Interview
with Lamar Alexander, former Governor of Tennessee
To Bring Out the Best in America
Former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander spoke to DEMOCRACY IN ACTION on September 29, 1998 in the Washington, DC offices of former Reagan adviser Peter Hannaford. Alexander was in the midst of a 20-state tour of fundraisers, events and speeches that ran from September 9 through November 2. Indeed the day after this interview, Alexander was up in New Hampshire doing an event with Republican gubernatorial candidate Jay Lucas; he also climbed Mt. Washington later in the day. 

Lamar Alexander has one of the most varied resumes of the potential GOP presidential candidates. DEMOCRACY IN ACTION wanted to find out what he has learned from some of those experiences.

Alexander | News
  • QUESTION The first question concerns the functioning of our political system and particularly the disengagement that many Americans seem to have from politics, which is evidenced by low voter turnout. Do you see this as a problem and, if so, how can we address it? 

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  • QUESTION What about the use of polling in campaigns today? There is criticism of President Clinton that he's totally poll driven, there's no core there. How do you use polls, and how much do they shape your campaigning? 

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  • QUESTION What is your first political memory? 

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  • QUESTION Is there someone who particularly influenced your early involvement in politics, a mentor…? I've seen so much about Senator Baker.  Were you Howard Baker's campaign manager in that '66 campaign? 

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  • QUESTION Talk a little bit about what you learned from your first campaign [1974]. 

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  • QUESTION You're elected governor [in 1978] and serve two terms. What is the most intractable problem you dealt with over those eight years, something that just kept hitting you on the head? 

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  • QUESTION Teachers' unions were the main obstacle? Are there other obstacles? 

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  • QUESTION You stayed for six months in Australia [in Sydney]. What did you learn from being over there? 

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  • QUESTION Building on that last comment on the Berlin Wall…[with the fall of communism] in 1990, for example, in Poland, there was just such excitement…[people were confronting questions such as] is there a third way, how are we going to deal with freedom? Another, way to look at it is the idea of the frontier, in Australia. Is there any way we can get a big picture going here in America. People just seem so blasé, and busy. Is there any way we can get a big picture going here in America or is that not possible? 

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  • QUESTION Another significant thing you've done is President of the University of Tennessee [1988-91]. Did you like academia? 

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  • QUESTION You helped to start a business, Corporate Child Care. What were the biggest challenges of building that company from scratch?  Are there a lot of regulations? Does the federal government get into that at all? 

  •  
  • QUESTION Do you have a framework or a formula or a set of criteria or a bottom line for how you think about the role of government? 

  •  
  • QUESTION If you do decide to run this time, it would seem that you're running from a position of weakness. You've been running for president for the past five years; you haven't held elective office for over a decade. How do you respond to that type of criticism? 

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  • QUESTION You've been described as the "easy listening" candidate [by Charlie Cook]. What does that mean to you? 

The first question concerns the functioning of our political system and particularly the disengagement that many Americans seem to have from politics, which is evidenced by low voter turnout. Do you see this as a problem and, if so, how can we address it? 

ALEXANDER: It is a problem. And the way to address it is to nominate candidates that run campaigns whose goal is to bring out the best in our country rather than appeal to its worst instincts. I noticed that in the Iowa caucuses in 1996 the vote total--despite a very spirited campaign--was a lot lower than most people thought it would be. Many Iowans told me they were simply put off by all the negative advertising that was going on. I didn't do any of that, and I think it may be one reason that I rose so quickly in the Iowa caucus.

So there are probably a lot of reasons for the low voter turnout, but one way to bring out more voters is to give them something to be proud of, to give them issues and personalities that appeal to their best senses instead of their worst senses.
 

 


What about the use of polling in campaigns today? There is criticism of President Clinton that he's totally poll driven, there's no core there. How do you use polls, and how much do they shape your campaigning? 

ALEXANDER: Well my advisers say that I don't use them enough. When I was governor I only took one poll in my entire second term, and that was when I was in a fight with the teachers' union over paying good teachers more. And I figured it was a popular idea, and I got a Democratic pollster, Peter Hart, to take a poll so that I could show to the Democratic legislators to try to persuade 'em to be for something I was already for. So I haven't used polls to shape my beliefs and attitudes and convictions. I do think its appropriate to use polls to get a snapshot of where the campaign stands after the candidates are pretty well known. And I think its sometimes appropriate to use polls to find out if the words you're using convey the meaning that you hope to use. Sometimes you can say something, and people don't hear what you're saying because you use the wrong words.

But I think it is one reason for a lack of confidence in our political system is because so many people seem to go take the polls and find out what is first on the polls and then announce that's their position. I don't think that's what the American people are looking for. I think they're looking for someone with a core of conviction as President Reagan had.
 

 


What is your first political memory? 

ALEXANDER: Well one very early one was when I was ten years old. My father took me to the courthouse one Saturday morning to meet our congressman. This was in Maryville, Blount County, Tennessee, right up next to the Great Smokey Mountains. And this was an occasion. My father was a member of the Republican executive committee in our community and a member of the school board, an elected member of the school board. And I remember meeting the congressman. I remember first being shocked at his appearance, because this was back before much television in campaigning and he was apparently using his high school yearbook picture, and by the time I met him he had grown older and fatter and I didn't recognize him. But he took time with me and he gave me a dime. And I remember when I left I was convinced I had met the most respected man I was ever likely to meet other than my father, my grandfather and the preacher. So that stuck with me, and I remember how important it was in my father's eyes for me to meet our congressman and what respect we had for him.
 

 


Is there someone who particularly influenced your early involvement in politics, a mentor…? I've seen much about Senator Baker. 

ALEXANDER: Well, of course Senator Baker, but my parents did. My dad loved to meet people. And he formed a ticket after World War II of four others and himself and they ran for the city school board to take over the school system and make it a better school system, and they won and stayed on the school board for 25 years until it got to be a first class school system. So he liked politics, he liked government; he was a Republican. My mother was interested in issues. She made sure that I listened to the radio when it had the national conventions on. Together they taught me that public life was something to be respected. So that was the first thing.

Of course the first person I worked with in politics was Howard Baker, who was the son of the congressman that I met on that Saturday morning when I was ten years old. And he came along in 1966. I was just out of law school; I'd been a law clerk in New Orleans. And Senator Baker was challenging a one-party system in Tennessee. He was young--he was 37, 38 years old--looked younger. And it inspired me and a whole generation of people my age to join him and break up the one-party system and give our region of the state, the mountainous region, more representation in Nashville. And I was lucky in that sense because there's no school for politics, so you really learn from the men and the women that you work with. As it turned out, Senator Baker had all the right stuff. He was wise and he was interested in the issues; he was completely ethical. He saw his responsibility to appeal to Democrats as well as Republicans, but he was a real builder of the Republican party. And he always bent over backwards to create more opportunities for me and other young people who came along. So he was the first person.

The other person who was a great mentor to me in politics was a man named Bryce Harlow. I worked for him in the Nixon White House in 1969 and early 1970. And he was a diminutive man, about 5 feet tall, from Oklahoma, who had been President Eisenhower's favorite speechwriter. He worked for President Nixon as chief of congressional relations. And I also learned a lot from him. He also had a high sense of ethical standards and a good sense of humor and an innate sense of politics. So I was fortunate to have a couple of good mentors early on. I can still see today the many lessons I learned from them.

Were you Howard Baker's campaign manager in that '66 campaign? 

ALEXANDER: No I wasn't. I was one of three or four people in the campaign. It was a very small operation. I'm not sure that I had a very important title; I'm not sure we had a "campaign manager." I just did what there was to be done, whether it was raising $25 from doctors I knew in my hometown or putting out the press releases or doing the schedule or travelling with him.
 

 


Talk a little bit about what you learned from your first campaign. 

ALEXANDER: Number one, it was 1974. So I learned it's better not to run in a year when the president of your party is nearly impeached and resigns, because the voters are likely to hold you responsible for it. After 1974 there were 12 Republican governors left in the country and I was not one of them, so I lost that year.

The second thing I learned was to find a way to campaign in way that's comfortable for me. I flew around the state in a little airplane in my blue suit and spoke to Republican audiences, and while I won the primary in an upset win, must not have waged too effective a campaign. 

So when it came time to run again in 1978, my wife said if you run again in '78 the way you ran in '74, you'll lose, so why don't you do some things you like to do. So what I like to do is to be outdoors, so I decided to walk across the state. And didn't want to wear a blue suit, so I wore one of my--a red and black plaid shirt every day. My favorite thing was not to go to Republican meetings, so when you're walking across the state you meet a lot of people normally who won't go to Republican meetings, and you broaden your base of friendships. I liked music, so we formed a little band called Alexander's Washboard Band, and I played the washboard and the trombone in it. 

So we had a good time, and the campaign caught--had a lot of enthusiasm and generated enthusiasm in the state. So I learned to be myself and to enjoy myself when I was campaigning and to meet lots of new people and not just the same people all the time.
 

 


You're elected governor and serve two terms. What is the most intractable problem you dealt with over those eight years, something that just kept hitting you on the head? 

ALEXANDER: The problem I dealt most successfully with was low family incomes. The problem that I dealt with, and spent the most time on, but I didn't make as much success as I would like to was improving public schools. I thought the two went hand in hand. I thought better schools meant better jobs. While we were very successful in recruiting Japanese industry and bringing in automobile manufacturing for the first time and creating an environment in which new jobs could grow, and we actually became the fastest growing state in terms of family incomes in the country in the mid-1980s, I was not able to make the progress in terms of improving our schools that I would have liked to.

Some individual programs were terrific. We became the first state to pay teachers more for teaching well, but I ran into the teachers' unions trying to do that. We created a number of programs for gifted students in the summer--governor's schools for teachers of writing, and for students in history and mathematics and science, and those are still there. And we created Centers of Excellence at the universities and Chairs of Excellence and those are still there, but in terms of completely restructuring our schools, remodeling them, getting rid of the overhead, setting higher standards, giving parents more choices of schools, that was the most intractable problem I ran into and it's still a problem.
 

 


Teachers' unions were the main obstacle? Are there other obstacles? 

ALEXANDER: There are many obstacles. The teachers' unions, not all of them--Al Shanker, who was the head of the American Federation of Teachers, actually supported my idea of paying good teachers more for teaching well, but the National Education Association, the dominant union in our state, fought it tooth and nail. So that was an obstacle. Whether we're trying to get rid of overhead, giving parents more choices, paying good teachers more, changing the tenure laws, the teachers' union is always against that. 

But the other obstacles are the courts. I mean when the courts get so involved in the schools that you're busing kids for an hour, an hour and a half each way to school, parents feel like they don't have control of the school. And other obstacles are broken families--families that are broken and don't have time for their children or who are working too hard to be--are so busy working that they don't have time to tend to their duties as parents make it difficult for teachers. And then the community at large has gotten older. You know after World War II two-thirds of American families were busy raising children. Today it's about one third. So these are the taxpayers and others who have interests other than children. And finally the culture. I mean there used to be a very supportive culture for children in schools. You had Roy Rogers on television and Captain Kangaroo telling stories, and today you have Jerry Springer and in many ways an indecent culture. So the odds are stacked against parents raising children, which is one of the most important things I'd like to change.
 

 


You stayed for six months in Australia [in Sydney]. What did you learn from being over there? 

ALEXANDER: Well of course I learned what a magnificent country Australia is. It's so open and friendly and beautiful, and it has so many different kinds of animals--koala bears to kangaroos. But what I mainly learned was about our country. Living in Australia you look back and see the tremendous influence that our culture--the Today Show, the National Geographic… has in other countries. I had one woman in Australia offer me, say, "I'll swap you my vote for a third of yours." I said, "Why would you do that?" She said, "Well we don't have anyone who can talk to Gorbachev like your president can, and we don't want to be blown up either." One night on a camping trip, an Aussie said to me, "Have you ever realized that country has interstate highways just as you Americans do." And I hadn't thought about that.

And coming back home after being away from America for awhile I remember sitting in the Detroit airport just watching people go by, watching Americans go by, of every shape, size, background and color, and realizing what a magnificent, diverse country this is. So I had a much better sense of America. And the other, of course, that I was taught was… this was 1987 and we came home through China and our children were making lists of things they could do in America, like choose the school, choose the person they'd marry, choose the city they live in, choose the job they work in, that they couldn't do in China in 1987. And we rode the train from Moscow to Paris and in doing that crossed the Berlin Wall. And we saw the marching guards and the barbed wire and got a reminder of what freedom is. So living in Australia was a great lesson about the United States.
 

 


Building on that last comment on the Berlin Wall…[with the fall of communism] in 1990, for example, in Poland, there was just such excitement…[people were confronting questions such as] is there a third way, how are we going to deal with freedom? Another, way to look at it is the idea of the frontier, in Australia. Is there any way we can get a big picture going here in America. People just seem so blasé, and busy. Is there any way we can get a big picture going here in America or is that not possible? 

ALEXANDER: No, it is possible. The change of the century is a good time for that. There are certain times of our history when we step back and think about what does it mean to be an American--when the Pilgrims arrived, when we wrote the founding documents, when we fought our wars, when we shot for the moon, when we watched the Berlin Wall fall--we all stopped and thought more about what it meant to be an American. And that's one of the functions, mainly the main job of a president, is to lift us up and paint a picture of what our future is and what our country can be. I think Americans will be ready for that. We have new issues, new leaders and new century. It's a good time to think about the principles that unite us as a country and make us proud to be Americans.
 

 


Another significant thing you've done is President of the University of Tennessee [1988-91]. Did you like academia? 

ALEXANDER: Well I love the University of Tennessee; I'm not so well suited for the academic life. I was better at governor than I was a university president. In the university, the leadership job is more of a consensus-building job and you appoint a lot of committees and things take a long time. I was more effective as chairman of the board of the University of Tennessee when I was governor because I had control of the budget and I could move things my way more rapidly. So I'm better at setting an agenda, developing strategies, persuading people I'm right than I am at being a university president, although I'm very proud of the University of Tennessee and of the time I spent there.
 

 


You helped to start a business, Corporate Child Care. What were the biggest challenges of building that company from scratch? 

ALEXANDER: Well the first challenge was to figure out what business we were in. What's your niche? My wife and I and Captain Kangaroo--Brad Martin--and Marguerite Sallee founded this company in 1987. And it was to provide worksite childcare. That was the niche we finally settled in. We recognized that with larger numbers of parents, including moms, working away from home, that family work schedules were a mess, and that we needed a private sector solution to that, and that many employers might be over time providing help for parents who worked for them with their child care responsibilities.

So, number one was settling on the idea that we would only be in the business of helping employers provide childcare at the worksite for their employees. We didn't get into competition with Kindercare, for example, on a street corner childcare center that was open to everybody. Number two was raising the capital. Brad Martin and I loaned $200,000 to start the corporation. Number three was recruiting the customers. And number four was being patient long enough to make a profit, which took us six or seven years to do. Now the company's been very successful. It's gone public; it's mergered with its major competitor. It operates 250 childcare centers at the worksite--well more than that--it operates childcare centers for 250 major corporations around America, including Citibank and Saturn and Boeing. It's been a big success.

Are there a lot of regulations? Does the federal government get into that at all? 

ALEXANDER: Well there are not a lot of federal regulations in this case. I used to joke and say to people I did what every governor ought to be sentenced to do: I started a company under the rules I set while I was in office. There are lots of state regulations which regulate how many infants or children per teacher there can be, and there are safety regulations.
 

 


Do you have a framework or a formula or a set of criteria or a bottom line for how you think about the role of government? 

ALEXANDER: Well one bottom line is if you can find it in the yellow pages, the government probably shouldn't be doing it. That government is not a very good manager, and if you can buy a service, for example a janitorial service, a cleanup service, from the private sector that's usually a better use of money. You get a better quality product and it often costs less. So that's a good framework.

A second principle would be, there are a great many things that state governments can do properly that the federal government has no business doing, or doing much of. For example, I think elementary and secondary education should be primarily a community and local as well as state responsibility, and that the federal government should be limited to giving money to parents in the form of scholarships which they then spend at schools that their children choose.

A third limit is, we should limit the size of government generally. That this is a country whose central organizing principle is freedom. A government that is too large restricts our freedom too much. For example, I believe our level of taxation today is too high and I favor giving more of the money--allowing us to keep more of what we earn as a way of limiting the size of government.
 

 


If you do decide to run this time, it would seem that you're running from a position of weakness. You've been running for president for the past five years; you haven't held elective office for over a decade. How do you respond to that type of criticism? 

ALEXANDER: Well a great many of our best presidents have been unemployed former governors.

Do you have some one in mind? 

ALEXANDER: Well Governor Reagan, for example.

I think I'm running from a position of pretty considerable strength. I mean the way you win a presidential race is to have the strongest message and the most experience among the candidates running. I believe I'll have the broadest and best experience, and I hope to show the American people that I understand the country well enough to bring out the best in it. 

Number two, because of my experience, I'll be one of two or three Republicans who are able to raise enough money to run for president. 

Three, any Republican who wins the nomination will have to do very well in Iowa and New Hampshire. While I did well last time, and came within two or three percentage points of actually beating Senator Dole in New Hampshire in the first primary, I start off with a great many advantages this time, including the support of the governor of Iowa, Governor Branstad. 

No Republican since President Eisenhower has been elected president the first time he ran. Ronald Reagan ran two and a half times. George Bush and Richard Nixon ran more than once. So if someone wins this time who has never run before it'll make a little history.
 

 


You've been described as the "easy listening" candidate [by Charlie Cook]. What does that mean to you? 

ALEXANDER: I don't know. But it may be about what the country's ready for by the year 2000 after all we've been through. I think the country's ready for finding the good in America and praising it. They're ready for a campaign and a presidency that unites our country. They're ready for a president who's willing by his words and deeds in an age of responsibility, to follow up the struggle for freedom that we've had in this past century. And I think we'll be looking for a president who is likely to behave himself while he's in office. So after the tumult of a Clinton presidency, maybe an easy listening candidacy will be just what America is ready for.

 

Copyright 1998 Eric M. Appleman/Democracy in Action
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