Found Wanting for His Moment in History

Yesterday I learned that Senator Lamar Alexander–one of two senators representing my home state of Tennessee in the U.S. Senate–voted not to call witnesses during the our current President’s impeachment trial in the Senate. I was not surprised, in fact, I would have been more surprised to find that he had voted any other way. In fact Republican senators with the courage to put their country before their party’s unquenchable thirst for power number exactly two: Mitt Romney of Utah and Susan Collins of Maine.

Lamar Alexander (center) with his dear friend Senator Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (left) and his Senate colleague Susan Collins of Maine in the right foreground. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Of course, there are two other considerations for most Republican Senators: the abject terror they feel at crossing the authoritarian bully in the White House and his followers, as well as their fear of being shunned by their tribe. What would the people at the country club say? How could Lamar amicably visit his home folks back in Maryville, Tennessee, (just a short drive from Knoxville where I live) if he was found to have contrary ideas and actually acted on them?

Luckily for the home folks, Lamar has always been willing to camouflage himself with one image and to actually be someone else. When he was running for Tennessee governor in 1978, he made his campaign appearances wearing a red-and-black checked shirt to show that he was just a salt-of-the-Earth, man of the people. This graduate of Vanderbilt University, who was president of his high school class, and got his law degree from the New York University School of Law, was never a simple man of the people. When Alexander ran for President of the U.S. in 1996, he wore the same shirt and even his mentor Tennessee’s real-deal Senator Howard Baker, said he wished Lamar would get rid of the plaid shirt.

During his campaign for governor in 1978, Lamar Alexander “walked across Tennessee” in his ubiquitous red-and-black plaid shirt. His wife Honey is shown at right and in the background at right is actor and attorney Fred Thompson who would become Senator of Tennessee himself from 1994 to 2003.

Since yesterday’s vote, I have been musing about the difference between the two senators from Tennessee, Howard Baker and Lamar Alexander.

As a teenager, I watched the Watergate hearings when I got home from school. These Senate hearings sought to uncover whether President Richard Nixon had abused his office and encouraged his staff to break the law during his re-election campaign–most specifically during a break-in of his opponent’s campaign headquarters at the Watergate complex in 1972. Just as most American people and politicians on both sides of the aisle, I was impressed with Baker’s measured and relatively unbiased approach. Howard Baker became famous for his question during the hearings, “What did the president know, and when did he know it.” Baker impressed me as truly a statesman and a leader.

Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee during the Watergate hearings, 1972. Photo: Charles W. Garrity/the Associated Press (AP)

I was director of development communications for the University of Tennessee System in 2002 when the Howard Baker Center for Public Policy at the university was being planned, and was writer and editor of the publication urging donors to support the effort.

When I did research for the publication, I learned that one of our faculty members, a professor emeritus, had interviewed Baker’s colleagues on both sides of the aisle for an oral history. The professor was kind enough to share the quotes with me for our publication.

The quotes were across-the-board glowing, and Baker generously allowed us to use his own photos for the brochure. I felt privileged to be working on this project and so proud of who Senator Baker was, what he stood for, and how he represented Tennessee to the world. For the oral history project, Democrats such as former President Jimmy Carter and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, were quoted as saying:

From a selfish point of view, I could not have asked for a more cooperative, helpful, enlightened, and competent leader. . . . When he couldn’t support my position, he told me the truth, or when I asked him for advice about the general tone or attitude in the Senate, he shared his frank opinions with me. . . . I respected him as a partisan leader.

President Jimmy Carter

We were friendly and there was complete cooperation with each other. We kept each other informed. While we were of different philosophies, different parties, I don’t think two people could have gotten along better.

Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill

African-American journalist Carl Rowan, who was born in Ravenscroft, Tennessee, and was a nationally recognized author, journalist, and deputy assistant secretary of state for President John F. Kennedy, shared his take on Howard Baker:

I say to Baker: you are a great man who tried to make America as decent as it can be. You succeeded in ways that our grandchildren may never know or appreciate.

Carl Rowan, author, journalist, and deputy assistant secretary of state

I voted for Alexander both times he ran for governor, but never thought he was half the man Baker was. I lived in Fort Worth when Alexander was president of the University of Tennessee from 1988 to 1991. After he left UT to further pursue his political ambitions and I returned to the university, no one I talked to ever had anything good to say about his tenure there.

So again I say I was not too surprised yesterday to hear that when Senator Alexander bumped up against his critical moment when history and our nation’s future called for him to be counted, he was found wanting.

Jeb Bush’s 2016 campaign logo. Photo: Associated Press.

During one of his election campaigns, Alexander used Lamar! as his logo for campaign signage and bumperstickers–just as Jeb Bush used Jeb! when he was running for President in 2016. Although I would much rather have Jeb Bush as President right now than the current resident of the White House, it seems abundantly clear that politicians should never use exclamation points after their names for campaign slogans. However, I looked up the definition of the word exclamation and found that perhaps it was relevant for Lamar! Alexander:

exclamation (noun)

a sudden cry or remark, especially expressing surprise, anger, or pain.

The Oxford Dictionary

I will admit it did pain me to read Alexander’s explanation of his critical vote against hearing witnesses in the Senate Impeachment trial. The esteemed senior Senator from Tennessee (soon to retire) allowed that the President of our country did indeed do something wrong. But Alexander decided that he and his Senate colleagues did not need to disturb themselves or the body public by hearing from witnesses. After all a rush to judgment should not be impeded by hearing firsthand accounts of what has transpired, right? I am embarrassed and disappointed that this Senator (as well as Tennessee’s junior Senator Marsha Blackburn who is far worse) represents my state in Congress. Once upon a time Tennessee Senators inspired confidence and pride. Not any more. I am glad Howard Baker is not alive to see what the Senate and Lamar! Alexander have become.

An apt quote under the cap of my bottle of tea.

Because as this African proverb wisely observes: when the powerful of this world fight, it is the less powerful that suffer.

~ Anna 2/1/2020

About aamontgomery

Seeing new possibilities in everyday things
This entry was posted in Courage, Freedom, Knoxville, Op/Ed Thoughts, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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