Lamar Alexander, one of the wisest politicians I ever personally met and interviewed, ended his 18 years in the U.S. Senate by offering some advice that I hope the majority fellow Republicans have heeded by the time your read this: “We ought to respect the result of the November presidential election,” Alexander said in his departing comments, encouraging members of the Senate to ignore the unsubstantiated claims of Donald Trump and support Joe Biden as the next president.
I am certain that Alexander, a lifetime Republican, voted for Trump despite his flaws but he recognized that if the Senator failed to endorse the votes cast by the Electoral College it would permanently damage democracy in this nation.
I met Alexander when he first ran for governor of Tennessee in 1974. At the time, I was editor of a tri-weekly newspaper in Gallatin. That newspaper was then owned by Multi-Media and was grouped with other small papers known as Middle Tennessee Newspapers. While, individually, none of these newspapers was large enough to attract much interest from statewide politicians, as a group we did have a bit of clout. As a result, the editors of these newspapers interviewed both Alexander and Democratic nominee Ray Blanton as a group and voted which candidate to endorse.
I personally thought Alexander was so superior that he would win our endorsement easily. But to my utter surprise, the editors voted to endorse Blanton, who received less than 30% of the vote in a crowded Democratic primary.
From the first time I interviewed Blanton, I disliked him and distrusted him. Thus, when I was asked to write the editorial endorsing him, I told the publisher that I could not do it. The publisher grumbled claiming that I was the best writer in the group and should be able to write it, but he finally relented and someone else wrote the editorial for Blanton, which I reluctantly published in the Gallatin paper.
As it turns out, my assessment of Blanton was on the mark. He was a terrible, corrupt governor who was ousted by the Democratic-controlled legislature to short-circuit his plan to issue pardons to convicted felons who had paid the governor thousands of dollars. Blanton had pardoned 52 felons before he was ousted and those by law would not be reversed.
While Blanton was never charged in connection with the pardon scandal, he was convicted in 1981 of extorting $23,000 from a business leader seeking to win favor from the governor. Blanton served 22 months in a federal prison for his crimes, leading Tennesseans to joke that he served two terms: one as governor and another in federal prison.
Blanton was ousted as governor just before I resigned my position in Gallatin and moved to Ashland as city editor of The Daily Independent. Thus, my interest in what happened in Tennessee waned, but did not completely disappear.
Alexander was elected governor in 1979 and succeeded Blanton, but it was a different Alexander who was elected in 1979 than the one who lost four years earlier. Alexander spent that time changing his public image. That was essential, because in his first race for governor, Alexander came off as a well-educated yuppie with little or no connection to the ordinary people of Tennessee.
Alexander became a regular commentator on the largest TV station in Nashville, where he honed a much softer and more personable image than he did during his first campaign for governor. He then took off his suit and tie and walked across Tennessee spending than more than 50 nights with supporters along the way. It was a brilliant move.
Alexander spent two terms as governor before becoming president of the University of Tennessee. While he may have lacked the academic credentials to impress many people, he had the political clout to do many good things for the university.
Alexander was elected to the Senate in 2002 and served three terms, which ended at the first of this year. While many readers may be wondering why I spent so much time on someone from Tennessee, it is because he represents the best of what all of us should want of our elected officials.
In a recent interview that I found online, Alexander said if Biden hopes to succeed as president, he must turn his back on the far left wing and his party and listen to the center. By the same token, the Republican Party cannot allow itself to be dominated by the far right.
I agree. If our leaders in Washington — and Frankfort, for that matter — cannot agree to compromise and look for a middle ground, our government will remain broken and mostly dysfunctional.
Reach JOHN CANNON at email@example.com.