Lamar Alexander: Populist or Capital Man? Gop Candidate Shuns Past Washington Work, Boasts He's an Outsider

Article excerpt

THERE IS NOT much fire and flash in former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander's style.

The GOP presidential hopeful does not whip audiences up in a frenzy; they are more excited about him than excited by him. He eases into a room rather than commands it.

He has a pleasantly bland face, and his forehead furrows just enough to express concern but not grimness.

People who have known him for years say there are no hidden personas and insist that - for better or worse - "Lamar is Lamar."

On the campaign trail, Alexander has been sporting a lumberjack shirt, the red plaid one that he wore when he walked across Tennessee in 1978 in his successful campaign for governor.

He uses the shirt as a mantle of the "Washington outsider." Opponents and pundits, noting that he is a former U.S. education secretary, call the political symbolism dubious - a workingman's shirt on a millionaire corporate lawyer and investor.

But the shirt does reflect a lot about the persona of the man some consider the biggest threat to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, the front-runner. "He wears well," explained one of Alexander's childhood friends.

Alexander, 55, does appear comfortable with himself and has a knack for putting others at ease. Even when most Iowans were not willing to vote for him, they told pollsters that they liked him. He wooed them with calm talk about the warm-and-fuzzy issues: family, community and pride in the country. And he lectured them to "expect less for Washington and more from ourselves."

During the Christmas holidays, when the slugfest in political ads was its most intense, he ran ads wishing them good cheer. At campaign stops, he plays the piano, ending with a group sing of "God Bless America." Iowa schoolchildren voted him their top candidate.

Six-Month Congress

And yet, despite his mellow style, Alexander proposes some radical ideas:

Ending the welfare program to set up funds for local charities.

Abolishing federal job-training programs and giving people vouchers to find their own help.

Establishing a separate branch of the armed services to protect the country's borders from drug smuggling and illegal immigration.

Even with Republicans in control, he wants a six-month Congress, allowing lawmakers to hold other jobs and stay better connected to voters. "Cut their pay and send them home," he says.

Alexander calls himself a maverick. But that implies a bit of recklessness, and he is much too controlled for that. This is the man who, when he walked 1,000 miles across Tennessee, left a white chalk mark on the pavement so he would know where to start the next day.

"He leaves nothing to chance," said Susan Simons, who over the last 19 years has been a campaign volunteer and in the Alexander Cabinet. "He is able to focus on what's important and convince people he is right. Lamar delivers."

Whether that proves true in his current quest depends on how voters sort out the incongruities: a low-key politician with revolutionary ideas; a rich man who projects humility; and someone who wants to be president trying to convince people that most problems must be tackled neighborhood by neighborhood.

Seriousness of purpose was ingrained in Andrew Lamar Alexander Jr. during his childhood in Maryville, Tenn., a suburb of Nashville in the shadow of the Great Smoky Mountains.

His mother, Flo, ran a kindergarten in a building behind their home and was known as a stern taskmaster. His father worked at the Alcoa aluminum plant and was longtime member of the local school board.

Young Alexander was president of his class a few times, governor of Boys' State, president of the Key Club and an award-winner in piano competitions. But he earned regular-guy credentials by being an able addition to the track, basketball and tennis teams. He also was mischievous enough to get into trouble once or twice. …