U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander reflects on service to Tennessee

TML Communications Specialist

For more than 45 years, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has been one of the most well-known figures of state and national politics in Tennessee. When Alexander retires from the senate at the end of the year he will have severed nearly 26 years combined as both a governor and senator – more than any other Tennessean.
Born Andrew Lamar Alexander in Maryville, Alexander is a seventh generation East Tennessean and graduated from Maryville High School in 1958. He went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from Vanderbilt University in 1962 and a law degree from New York University in 1965.
He then served two years as a law clerk for Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals Judge John Minor Wisdom before moving to Washington, D.C. There he would serve as a legislative assistant to famed Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker Jr. and as a staff assistant under President Richard Nixon. He would also meet and marry Leslee “Honey” Buhler.
Returning to Tennessee in 1970, Alexander served as manager of Gov. Winfield Dunn’s election campaign and then ran for the seat himself the first time in 1974. When he ran again in 1978, he was elected to the seat and served as Tennessee’s 45th governor until 1987.
Alexander then served president of the University of Tennessee and then as the fifth U.S. Education Secretary under the administration of President George H.W. Bush.
In 2002, he was sworn in for his first term as U.S. Senator representing Tennessee, a role he has held since.
An avid outdoorsman and longtime advocate of groups like the Boy Scouts of America and Great Smoky Mountain National Park, Alexander is also a classical and country pianist. He and his wife Honey have four children and nine grandchildren. He still lives outside of his hometown of Maryville.

TT&C: What first interested you in politics? What made you first decide to run for political office?
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander: When I was ten, my father took me to the courthouse in Maryville to meet our congressman who was U.S. Rep. Howard Baker Sr. My father served on the school board in Maryville, and I was taught by both my parents to respect people in public life and look up to them. I think that interested me. When I went to Boys State in 1957, I was elected governor of Boys State by a landslide margin of three votes. Gov. Frank Clement made a speech at my inauguration as Boys State governor. He said ‘Someday, one of you boys will grow up to be the real governor of Tennessee,’ and I guess I thought he meant me.

TT&C: Who have been your biggest influences in life and why?
LA: Well my parents to start with. My mom taught nursery school and kindergarten in a converted garage in our backyard for 30 years. She had 25 three- and four-year-olds in the morning and 25 five-year-olds in the afternoon at Alexander’s Nursery School and Kindergarten, and she had nowhere else to put me. I got a good head start in education, and she expected all of those children to amount to something, including her own. My dad was principal of Westside Elementary School when I was born and later on the school board for 25 years.
Besides my parents, there were three men I worked for early on in my career. One was Federal Judge John Minor Wisdom in New Orleans who was the judge who ordered Ole Miss to admit James Meredith in the desegregation case. There was also Bryce Harlow, who was President Nixon’s counsel in 1970 in the White House and was President Eisenhower’s favorite staff member. Of course, there was Sen. Howard Baker Jr. who I volunteered to work for on his 1966 campaign. I came to Washington as his legislative assistant. Those three men gave me my graduate degree in politics and government, and I was a lucky student. There couldn’t have been three better influences in anyone’s life.

TT&C: As governor, you launched the Better Roads Program that has become the model for how Tennessee funds transportation projects. Did you expect the project to have as big of an impact at the time?
LA: When I was recruiting Saturn – which has now become the largest General Motors plant in the world – I asked the officials how they located their suppliers. I knew the suppliers would be more important than the big plants themselves. They said they did it by computer. I asked what the computer looked for and they said it looked for the intersection of the best four-lane highways. I asked the legislature to improve our four-lane highway system in order to attract the auto industry suppliers. By the time we passed all three of those in 1991, the National Truckers’ Association said we had one of the best four-lane highway systems in the country.
I believe one of the reasons Gov. Bill Haslam was able say we’ve become the nation’s No. 1 auto state is because we built such good roads. First, we attracted Nissan, the biggest and most efficient auto plant in North America, and then Saturn, now General Motors. Then Gov. Bredesen brought in the Volkswagen plant. What really brought the jobs in was the roads. We now have thousands of suppliers in almost every county. Nothing has done more to raise family incomes and create stronger communities and towns than the auto industry.
What I’d really like to underscore about that road program is that we paid for it. We started the tradition 40 years ago of zero debt. Unlike many states that have billions of dollars of debt, our legislatures have paid for these roads. As a result the money goes for roads not interest on the debt.
I remember in 1986 when I was trying to pass the Better Roads Program I went with [then State Rep.] Lincoln Davis up to Overton County because he was afraid they would vote him out of office if he voted for the gas tax. After they heard about how much they would be getting from the gas tax and that it would keep property taxes down, one of the county commissioners stood up and said ‘Lincoln if you don’t vote for this we’ll defeat you.’ Lincoln likes to tell that story and so do I.

TT&C: You have been involved in numerous education initiatives. Which of these do you feel have had the most impact?
LA: I was fortunate enough to be taught by my parents, a teacher and a principal, to value education and I got a good education. I saw the opportunities it gave me, and I was sure it would give those opportunities to others. When I became governor in 1979, Tennessee was the third poorest state. I kept trying to find ways to raise family incomes. I finally figured out that better schools and better colleges meant better jobs. Until we improved our education system and more Tennesseans were better educated, we wouldn’t be able to raise family income.
The things I’ve worked on I think made the biggest difference were the Better Schools program in 1983-84, which made Tennessee the first state to pay teachers more for teaching well, created the governor’s schools in the summer for outstanding high school students, and chairs of excellence at the universities.
In Washington, I think two of the biggest things I’ve done is fixing No Child Left Behind to get rid of the Common Core mandate. Having a Common Core is fine if Tennessee adopts it, but Washington was getting too busy telling local schools and teachers what to do. The other thing I’m doing that I hope to finish by the end of the year is simplify the FAFSA. You have to fill out the FAFSA in order to be eligible for the two-years of free tuition that Gov. Haslam and the legislature provided. It is so complicated that Gov. Haslam told me that the FAFSA is the biggest obstacle to those seeking those two-years.

TT&C: You have served in a variety of capacities on both the state and federal level. How were these roles similar and in what ways were they different?
LA: Being in one helps with the other. When I’m working to simplify the FAFSA, it helped to have been president of the University of Tennessee and understand what a burden it is for families going to college. When the issue of tariffs comes up in the senate, it helps to have been a governor who brought in the auto industry because I know that tariffs on aluminum and steel make it more expensive to make cars in Tennessee and costs us jobs.
The difference of being governor is being like Moses pointing a rod and saying ‘let’s go this way’ and trying to persuade half the people you have the right strategy. Being a senator, operating with 100 individuals who operate by unanimous consent a lot of the time, is like being a parade organizer. Your role is more like picking the music, organizing the route, picking the drum majors, and then marching in the middle of the parade to make sure no one heads off in the wrong direction.

TT&C: You have long been an advocate for the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Why is it important to preserve this landmark?
LA: The park is important because I love it like most Tennesseans. I always love to hike there. We Tennesseans gave the park to the U.S. Unlike most of the western parks that were carved out of federal land, the Smokies were purchased with money from school children, families, and the legislatures of North Carolina and Tennessee and then given to the country. I feel that ownership, and I grew up hiking in it every weekend. It’s that love of outdoors that makes it important to me. Of course, economically its tremendously important to East Tennessee because it has more visitors than any park in the country and brings in tourism. It makes Tennessee a better place to live.

TT&C: While serving on the Senate Energy and Water Development Appropriations Subcommittee, you have worked to promote the nation’s inland waterways and harbors. How do you see Tennessee’s use of these waterways and harbors evolving in the future?
LA: They are very important. For the eighth straight year we’ve funded the reconstruction of Chickamauga Lock. Inland waterways and harbors were underfunded and not well supported eight or ten years ago. A group of us said ‘what will it take for us to have a great system of inland waterways and harbors.’ We’ve been able to raise funds, to raise taxes on the big barges that use them, and all that came through the appropriations subcommittee I chair.

TT&C: What do you hope for the future of the U.S. Department of Energy and what role would you like to see Tennessee play in scientific and energy development moving forward?
LA: The biggest role Tennessee plays is at Oak Ridge. Through my little subcommittee I’ve chaired for six years and served as ranking member on for eight, $4 billion a year goes to Oak Ridge, $2 billion of it to the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and the rest to the uranium facility and clean-up of nuclear waste.
The University of Tennessee just created a new Oak Ridge Institute to train scientists and engineers who can pass a national security test so we have a steady flow of talented people. The best thing the U.S. Department of Energy can do for our country and Tennessee is to continue to fund national laboratories like Oak Ridge. No other country has anything like it. It’s our secret weapon.
We’ve made sure over the last ten years to fund supercomputing at Oak Ridge so we’re still first in the world.

TT&C: What are some other projects you have been involved with you are the most proud of?
LA: We just passed the Great American Outdoors Act, which is the biggest outdoor recreation and conservation legislation in more than 50 years. It will deal with the maintenance backlog in the Smokies, Cherokee National Forest, and Tennessee Wildlife Refuge in West Tennessee.
What I tried to do whenever I could as governor was to make Tennessee No. 1 in things. In 1980, I flew out to Palo Alto, Calif., to see Steve Jobs at Apple. We became the first state to put Mac computers in all the middle schools so students could become computer literate.
We had Tennessee Homecoming ‘86 that celebrated the 3,000 places we call home. The point of that was for everyone in every place to find something about that place to celebrate and invite everyone from that place to come back.
I think that attitude was carried on by Govs. McWherter, Sundquist, Bredesen, and Haslam, and has set our sights higher. When our goals became more ambitious community by community, our state saw a lot accomplished.

TT&C: What advice do you have to your successor in the senate?
LA: What I’d like for them to know is that it’s hard to get here and it’s hard to stay here, so while you’re here you might accomplish something good for the country. I get up every day hoping I do something good for the country, and I usually go to bed at night thinking I have. For those who look at Washington and see all the partisan bickering back and forth, I would suggest you look at Washington as a split screen television. That bickering is on one screen. On the other screen we are fixing No Child Left Behind, passing the Great Outdoors Act, building Chickamauga Lock, dealing with the backlog in the Smokies, and finishing the uranium processing facility at Oak Ridge. There is a lot going on to make us a better country. It’s a very satisfying experience for me. I feel very fortunate that Tennesseans have given me these opportunities to serve them. I won’t say I’ve enjoyed every minute, but I’ve loved every day. I wouldn’t swap it for anything.

TT&C: During your campaigns, you became known for your trademark plaid shirt. How did this come about? Do you have any plans for what might happen to this shirt once you retire?
LA: The Smithsonian already has one, and we’ve borrowed it for my office. I’m giving it back when I go back to Tennessee in January. I’ve still got some left, and they still fit. My COVID mask is also made out of red and black plaid like my shirt.
It came about when I ran for governor and lost. My wife Honey thought I wasn’t a very appealing candidate. She said I needed to do what I enjoyed doing, and what I enjoyed was being outdoors and music. So, I walked across the state for six months and spent the night with 73 families. I needed to wear something for that, so I went down to the Friedman Army Surplus Store in Nashville and bought a dozen red and black plaid shirts. I wore a different one every day, and as I walked across the state, I started selling them. When the price started going up, I thought I may be winning. That experience really helped me keep my feet on the ground and taught me a lot about the state.

TT&C: What plans do you have for your retirement?
LA: I’m going home. We still live outside Maryville where I grew up. I don’t have any specific plans, but I’ve always found something interesting to do. I think retirement is like reading a good book. You finish one good chapter, and you turn the page expecting the next chapter to be good as well.