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'A privilege': Lamar Alexander reflects on public life as he gets ready to leave Senate

The Maryville native and former Tennessee governor is closing out a third and final term in the U.S. Senate.

MARYVILLE, Tenn. — Aim for the top. There's more room there.

Lamar Alexander's grandfather gave him that advice. Over the course of his life, the 80-year-old Maryville native and Tennessee senator has shared it with others and tried to follow it himself.

He's served two terms as governor, run twice for president, been president of the University of Tennessee, overseen the nation's Department of Education and is now completing his third and final term as a Republican senator.

Alexander said he and his wife, Honey, plan to retire to their home near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park where he'll contemplate what happens next.

"I'd just like for people to know what a privilege it's been to do this," he told WBIR on Monday during an interview at his alma mater, Maryville High School.

"I really, really feel that, and I hope there are men and women of any age who aspire to be a United States senator or a city councilman -- or woman -- or school board member like my dad was for 25 years here. We still have a remarkable country and a remarkable system of government that most people in the world would love to have."

This month, Republican Bill Hagerty won election to replace Alexander.

PUBLIC LIFE

Relations in the Senate aren't as bad today as they may appear, Alexander thinks, but they're more divided than they should be. He first was elected to the body in 2002.

Republicans hold a 50-48 margin, but Georgia voters will take part in January in two runoff Senate elections, which could shift control to Democrats. Many Washington Democrats accuse Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of refusing to work in a bipartisan way.

A lot of things do get done, Alexander said, but the current age and climate makes it harder. The Senate is supposed to deliberate and talk and talk some more about the big issues and then come up with grand plans that are good for the nation as a whole.

"So, we should be doing more of that. But we're living in this internet democracy today. Abraham Lincoln, if he got mad, he'd write a hot letter and put it in the drawer. And then usually he wouldn't send it.

"Today if the president gets mad, he writes a hot tweet, sends it out and 72 million people read it and tweet their own tweet and that creates this environment making it very hard for you to work in the middle and getting a result."

Alexander's former colleague across the aisle, Joe Biden, has signaled he'll approach both Twitter and the White House differently when he takes over Jan. 20. Biden also is calling for unity over Donald Trump's "America First" approach.

Alexander, outgoing chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he counts several successes, including GOP-Democrat successes, during his 18 years on Capitol Hill.

One of the biggest fixed flaws in the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind legislation. Critics found the law overly punitive and overly regulating in efforts to boost standard achievements among children.

Alexander worked with Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington on the 2015 Every Child Achieves Act. 

Alexander cited the 21st Century Cures Act of 2016, which is meant to streamline medical product development and encourage innovations that more quickly help patients.

The Tennessean also is proud, after years of trying, in seeing Trump sign a bill this year that will send millions of dollars into the National Park System, including Great Smoky Mountains National Park, to cover a backlog of park maintenance.

And Alexander, a lifelong piano player, helped lead the charge on the Music Modernization Act of 2018. Musicians hail the law for creating a new licensing organization that'll ensure copyright holders get what they're due and that sets a new standard for how digital royalty rates are established for services like Spotify and Apple Music.

The one that got away: The senator said he was disappointed he couldn't get passed a bill he and Murray worked on that would have cut health care rates for Americans who aren't receiving Obamacare.

"It got stuck on the politics of abortion, and I couldn't get it passed," he said.

Alexander said mentor and Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker advised him back in 1969 to be sure and get to know a Louisville, Ky., man who was then a legislative assistant to Kentucky Sen. Marlow Cook.

That man was McConnell. Alexander said he counts McConnell as his closest GOP ally and friend in the Senate.

It was McConnell who, teasing, once introduced Alexander about 10 years ago at a Washington social club gathering by saying, “If you Google the word bland, Google prompts you with, Did you mean Lamar Alexander?’”

Alexander named Murray and Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California as the two Democrats he worked closest and best with.

With his public life coming to a close, it's worth noting Alexander's time as Tennessee governor, from 1979 to 1987. It's the political job he said best suited him.

His first term started with a hurried swearing-in Jan. 17, 1979, to head off a pardon spree-turned-scandal involving outgoing Democratic Gov. Ray Blanton.

Alexander ushered in the auto manufacturing era for the state. It remains a major component of the Tennessee economy. Alexander said he also counts promoting the rich vein of knowledge at the national laboratory in Oak Ridge as an accomplishment as well as working to boost family incomes in the state.

Tennessee leaders deserve credit for a philosophy of trying to ensure smooth governing regardless of which party leader is at the helm, he said.

Alexander wasn't yet 40 when he took over as governor amid Democrat Gov. Ray Blanton's pardon scandal. He credits Democratic lawmaker Ned McWherter, later governor himself, for setting the tone.

"The press said, Well, what are you going to do with this new young Republican governor? And (McWherter) said, I'm going to help him. Because if he succeeds, the state succeeds. And that's helped our state a lot.

"And it would help our country if the same sort of attitude prevailed."

WHAT'S NEXT

The Alexanders, who have four adult children, put up their Nashville area home for sale this fall. 

About 10 years ago, the couple gave some 500 boxes of materials from most of their public life before the Senate to Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where Alexander got a bachelor's degree.

They will focus on their home in Blount County near Blackberry Farm, not too far from the place where six generations of his people have lived and died.

It's the part of the world where he learned to be a leader, where he gained the values he holds today.

His father, Andrew L. Alexander, was an educator and served 25 years on the Maryville school board. His mother, Floreine, looked after preschoolers at their home.

When he was going to school in the 1940s and 1950s, neighbors and teachers watched out for children even if they weren't their own. They held them accountable.

Credit: WBIR
Lamar Alexander speaks Nov. 23 with WBIR at Maryville High School.

Alexander grew up a couple blocks away from Maryville High School, where he'd go on to be class president. He names teachers from that time who taught him lessons he tries to follow today.

He also cited his time as a Boy Scout for teaching him how to be a good person and do the right thing.

As for the future, he told WBIR he's open to options.

"I'm going to turn the page in a book that's been a very good book and see what's in the next chapter. I'm not sure what that will be," he said.

"I heard a newscaster once say about a basketball player that if he'd quit trying so hard and let the game come to him, he'd be a much better player. Maybe I'll quit trying so hard and let life come to me and see what happens."