The Rich Rise of Lamar Alexander

By Ireland, Doug | The Nation, April 17, 1995 | Go to article overview
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The Rich Rise of Lamar Alexander

Ireland, Doug, The Nation

If repeated White House leaks suggesting that Bill Clinton views Lamar Alexander as his toughest potential Republican opponent next year are true, it may be because it takes one to know one. The two ex-governors are both masters of the Permanent Campaign.

Although he's currently posturing as a political "outsider," Alexander has been on a well-greased inside track to political power ever since he was a pup. Displaying a talent for sucking up to the rich and puissant, "Lame-ar," as Tennesseans who don't like him often call him, is even less encumbered by principles than the Arkansan whose job he covets. And in one respect he has clearly surpassed Clinton: Alexander has shamelessly used his political connections to make himself a wealthy man.

In Six Months Off: An American Family's Australian Adventure--a treacly, self-serving account Alexander wrote about his 1987 antipodean sabbatical from his Permanent Campaign--he revealingly quotes these lines from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland: "'Who are you?' said the Caterpillar.... 'I hardly know, Sir, just at present,' Alice replied rather shyly. 'At least I know who I was when I got up this morning, but I think I must have changed several times since then.'" That's a pretty neat summary both of the political pirouettes Lamar has executed throughout his public life, and of the state of message confusion in which his otherwise highly organized and well-oiled presidential bid currently finds itself.

Ask longtime Tennessee Republican National Committeewoman Alice Algood, an echt Reaganite, what she thinks of her former governor, and she tartly replies: "Which Lamar Alexander?" She quotes the often-repeated characterization of "Lame-ar" as "a liberal in the seventies, a moderate in the eighties and a conservative in the nineties." Put the same question to Tennessee Democratic Party chairman Will Cheek, and he chuckles that "when I turn on the national news these days, I see a whole different Alexander than the fellow I saw serve two terms as governor: He's now a fire-breathing rightwing zealot."

The Folksy Makeover

Alexander once confided to columnist David Broder that he hewed to his family's bedrock Republicanism because "to get ahead in the Democratic Party, you had to stand in a long line. The Republican Party was wide open." Lamar's father was a prominent Republican committeeman in a Congressional district that to this day has never elected a Democrat. As a politically ambitious youth Lamar was naturally introduced by his family to the local G.O.P. Congressman, Howard Baker Sr. Lamar later served as a campaign manager for Howard Jr. in his 1966 run for the Senate, then followed Baker fils to Washington as his first legislative assistant. When Senator Baker saw an opportunity to place one of his closest confidants in Richard Nixon's White House as assistant to the canny adviser Bryce Harlow, it was natural for him to make Lamar his mole.

Returning home for his first try for public office, Alexander started at the top: running for governor, a job he had coveted since boyhood. With Senator Baker's help, he easily nobbled the Republican nomination. But it was 1974, the first post-Watergate election, and even associating himself with Baker's televised biting of the hand they had both once kissed could not save him. Besides, Lamar came across as a stuffed shirt. He lost.

When Alexander ran for governor again in 1978, he hired a high-powered Washington political consultant, savvy Doug Bailey (chief political aide to black liberal Republican Senator Ed Brooke of Massachusetts and now publisher of Hotline, a daily political newsletter). Under Bailey's astute tutelage Lamar, a New York University Law School graduate, outfitted himself with a folksier image. He bought his first closetful of red-and-black-checked lumberjack's shirts and took a walking tour from one end of Tennessee to the other. With the state's Democrats in disarray, even a retread Nixonite elitist like Lamar looked good.

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