Lamar Alexander talks politics, traveling and fashion

Lamar Alexander has worn many hats in his lifetime.

He has served as governor, president of a university and U.S. cabinet secretary, written seven books, played the piano in the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville and run for President in 1996.

It is, however, Alexander’s choice of shirts — rather than his many hats — that has been a constant with him and his supporters over the years.

His trademark red-and-black plaid shirt, a visual fixture of the early days of the 1996 U.S. presidential primaries, was first worn in his campaign for governor of Tennessee in 1978.

During this campaign, according to his latest work “Lamar Alexander’s Little Plaid Book,” he walked 1,000 miles in six months through Tennessee to meet and greet voters.

During the New Hampshire primaries in 1996, Alexander told The Dartmouth he walked “from Concord to the sea” in a red and black plaid shirt.

“It’s my way of meeting people,” he said in an interview with The Dartmouth yesterday.

Alexander’s grass-roots method of campaigning earned him considerable success. After beginning the primary as “an insurgent candidate,” as he put it, Alexander finished in third place behind front-runner Pat Buchanan and eventual nominee Senator Bob Dole.

“I chased a well-known, well-respected candidate named Dole, and I got him,” Alexander said.

In the beginning

Alexander’s interest in things political goes back to his college days at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. There he was editor of the Vanderbilt Hustler, which flourished under the university’s free press policy.

In addition, Alexander said he was told that any profits the paper made from ad sales could be kept by the student staff.

When the first eight-page newspaper came out with seven and a half pages of advertising, the president of Vanderbilt called Alexander and the Hustler’s business manager into his office and explained to them the responsibilities which accompanied the right of free press.

Even though the ads-to-news ratio decreased, Alexander said he was still able to help pay for his education with the profits.

Alexander became involved in politics in 1966 when he volunteered to work in Howard Baker’s U.S. Senate campaign. Getting involved in the campaign took some effort.

Alexander said he wrote a letter to Baker offering his services in the campaign. Baker never wrote back, so Alexander went to see him in person. Alexander ended up going with Baker to Washington, D.C. as his legislative assistant, a position he kept for three years.

“I’ve stayed in politics ever since,” he said.

Primary colors

Alexander was governor of Tennessee from 1979 until 1987. After this, he served as president of the University of Tennessee before joining President George Bush’s cabinet as Secretary of Education.

Today, Alexander is vice chairman of CorporateFamily Solutions, Inc., and co-director of Empower America.

CorporateFamily Solutions, which he co-founded, “manages worksite child-development centers and schools in 27 states,” according to the “Little Plaid Book.” Empower America is a conservative advocacy organization.

With the country’s eyes already turning to the 2000 elections and the many candidates in the running for both the Republican and Democratic nominations for President, Alexander said he sees this as a time to redefine America.

“At the turn of the century, it’s a good time to challenge our country to be its best, and that means challenging its leaders,” Alexander said.

Alexander might rejoin the group of candidates for the nation’s highest office in two years.

“I might very well run for President in 2000,” he said.

Alexander has strong opinions on the present state of the country, including recent allegations against President Bill Clinton and other government officials.

“We should hold our elected officials to the highest standard,” Alexander said. “The President’s conduct does make a difference, in my opinion.”

As for the nation as a whole, Alexander said he sees a need for serious change.

“We have an exceptional amount of peace and prosperity, for which we should be grateful,” he said, “but we can’t build a strong future on what we have.”

Alexander said he thinks our national defense should not be “withering away” as it is now. He said he sees a need for a stronger intelligence structure for dealing with terrorism.

Also, he said, the country needs a new tax system and needs to give young people control over their retirement savings instead of the present Social Security system.

The greatest crisis facing the country, according to Alexander, is the new “misery index” that rises from poor schools, drug use and absent parents.

“Twenty-five percent of high school seniors can barely read, and 26 percent use illegal drugs once a month,” he said. “Thirty-two percent of babies are born outside of marriage.”

The country, Alexander said, needs to apply serious effort to creating the best schools, controlling drugs and challenging parents to be more responsible for their children.

The country needs to “work on it, no holds barred,” he said, “just as we did in beating communism and balancing the budget.”

Learning lessons

When asked for suggestions on how students can become involved in politics, Alexander plugged his new book.

“The ‘Little Plaid Book’ contains instructions on how to run for office, be it President of the United States or president of your senior class,” he said.

Alexander went on to say that since there is no school for politics, political hopefuls must find someone they respect and “watch them to learn how they do things.”

He used his work with Baker in the Senate and Bryce Harlow in the White House as examples, since they were both “men of the highest integrity” from whom he learned.

Alexander said students should find some candidate for Congress, President or even the local school board to work with and learn from. He added that students at Dartmouth have a good chance to get solidly into the world of politics since the first Presidential primary is in New Hampshire.

“It’s a wide open election in the year 2000,” he said. “Dartmouth students can vote for the candidates if they want to.”

New politicians must also prepare for the “humbling experience” of the campaign world, Alexander said. He recounted the Presidential campaign of Congressman Mo Udall, whose name was a source of humor among voters.

Alexander was at the College for a day and a half this week. In addition to a speech sponsored by the Rockefeller Center Monday night, he had dinner and breakfast with several students, and participated in Education Professor John Sipple’s education policy class.

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