An Outsider's Inside Moves: The Story Behind the Plaid Shirt - and How Lamar Alexander Made Millions in Cozy Financial Deals

Article excerpt

AMAR ALEXANDER'S PLAID shirts come from Wal-Mart--but the concept came from Bailey Deardourff, and therein hangs a tale. It goes back to 1977 when Alexander, an up-and-coming Nashville lawyer, got the itch to make a second run for governor of Tennessee. He hired Bailey Deardourff and Associates, a political-consulting firm with close ties to the national GOP. Alexander, the firm said, should "spend the next five months walking the state from east to west ... to establish rapport with the rural voters." He should have "a set walk uniform. Never vary it. Boots. Colorful outdoor jacket. Something ... that can be a regular symbol" of "his commitment" to ordinary folks. NEWSWEEK has learned that the gimmick backfired after the state auditor discovered that the campaign had used a state TV station to produce a favorable documentary about Alexander's Walk--forcing the state GOP to reimburse the taxpayers.

Today, the plaid shirts symbolize Alexander's claim to being an "outsider" in national politics. That seems to be working, despite the fact that Alexander has spent virtually his entire career comfortably on the inside. Alexander was a member of Richard Nixon's White House staff and later served as George Bush's secretary of education. He broke into elective politics--and won two terms as governor--as a protege of former U.S. senator Howard Baker of Tennessee. And even more than Bill and Hillary Clinton, Alexander and his wife, Honey, have benefited from their friendships with the rich and powerful.

So much so, in fact, that their net worth has grown from $151,000 in 1979 to at least $3.4 million today. The question now is how Alexander came to make so much money in public life. "I plead guilty to being a capitalist," he says. But the truth is that Alexander and his wife have frequently participated in lucrative deals arranged by political cronies.

Take The Knoxville Journal deal. In 1980, while serving as governor, Alexander got the idea of buying the newspaper in a partnership with Baker and others. …