THERE IS NOT much fire and flash in former Tennessee Gov. Lamar
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
And yet, despite his mellow style, Alexander proposes some
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
"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
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. …