presidential candidate known for his willingness to work across the partisan divide to get things done said he's not the one to judge what his legacy ultimately will be.

"I think others will have to decide that," said the 80-year-old, three-term senator. "I hope that in general it is that I was a person who left footprints along the way that were good for the state and good for the country. My goals aren't really political, although you have to be successful in politics to have these jobs. My goals have been to try to get results."

Still, Alexander, who resists the tag of "moderate" and served two terms as governor from 1979 to 1987 and was first elected to the Senate in 2002, does have his favorites for inclusion, voiced during a wide-ranging Times Free Press interview.

At the state level, that includes his successful 1979 efforts to woo Nissan executives to locate the auto manufacturer's first U.S. auto assembly plant in Tennessee.

A second state-level effort he cited was his 1983 "Better Schools" program, which provided more money for K-12 and higher education while also implementing a controversial first-of-its-kind merit pay provision for teachers under a "master teacher" provision for educators that provided pay supplements.

While his "master teacher" program was largely gutted over the years, the idea of evaluations and higher pay for teachers who do their jobs well remains very much alive and controversial today. And Alexander's efforts to place new emphasis on math and science as well as his creation of and funding for higher education centers and chairs of excellence and chairs remain intact.

Regarding his successful recruitment of Nissan, Alexander said, "Nothing has done more to transform family incomes in the last 40 years than the arrival of the auto industry. And it also was the impetus for those three big road programs that we had which truckers called by 1991 the best four-lane highway system in the country."

Asked why he seized on Nissan, Alexander said, "My goal was to raise family incomes. I'd walked across the state. I'd seen it in a way I hadn't seen before how relatively poor the state was. It was trying to recruit jobs to raise family income."

And, he added, auto plants are "money magnets."

He followed up that success by convincing General Motors in 1985 to locate its Saturn plant in Spring Hill.

Billy Stair, a top aide to former state House Democratic Speaker Ned McWherter, who as speaker supported Alexander's Nissan and General Motors efforts and later followed up attracting auto parts manufacturers when he succeeded him as governor, said Alexander "set his sights on Japan and really put a lot of effort, more than I realized at the time, into cultivating a relationship with the Japanese corporate community."

It paid off with Alexander effectively persuading Nissan executives that "Tennesseans were Americans they could trust," said Stair, co-author of the book "Government and Politics in Tennessee."

Other governors followed. Democratic Gov. Phil Bredsen joined Hamilton County and Chattanooga efforts to persuade Volkswagen in 2008 to build its auto assembly plant in Chattanooga. At a dinner for the German executives at the home of then-U.S. Sen Bob Corker, a former Chattanooga mayor and Republican, piano-playing Alexander banged out a version of the "Chattanooga Choo Choo."

Nissan executives knew the words and sang along.

Alexander listed his gubernatorial administration's Tennessee Homecoming '86 as another favorite. The celebration of culture and communities "really left more of a lasting impact than anything in a way because it helped Tennesseans gain more pride in themselves," he said. "I see a state that's much more self-confident, more comfortable in its own britches than 40 years ago when we felt a little bit left behind and second rate."

'Aim for the top'

The son of Maryville public educators, Alexander attended Vandberbilt University, later obtaining his law degree at New York University in 1965.

"I think he was born for public service," said Tom Ingram, a top aide to Alexander both as governor and during his first term in the Senate. "It was in his DNA, from his mother and his father. He could have gone private in any number of directions and he always chose to go public."

After law school, Alexander quickly got involved in government and politics, working in Republican Howard Baker's successful 1966 campaign for U.S. Senate and then going to Washington as an aide to Baker, a political moderate known nationally for his willingness to work across the aisle to get things done, an aptitude Alexander has shown.

Alexander later worked briefly in President Richard Nixon's administration. He returned to Tennessee, where he managed the successful 1970 gubernatorial campaign of Republican Winfield Dunn.

The ambitious Alexander - he's fond of quoting his grandfather's advice to "aim for the top, there's more room there" - then ran unsuccessfully himself for governor in 1974 in the midst of the Watergate scandal, which led to the near-impeachment of Nixon, prompting the president's resignation. Alexander lost to Democrat Ray Blanton, who accused him of being a "Nixon lawyer."

Undeterred, Alexander ran four years later, this time adopting a populist strategy. He donned what became his trademark black-and-red plaid shirt, walking more than 1,000 miles across the state in stages, staying in residents' homes. He won in the midst of the term-limited Blanton's own clemency-for-cash scandal.

Amid fears that Blanton planned on issuing more pardons before leaving office, top Democrats persuaded Alexander to be sworn in three days before his official inauguration day. He easily won his 1982 reelection.

Some Tennessee Republicans advocated for 1988 GOP presidential nominee and eventual president George H.W. Bush to select Alexander as his running mate. That didn't happen, but Bush did name Alexander as his education secretary in 1991, a position in which he served until Bush's 1992 loss.

Alexander then aimed for the very top in his own 1996 presidential bid. Despite polls showing he was going nowhere in Iowa, "I just kept going," Alexander said. Soon, "I was shooting up like a rocket, got on the cover of Time and all that" by coming in third.

His rocket soon sputtered in New Hampshire, however, as rival and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole went on the attack, slamming Alexander for having once expressed openness to a state income tax, considered political heresey in the Granite State.

"They unloaded on me," recalled Alexander, who withdrew from the contest after failing to finish in the top two spots.

"You never know when you run for president whether you have any chance of being elected, you really don't know that about any political job. And the way I look at it, if you have a sense of purpose and you want to do it, run. And if you don't, don't. Because you don't know, particularly in a presidential race. They're just such wild and woolly affairs, anything can happen."

He ran again in 2000 but quickly withdrew after a dismal showing in the August Iowa Straw poll.

Governor vs. senator

When friend and fellow former Baker aide, attorney and actor, then-U.S Sen. Fred Thompson announced he wouldn't seek reelection in 2002 , Alexander jumped in, won and was reelected in 2008 and 2014.

Alexander drew this contrast between the governing styles of governors and as a legislator.

"You don't accomplish things as a senator the same way you do as governor," he said. "I mean governors are sort of like Moses, saying 'let's go this way, let's go have a better roads program' - and then you come up with one and then you persuade Republicans to vote for a gas tax.

"In the Senate, you're more like a parade organizer," Alexander added.

Alexander, who has known U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, for decades, is chairman of the Senate Health Education and Labor Committee and has worked with ranking committee Democrat Patty Murray of Washington when they can agree.

Alexander is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee and importantly for Chattanooga and Oak Ridge, the chairman of the Subcommittee on Energy and Water Development, where he has helped shepherd hundreds of millions of dollars for the decaying lock at Chickamauga Dam and billions to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory for projects including the nation's fastest supercomputer and the hugely expensive clean-up of Oak Ridge's legacy nuclear and other waste. And he has worked with U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-California, in a number of areas.

One of songwriter Alexander's favorite laws he passed was "The Music Modernization Act," which provides songwriters, recording artists, producers and sound engineers with better compensation when their work is streamed.

Asked by The Tennessee Journal about some state conservative Republicans' criticism he's too moderate, Alexander said he is a "little impatient with these political Pharisees who come into Sunday school and say, "I'm a better Christian than you are' or 'I'm a better Republican than you are.' Some people do that to me in Tennessee, and I want to say, 'OK, I've won six statewide Republican primaries - how many have you won?'"

The Trump factor

During President Donald Trump's Senate impeachment trial this year on House articles over alleged abuse of power and obstruction of Congress involving Ukraine, some Democrats hoped that because Alexander wasn't running for reelection, he might go against Trump.

Smart money in Tennessee, however, was that Alexander wouldn't and that proved to be the right call. In opposing the calling of witnesses, Alexander said while it had been "proven" Trump pressured Ukrainian officials to investigate Democrat Joe Biden, "that does not meet the United States Constitution's high bar for an impeachable offense." Let voters sort that out in the November election, he argued.

As Trump continued to refuse to recognize Biden as president-elect this month amid Trump's charges of a "stolen" election that have gained no traction in multiple court filings, Alexander was sharply criticized for refusing to call on Trump to begin the delayed official transition process and allow Biden and his team to gain access to information and their Trump administration counterparts.

Alexander finally weighed in on Nov. 20, saying "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. When you are in public life, people remember the last thing you do."

Contact Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550. Follow him on Twitter @AndySher1.

Lamar Alexander through the years

July 3, 1940: Alexander born in Maryville, Tennessee, to an elementary school principal and a preschool teacher.1960s: Attends Vanderbilt University, writes editorials for student newspaper advocating integration of undergraduate school. Graduates New York University Law School in 1965.1965-1966: Messenger and law clerk for Hon. John Minor Wisdom, 8th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals.1966: Works for Republican U.S. Senate candidate Howard Baker’s successful campaign. Becomes Baker’s legislative assistant (1967-1968).1969: Marries Leslee “Honey” Buhler. The couple go on to have four children and nine grandchildren.1969-1970: Staff assistant to President Richard Nixon. Returns home to manage Republican gubernatorial candidate Winfield Dunn’s successful 1970 campaign.1974: Republican nominee for governor, loses to Democrat Ray Blanton.1978: Runs for governor, walks 1,022 miles in stages across Tennessee. Wins, sworn into office by Democratic legislative leaders three days early on Jan. 17, 1979, replacing scandal-plagued Blanton.1978/1980: Successfully persuades Nissan to locate auto assembly plant in Smyrna. In 1985, lands General Motors’ Saturn plant for Spring Hill.1983/1984: Persuades Democratic lawmakers to approve his pioneering Career Ladder program with merit pay for teachers.1988-1991: President, University of Tennessee.1991-1993: U.S. Secretary of Education for President George H.W. Bush.1995-1996: Runs unsuccessfully for Republican presidential nomination.1999-2000: Runs unsuccessfully for Republican presidential nomination.2002: Elected to the U.S. Senate in 2002, wins re-election in 2008, 2014.2020: Current chairman of the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee and chairman of the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee.2020: Votes no on convicting President Donald Trump on articles of impeachment. On Nov. 20 acknowledges “apparent” Democrat Biden victory in Nov. 3 election, urges Trump to begin delayed transition process while pursuing legal remedies.Sources: Alexander, U.S. Senate website, interviews, news accounts

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