Tennessee senior Sen. Lamar Alexander is fond of citing his grandfather's advice — to "aim for the top; there's more room there."
The Maryville native, 80, a former two-term governor of the Volunteer State and a three-term senator, has done just that. His accomplishments in both offices have been significant for both the state and the country.
But twice Alexander, who will retire in January, aimed even higher — the presidency. He made it as far as the New Hampshire primary in 1996 before dropping out of the race, and he departed from the 2000 race after finishing sixth in the 1999 Iowa straw poll.
As a White House aide to presidential counselor Bryce Harlow during the first year of the Nixon administration in 1969 to governor to University of Tennessee president to Cabinet secretary to senator, though, he came to know the nine men who have served as president over that span and the 10th one who is expected to take office in January.
"In a way, I've had, for about 45 years, the best seat in the house. To watch [the presidents] and see them and in many cases work directly with them," he said in a recent interview in the office for the construction of the new Chickamauga Dam lock.
He knew each president differently, but believes he has been able to treat them the same, regardless of party and demeanor. Indeed, he bristled when asked about a recent report in which veteran Washington reporter Carl Bernstein named him as one of 21 senators who have contempt for President Donald Trump.
"I don't know how he can say that without talking to me," Alexander said. "Generally speaking, I don't have contempt for anybody. But what I have always tried to do with all of these presidents is treat the office with great respect, and that means treating them with respect.
"I've taken some votes and said some things that President Trump hasn't liked, but he doesn't publicly criticize that, and I think one reason is because I always show him respect and the office respect."
The Senate has changed in the 18 years years Alexander has served in the Senate, he said, so the presidency unquestionably has evolved since he worked in the Nixon White House more than 50 years ago.
"So now instead of President [Abraham] Lincoln putting a hot letter in his drawer and never sending it," he said, "President Trump gets mad and tweets it and 72 million people know about it. So that's the environment in which we [the Senate] have to try to get a result."
Meanwhile, Biden, according to Alexander, may have his work cut out for him. But, it could turn out to be a fruitful opportunity.
"If Biden is the president and the Republicans have the Senate," he said, "you'll have to have a compromise to get anything done. And that usually encourages working across party lines because most people are there to get something done. I mean, my view is it's hard to get there— I mean the United States Senate. It's hard to stay in the Senate. And while you're there you might as well accomplish something good for the country."
Alexander was asked to describe his relationship with each of the 10 presidents, the pros and the cons:
Richard M. Nixon
"I was 28 years old when I went to work for President Nixon, but I was in the West Wing. President Nixon was highly intelligent, enormously experienced. After he left office, when I was governor, he would sometimes talk to groups of governors for an hour straight without any notes, and everyone listened because of the knowledge he had. He was ahead of his time on the environment in 1970 with the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), and recognizing the importance of it. And he opened the relationship with China. So it was just a real shame that his weaknesses turned into Watergate. So the country lost when that happened."
Gerald R. Ford
"Ford was steady. He asked me in 1975 to be his campaign manager [for 1976] after I'd come back to Tennessee, and I had to decline. I had lost the governor's race. I had a young family. [I] went up to a meeting with him, [White House Deputy Chief of Staff] Dick Cheney and [Chief of Staff] Don Rumsfeld and [adviser] Bryce Harlow, for whom I used to work. I'd always been taught that you don't turn down the president of the United States if he asked you something personally. But in that case I did. He was honest, and he was willing to put the country first. I was running for governor in September of 1974, and [then-Tennessee Sen.] Howard Baker called me one Sunday morning and said, 'What do you think [what] Ford has done will do to us?' And I said, 'What did he do?' And he said, 'He pardoned Nixon.' And I said, 'What will that do?' And Baker said, 'I think it buys a lot of trouble for us.' And the 'us' was me because I was the Republican nominee, and we went down in flames."
James E. Carter
"I got to know [him] after he was president, but not very well. He was an engineer, and those strengths led him to the Middle East agreement that he accomplished, which was very significant because he was very hands-on, very determined, and liked to do everything himself. He didn't bring very many people with him to the White House who knew very much about Washington, D.C., and that was his downfall because he didn't either. And, of course, since then he probably has been the most admirable ex-president we've had because of all the good works he's done."
Ronald W. Reagan
"President Reagan in some ways was best suited for the presidency because of his temperament and his disposition, his ability to communicate. He was willing to let others make a decision. He brought in Jim Baker, who was George Bush's campaign manager, so he was not insecure. He was comfortable in his own skin, so to speak. And he was accessible. I remember going to him in my early time as governor and asking him to get the federal government completely out of elementary and secondary education, and in exchange take over Medicaid. And he even put that in his State of the Union address, but it never did go anywhere."
George H.W. Bush
"Bob Teeter, his campaign manager, said, 'He may have been the only man ever elected president because he was nice.' He was thoroughly decent. Everything about him put the country first. He was a real war-time hero. He was enormously modest. He never called attention to himself, and his foreign policy achievements — for example in managing the end of the Cold War — will turn out to be some of the most significant actions by an American president in our history because, since he didn't feel any need to pat himself on the back for what he was doing, he made it possible for [then-Soviet President Mikhail] Gorbachev and others to tolerate what was happening and have a successful ending to the Cold War."
William J. Clinton
"I knew him the best. We were elected the same day in 1978 as governors, and we worked together, Honey [Alexander's wife] and I and Hillary [Clinton] and Bill on many of the same things in trying to improve our schools and colleges. He was charismatic. If he got your attention, if you had his attention, you had his complete attention. His eyes looked right through you as long as you were talking. He was often late because of that — because he would just talk to everybody that he met. And he was an enormously skilled politician. If I'd won the Republican nomination for president, I'd have been running against him in '96, and that would have been a challenge. He and [Vice President] Al Gore helped the Democratic Party do something they've had a hard time doing since then, which is tack toward the middle of the road. And they deliberately worked with other people about our age to take the Democratic Party away from the left and move it back toward the middle, and that's why they were able to win."
George W. Bush
"I tried to run again for president in 2000, and George W. just sucked all the oxygen out of the tent. He was very popular. He was a terrific governor [of Texas] and a good education governor. I thought a weakness was he tried to do from Washington what a governor should do from the state capitol, and I don't like Washington mandates for education. But he was thoroughly decent, conducted himself well, showed enough courage to have a surge in Iraq when it was unpopular to do that because he thought it would win the war. One of the things I most remember about him was that he would disappear sometimes when I was with him, and he was traveling, and he'd be gone to spend 30 or 40 minutes with a family of someone who'd been killed in a war that he was waging in Iraq. And he sometimes would leave with tears in his eyes. He never talked about that, but he did it quietly. And just a really class act."
Barack H. Obama
"President Obama was the smartest person in the room usually, and, oddly, a little shy, a little reticent. Not as social as someone like George W. or his father, or Bill Clinton. And he was pretty liberal. He began to lead the national Democratic Party in a way that Tennesseans found very uncomfortable. I mean, until 2006, we had a very strong two-party system in this state. The Corker-Harold Ford [Senate] race was the closest in the history of the state. But after Obama and the Democratic Party headed off to the left, Tennessee headed off away from the Democratic Party.
"I worked with him on a number of issues, particularly fixing No Child Left Behind [and] 21st Century Cures. I worked with a bipartisan group of senators to tie student loan interest rates to the market, which has saved hundreds of billions of dollars for students. I found him to be very good to work with. He always was a man of his word. I remember on fixing No Child Left Behind, he said he had three things he wanted. I went to the Oval Office to talk with him about it. I said, 'Mr. President, I can't do the third one until after we had the Senate and House conference, but I won't bring you a bill without it in there.' He said, 'Fine.' I said, 'All I ask is that you not criticize the bill while I'm trying to pass it.' So he did what he said he would do. We passed the bill. And he did the same thing on 21st Century Cures— both very complicated bills. So I had a lot of success working with him on that."
Donald J. Trump
"President Trump is the most accessible of all the presidents. I don't talk with him very often, but if I pick up the phone and call him, I often would get him. Or he would call me back within an hour. I was driving home from Maryville to Nashville early in 2019, and I called him to tell him I wasn't going to run again. And he called me back within 30 minutes and said, 'Let's talk about your serving another 20 years.' And I said, 'Mr. President, I decided I'm not going to run for re-election.'
"Many times I didn't approve of his behavior — the way he conducted himself, but his agenda I supported on taxes, judges, fewer regulations. And he worked very well with me and Sen. [Patty] Murray on a bill to reduce insurance premiums for people who don't have Obamacare subsidies, and unfortunately it got hung up in abortion politics and couldn't pass. We worked well together to simplify the FAFSA [college] application form that 400,000 Tennessee families fill out every year, and to permanently fund Black colleges this year in between impeachment and election. He came to Tennessee to see the [Nashville] tornadoes, and while he was here I asked him to expand the Great American Outdoors Act to include the Cherokee National Forest and other public lands, not just the national parks, and he agreed to it. And without him, that still would not have passed. It was the most important law on conservation and outdoor recreation in 50 years, everyone agrees. And he also was helpful with our legislation to change the copyright laws so songwriters could be paid royalties that they earned in a fair way.
"Of all the presidents, he has the thinnest skin. Most of the other presidents, if they didn't like what was said about them, you didn't know it. But not with President Trump. So that was a weakness. On the other hand, he turned out to be, along with Reagan, the best communicator. He figured out how to communicate with social media better than anybody, and has taught a lesson to any of us in public life about how you can do that."
Joseph R. Biden
"He's experienced. He's honorable. He [was] by nature a results-oriented senator. The weaknesses he has are, one, he likes to talk. There are all sorts of stories. [Sen.] Lindsey Graham tells a story of how they were riding across from each other from Andrews Air Force Base [outside of] Washington to London on an Air Force plane, and Biden started talking when they took off and Lindsey went to sleep and woke up and Biden was still talking. And, we'll see, his greatest weakness will be if he caves in to the Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren side of the Democratic Party. He'll scare half the country to death, and he won't accomplish much. If he tries to govern from the center, he has the capacity to be a very successful president, and he'll find significant Republican support.
"I'll give you one story. I worked with him on the 21st Century Cures Act [when Biden was vice president]. And I called him one day and said, 'Joe, this is off in the ditch. I've got personalized medicine for President Obama. We've got the cancer moonshot for you (his son had died of cancer). We've got regenerative medicine included because Sen. [Mitch] McConnell wants it and Speaker [Paul] Ryan has thought of a way to pay for it, but I can't get the White House to move. I feel like the butler standing outside the door of the Oval Office with a silver platter and nobody will open the door and take the order.' And Joe said, 'If you want to feel like a butler, try being vice president.' So he has a sense of humor."
Email Clint Cooper at firstname.lastname@example.org.