You may have noticed Tennessee’s senior member of the U.S. Senate played a very prominent role in many of President Barack Obama’s inaugural activities last month. That’s because Sen. Lamar Alexander was the ranking member on the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugurations.
You’ve also probably read or heard some pundits question why the Republican would play such a visible part in Obama’s special day. Writing for breitbart.com, Michael Patrick Leahy said Alexander’s “high-profile role in President Obama’s second inaugural ceremony was an odd choice for the incumbent senator from Tennessee, whose increasingly moderate and left-wing positions have raised the likelihood that he will face a conservative primary challenger as he seeks re-election to the Senate in 2014.”
Maybe it would seem odd to someone who places political partisanship ahead of the Constitution and the orderly transition of power, but not for a senator who respects history and tradition. In fact, Alexander was following in the footsteps of other senators of this great state who have represented Tennessee honorably on the national stage.
To get an idea of what I’m talking about, I would suggest you read former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist’s very informative 1999 book, “Tennessee Senators, 1911-2001: Portraits of Leadership in a Century of Change.” In this book, Frist (who would take the national stage himself as Senate majority leader during former President George W. Bush’s administration) chronicles the extraordinary service of senators from this state.
Among them is Cordell Hull, a Democrat, who would later become the longest-serving secretary of state in this nation’s history and a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Peace. Hull, I’m afraid, doesn’t always get the mention or respect today in Tennessee that he deserves. Perhaps it’s because he is considered the father of the federal income tax, or maybe it’s because he championed the creation of the United Nations.
Regardless, Hull was a Tennessean who dominated the national stage for more than 30 years. The same was true for another Democrat from this state, Sen. Estes Kefauver. This is a politician who made national headlines for heading a congressional committee investigating organized crime. Twice unsuccessful in bids to be his party’s nominee for president, Kefauver was tapped by the Democratic National Convention in 1956 to be the running mate of presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson.
Then there is Howard Baker Jr., the Republican senator from Tennessee whose statesmanship and political acumen is still praised today by Republicans and Democrats alike. Baker played a key role in the Senate Watergate Committee’s nationally televised hearings. He also served as majority leader of the Senate before becoming President Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff.
More recently, it was former Vice President Albert Gore Jr. who was the Tennessean on the national stage. Gore followed in his father’s footsteps as a member of the Senate, and would later make headlines while serving as former President Bill Clinton’s vice president and for being declared the loser (by the U.S. Supreme Court) of one of the most extraordinary races for president in this nation’s history.
Like Hull, Gore would later win a Nobel Prize. He would also become the first former senator from Tennessee to win an Oscar.
We could soon see our state’s current junior Republican senator play an even greater role on the national stage. Sen. Bob Corker is now the ranking minority member of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee. With the turmoil in places like Iran, Syria and North Korea, it’s certain Corker will be making headlines in Washington.
So, it doesn’t surprise me that Alexander was happy to take the stage with Obama at an inaugural ceremony. Alexander — who served two terms as governor, served as secretary of education under former President George H.W. Bush and sought his party’s nomination for president — understands the importance of showmanship, as well as statesmanship. He also knows that it’s easy to talk about bipartisanship, but it’s becoming much more difficult to put it into practice.
Perhaps that’s why Alexander stepped down from his Republican leadership job in the Senate last year. The senator said it would free him to pursue issues (such as energy, education and health care) that his positions often differ from those of some of his Republican brethren.
His critics may be correct that his record in the Senate will invite him a challenger in the Republican primary next year, but I can’t imagine a man who has spent as many years in politics as Alexander has will spend too many sleepless nights fretting about it.
Robert Houk is Opinion page editor for the Johnson City Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.