Is Lamar Alexander about to do something very cool — from an UnParty perspective?

I’m puzzling, hopefully, over what this means:

The no. 3 Republican in the Senate will step down from his leadership position early next year, despite having no plans to retire from Congress.

Lamar Alexander informed his fellow GOP colleagues of his rather surprising decision on Tuesday morning in a letter obtained byPolitico, saying that the move was the best decision for him and the Senate.

“Stepping down from leadership will liberate me to spend more time working for results on the issues I care most about,” the 71-year-old former Tennessee governor wrote. “I want to do more to make the Senate a more effective institution so that it can deal better with serious issues. There are different ways to provide leadership within the Senate. After nine years here, this is how I believe I can now make my greatest contribution. For these same reasons I do not plan to seek a leadership position in the next Congress.”…

I’ve respected Lamar Alexander since  I covered him in his first successful run for governor in 1978, spending a good bit of time with him on the road (OK, so I was on the road with him 24/7 for one week before switching over to cover his opponent, but it was enough time to form a positive impression).

Lamar was never a guy you get particularly excited about. He was… bland. One of the most striking things about him was how much his speaking voice sounded like Pat Boone’s. (Once, I heard a PSA on the radio by Boone, and I thought it was the governor until he identified himself at the end — or was it the other way around?) His much-publicized walk across Tennessee in the trademark red-and-black shirt was SO contrived, such an earnest bid to be interesting, that I would joke about it, while at the same time appreciating his seriousness. He was what Tennessee needed after the rollicking corruption of Ray Blanton (who had defeated him four years earlier, on the very first election night of my newspaper career, when I was a copy boy at The Commercial Appeal). I would joke that Lamar’s main appeal to the voters was to subliminally project, “I won’t steal the silverware from the governor’s mansion.” But after Blanton, that was progress.

Turned out that there was a lot more progress to come with Alexander. He was different from any Republican governor I have seen since. He started out appointing Democrats to his Cabinet (his chief political adviser was someone who had worked for Democrats), and he reached out to the Democratic majority in the legislature to get his agenda passed, including significant movement toward merit pay for teachers. From day one, he was about raising the incomes of the average Tennessean, and he was for working with whomever it took to get that done. He worked particularly productively with the iconic speaker of the House (and later governor) Ned Ray McWherter.

He has served his state, and now his country, with pragmatic dedication and moderate sensibilities. So I’m sorry to see him leave leadership.

And puzzled. What does he mean he can be more effective outside that role? There’s a hint in the original Politico story:

Alexander says the decision was rooted in his desire to foster consensus in the gridlocked Senate, a role he felt constrained playing while spearheading the partisan Senate GOP messaging machine.

That sounds very cool — and even, despite this being Lamar Alexander, exciting. In an UnParty sense. I’d love to hear an elaboration on that. It would be nice to have back about 15 minutes of that time I spent riding around with him in cars and planes back in the day. I think I’d have more interesting questions now…

On the campaign plane with Alexander, back in the day./Brad Warthen

6 thoughts on “Is Lamar Alexander about to do something very cool — from an UnParty perspective?

  1. Brad

    Well, I think she IS more effective. I think she gets more effective every day, the more she fades into the background and the less she is talked about.

    But let’s make no mistake: Sarah Palin and Lamar Alexander are as different as night and day…


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