Lamar Alexander already is the only Tennessean who was popularly elected governor and senator of the Volunteer State. And by the time he retires in 2021, he will have spent the majority of five decades in public service for the citizens of his native state.
Others have spent as long in public service but none in as high positions as the Maryville Republican. And what always has been clear about him is a desire not to be an esteemed seat filler but to accomplish what is possible through a thorough knowledge of the subject, the vision of a potential solution and a willingness to work with others.
To us, Alexander often was the adult in the room, especially during this and the previous presidential administration, when partisanship was pulling parties and politicians far into their respective corners. Firm in his conservative beliefs, he nevertheless put politics aside to work with the ranking member on the other side of the aisle to pass legislation — in his position as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee — in a variety of areas critical to citizens of his state and the country.
One of those bills, during the Obama administration, was the "Every Student Succeeds Act," which updated and improved the George W. Bush-era "No Child Left Behind Act" and which, importantly, removed significant control over education from the federal level and moved it closer to the student.
Also during the previous administration, Alexander was able to shepherd to passage the "21st Century Cures Act," which eased the way for medical product development, helped bring other medical advances online faster and more efficiently, and provided broad funding for the National Institutes of Health.
Earlier this year, he oversaw the passage of a bill addressing the country's opioid scourge. No one understands it to be a be-all, end-all cure for the problem, but it was Congress's biggest step toward that direction.
Elsewhere, especially in the area of health care reform, he has brought together panels, proposed bridge legislation and otherwise tried to forge solutions between the Affordable Care Act (ACA) that he knew was not a sustainable permanent solution for the American people and a complete lack of coverage for individuals who did acquire coverage during the ACA.
With Alexander and Bob Corker, who retires from the Senate in January, Tennessee had two senators who were workhorses and not show horses. They were more interested in what could be accomplished, in addressing issues head on, than in seeking headlines and sniffing for higher office.
Unfortunately, it may be a while before a Tennessee senator heads such a prominent committee again as did Alexander with Health, Education, Labor and Pensions and Corker did with Foreign Relations.
Fortunately, with the election to replace Corker just a month in the rear-view mirror, it appears from two years out that Republicans will be well-placed to keep the seat in the GOP camp. If Phil Bredesen, a popular former governor and the last Democrat to win statewide office, couldn't defeat now Sen.-elect Marsha Blackburn for Corker's seat, no Democrat is likely to have a shot at Alexander's seat in 2020.
Plus, popular, term-limited Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has not ruled himself out as a candidate, which he did for Corker's seat. If Haslam were to run, he likely would scare off almost all comers.
But we're gratified Alexander still has two years to go, ensuring President Donald Trump has a steady hand as a committee head and voice of reason in a soon-to-be-divided Congress.
But that's always been the Tennessee native's nature. An Eagle Scout and governor of Tennessee Boys State, he is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Vanderbilt University, where he advocated as school newspaper editor for the admission of black students.
As governor-elect in 1979, he was urged to take office early in order that then-Gov. Ray Blanton, whose administration already was implicated in a cash-for-clemency scandal, not make any more pardons. He was reluctant to do so on his own merits but did so only when urged to do so by members of the outgoing Democratic Party.
As governor, he courted foreign investment, eventually landing a Nissan manufacturing plant, the largest investment in the state to that time. He also attempted to turn around the state's education standing by standardizing basic skills, increasing math, science and computer education, and improving teacher pay.
Subsequently, he served as president of the University of Tennessee, as secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush and made brief runs for the U.S. presidency in 1996 and 2000. Despite saying he was through running for public office, he nevertheless was convinced by the George W. Bush White House to seek the Senate seat of retiring Sen. Fred Thompson in 2002. His win was the first of three successful runs.
Tennessee is fortunate to have Alexander serve its citizens in so many ways and for long. We're glad he'll still be in his spot in the Senate for the next two years. Our nation needs more true statesmen of his caliber.