A favorite parlor game in Washington is counting Republican senators who might vote to remove President Trump from office. On everybody’s list until last week was Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander, former governor, former university president, secretary of education in the first Bush administration — the epitome of an Establishment Republican who’s not running for reelection in 2020.
Alexander had been one of nine holdouts who refused to sign onto a resolution sponsored by Republican Lindsey Graham to condemn the House’s “closed-door” impeachment inquiry. Then he folded last week, a Big Get for the anti-impeachers that gave those who once admired him another reason to wonder what happened to the Lamar they knew, the Lamar who reminded them of Howard Baker, the Tennessee Republican who’d put country over party in the Watergate hearings.
“He’s the only Republican I ever voted for,” says Roy Neel, a Tennessean and longtime chief of staff to Al Gore, another native son. “He was a good governor, a moderate governor. You could count on him doing the right thing for the state. He brought people together, he had good staff, and he reflected Tennessee then, a moderate, swing state. He was heir to Howard Baker’s legacy. Somewhere along the way he parked his integrity.”
As Tennessee got redder, so did Alexander. He announced late last year that he wouldn’t run for reelection in 2020, so he had the political maneuvering room to stick with the three remaining holdouts to the Graham Resolution: Mitt Romney, Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski.
Why he bolted is “a big mystery to me,” says Neel. “The resolution doesn’t mean anything. It’s not going to change any minds. It’s a show of McConnell’s strength as a leader.”
The resolution may not even come to a vote, and it wouldn’t pass in the Senate anyway because it couldn’t meet the threshold of 60 votes. With Speaker Pelosi bringing the impeachment vote to the floor to initiate the next phase of open hearings, the Graham Resolution looks even more hapless.
Neel speculates that McConnell has gotten to Alexander, perhaps pointing out that if he’s thinking about a cushy position in a second Trump administration, he’d better toe the line. “Unless he wants to go home and grow tomatoes, he’d better get on board and join the anti-impeachment crowd.”
For those who remember the Alexander of his youth and middle age, the 79-year-old senator is a major disappointment. Neel recalls that Alexander was editor of the Vanderbilt student newspaper, The Hustler, and wrote an editorial in 1961 or ‘62 calling on the university to integrate the student body, not a popular position at the time. “I had admired him,” Neel told the Daily Beast.
As a reporter for Newsweek, I covered Alexander’s nascent presidential campaign in 1996, when his campaign slogan was LAMAR! An accomplished musician, he played the piano, country music, at campaign stops and he wore the red-and-black plaid shirt that had become his trademark running for governor. He dropped out before Super Tuesday, later saying, “I’m afraid that many people remembered my plaid shirt more than they did my message.”
His message: “Cut their pay and send them home.” He wanted to cut the salary of lawmakers in half and have them spend summers back home at real jobs. Republican strategist Bill Kristol was quoted at the time saying “Lamar would like to be kind of a kinder, gentler, saner Perot.”
In 2006, a newly discovered species of a hexapod, a six-legged kind of insect known as “springtail” that was found in Great Smoky Mountains National Park was named “cosberella lamaralexanderi” in honor of Alexander because of his support for scientific research funding in the park—and because its patterning resembled his plaid shirt.
I imagine that honor means a lot to the Alexander I thought I knew, and maybe we shouldn’t overthink his apostasy on the anti-impeachment resolution, says Peter Montgomery, a senior fellow at People for the American Way, who studies right-wing movements.
He sees Alexander as “a stark example of the completeness with which Trump demands and gets loyalty from congressional Republicans, and McConnell demands and gets rubber-stamp treatment from GOP senators. It could also be as a lifelong Republican, he doesn’t want to end his career hated by the Republicans, and the Republican Party right now is Trump’s party.”