A Severity with a Smile; Lamar Alexander Can Make the Radical Sound Reasonable, but Does the GOP Want Reasonable?

By Klein, Joe | Newsweek, January 8, 1996 | Go to article overview

A Severity with a Smile; Lamar Alexander Can Make the Radical Sound Reasonable, but Does the GOP Want Reasonable?


Klein, Joe, Newsweek


LAMAR ALEXANDER IS NOT AN imposing presence. Heads don't turn when he enters a room. People do seem to listen when he speaks, though; they listen quietly, they don't get all stirred up, they rarely burst into applause. There is a calmness to him, the appearance of sanity. Alexander has a rare political talent, the ability to make the radical sound reasonable. "If I say `Let's abolish the Department of Education'," says William Bennett, who preceded Alexander as secretary of that department, "people say, `Oh, Bennett! He's such a bomb-thrower.' When Lamar says it, people say, `How thoughtful!'"

This would seem a marketable quality in our overripe era. But it hasn't clicked in the early primary states, where Alexander persists in low- to mid-single digits. As he traversed Iowa the week before Christmas, his nonemergence seemed the most popular journalistic question. "People say Lamar Alexander's a smart guy, good background, makes a lot of sense," Barry Norris, who runs a popular radio talk show in Cedar Rapids, told the candidate. "So why aren't you doing better?"

There are several reasons. Alexander even acknowledges some (others he doesn't). The most obvious is: the press and public have been interested in other stuff. The Republican Congress, and its eternal budget crisis, has seemed far more immediate than the drab herd of presidential candidates scuffling on the hustings. There was the Colin Powell distraction. There is the Bob Dole "inevitability" bandwagon (which Alexander argues, correctly, is a Washington concoction). There are other, assorted annoyances: the big political story in Iowa and New Hampshire in recent weeks has been the efforts of other states -- Louisiana, Delaware -- to leapfrog the presidential-primary schedule. The only way for a dark horse to get attention, Steve Forbes has proved, is to buy it. Everywhere Alexander goes, people ask about "facts" gleaned from Forbes's avalanche of advertising -- about the desirability of a flat tax, about Dole's support for a new subway for senators. Alexander professes to be thrilled that Forbes is aiming his fire at Dole and Gramm; but he can't be too happy that a zillionaire dilettante has elbowed his way into the spotlight.

One problem Alexander won't -- can't -- acknowledge is that he's chosen the wrong central organizing gimmick for his campaign. He chose distance over demeanor. He is running as that hoariest of political cliches, the "outsider." It seems a threadbare conceit, too slick by half for the '90s. And he is relentless at it. He attempts a flagrant informality, sporting a red-and-black plaid shirt (the same sartorial artifact he affected while walking across Tennessee in his long-shot 1978 gubernatorial campaign). He talks "devolution" to the point of distinction, trying a bit too hard to stuff some interesting ideas into a dim populist straitjacket, lobotomizing himself. …

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