TOPICS > Politics

Interview with Lamar Alexander

November 9, 1995 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: Lamar Alexander is the former Education Secretary from Tennessee who now wants to abolish the cabinet department he once led. He was born 55 years ago in Maryville, Tennessee. He graduated from Vanderbilt University in 1962, and then received his law degree from New York University. In 1967, he joined Tennessee Senator Howard Baker’s Washington staff for two years, then moved to the Nixon White House Office of Congressional Relations. In 1970, Alexander returned to Tennessee to practice law. Four years later, he ran for governor but lost. In 1978, Alexander was elected governor and served for two terms. He then became president of the University of Tennessee and co- founded a corporate child care company with his wife. In 1991, he went back to Washington for two years as President George Bush’s Secretary of Education. I talked with him in Nashville on Monday, before Colin Powell dropped out of the Republican race.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Governor, thanks for being with us. You’ve lived in Washington. You now call Washington obnoxious and irrelevant. Why do you want to go there as President?

LAMAR ALEXANDER, Republican Presidential Candidate: Well, I want to–I want to persuade this country we need less of Washington and more of ourselves. I love Washington, D.C., I love this country, but I think over the last hundred years we’ve built up would I call an arrogant empire, people who think the rest of us are too stupid to make our own decisions. We’ve begun to solve a lot of problems there that we can’t solve there. Primarily, we need to change 100 years of thinking, where we try to extend the promise of American life by moving things to Washington, and let’s move it the other way, less of Washington, more from ourselves.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, now, what you’re saying sounds a lot like what the Republicans who are running Congress are already saying. Are you saying you go farther than they are?

LAMAR ALEXANDER: Yes, I would in some ways. They–their welfare bill, for example, has 800 pages of Republican rules. It defines work for us here in Tennessee. It tells us what to do about teenage girls having babies as if we didn’t know what to do. If I were there, I’d hand it right back to Sen. Dole and Speaker Gingrich and say, look, they sent us here not to replace their arrogant empire with ours, but to move it out of here, send it home. I think, I think we need a Republican President from the real world to remind ourselves sometimes of what we need to do.

MARGARET WARNER: Overall objective as President would be to send a lot of programs back to the states. What is left for a President to do? You spoke in general terms. Give me an idea of the three things you first do to becoming President.

LAMAR ALEXANDER: The first thing I’d do is to check to make sure the budget would be balanced, and then I wouldn’t count that, because I don’t think–I don’t think Presidents should get an award for balancing the budget any more than a boy scout should get a merit badge for telling the truth. So after I checked to make sure that the budget was balanced, it would be to create an environment for job growth, steady stream of good, new jobs. Second would be to give us more freedom from Washington to make our own decisions; move most of law enforcement, all of elementary and secondary education, all of welfare, most job training, out of Washington. And third, would be telling the truth about personal responsibility, saying to us in this country that there are some things that the President can’t fix and we must do those ourselves.

MARGARET WARNER: It sounds like what you’re saying the only active role–and I take what you mean about the bully pulpit, the third point–but the only active thing you think a President is there to do is create an environment for job growth, is that right?

LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, there are other things to do, strong America. There’s plenty for a commander-in-chief to do. That’ll take half, half the time. Help our schools be as good as our colleges, and balance the budget, as I mentioned. But I think it’s active not just to grow jobs but to move decisions out of Washington. In order to persuade even a Republican Congress to end Washington, D.C.’s participation in welfare would take a huge effort by the next President. I mean, all we’ve gotten so far is 800 pages of Republican rules to replace those, those Democratic.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, you’ve been a governor. Do you think all the states are ready for all of these responsibilities?

LAMAR ALEXANDER: The answer is yes to that. Some are more ready than others, but the states will compete. I remember going to governors’ conferences. We didn’t compete to see who could have the worst roads and the worst schools and the highest infant mortality rate. We competed to see who would have the best roads and the best schools and the lowest infant mortality rate.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you think that something has happened to the culture of state governments, people who run states, now, as compared to say in the 60’s, when, in effect, the federal government felt it had to step in because schools were segregated and terrible for young black students? There was no decent infrastructure. The environment was a mess in all of these states. I mean, what’s happened in the last 30 years that makes you think state governments are now really ready to step up to all these responsibilities?

LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, one thing is state governments are stronger. The second thing is that in all of our enthusiasm to solve more from Washington, we’ve put too much up there. And the third thing is we’re in a different world. We’re in the computer age. Everybody is getting rid of central decision-making. If I walk into the largest women’s hospital in Detroit and 30 percent of the babies are born already exposed to cocaine because their mothers are, which is the case, we’re not going to solve that in Washington. That’s a matter of personal responsibility. And the only way we can deal with these issues is less from Washington and more from ourselves.

MARGARET WARNER: You’ve made a great point of the fact that you are not a Washington insider. You have had three different Washington jobs. You were governor of the state of Tennessee in-between those jobs. Do you think that’s stretching your resume a little bit to call yourself “an outsider?”

LAMAR ALEXANDER: No. I’m telling the truth when I say I’m not one of them. I’m not a Washington insider. I’ve been there for five years. I’m very proud of that. I worked for two Presidents, and I think that makes sure that if I go back, I won’t get skinned. And you might say I’ve been there long enough to get vaccinated but not infected. But I came home, and my background is outside Washington. I live in Nashville. I’ve been a governor, a university professor. I’ve helped to start a business that has 1200 employees.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay. But three of the last four Presidents the American people have elected have, in fact, been outsiders, former governors like yourself, President Carter, President Reagan, and then President Clinton, and, I mean, that, by your own admission, that didn’t change the culture of Washington much. What makes an outsider any–really different from an insider in terms of what they can accomplish?

LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, first, we have a Republican Congress. Second, we have a country that’s ready for it. And third, I don’t think anybody thinks that Sen. Dole, for example, who’s been there since 1960, is going to change Washington, D.C.; he’s king of Washington, D.C.. He’s not going to change it. He’s the best chief legislator we’ve got in the Senate, but we’re not electing a chief legislator.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, when you came back here to run for governor, you railed against Washington at the time, and then about ten or eleven years later, when President Bush asked you to be Secretary of Education, you went back. Why?

LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, I was taught, and I think it’s good–a good lesson that if the President of the United States asks you to do something personally, you ought to do it. Plus, education is the most important thing in our future, I believe, and I thought the President was determined to try to change our schools. And what I did when I got there was try to move decisions out of Washington, to give parents more choices with schools.

MARGARET WARNER: You call now for the abolishment of the Department of Education. By your own admission, you did not, when you came to Washington to be Secretary of Education, say to the President, hey, you ought to abolish this job.

LAMAR ALEXANDER: No, I didn’t. I mean, we couldn’t even get the Democratic Congress to give a thousand poor kids a chance to go to a good school. I went in 1981, when I was governor, to President Reagan, I and a couple of other governors, and asked him if he would get Washington totally out of elementary and secondary education, and abolish the department, give it all to us, because we felt like we could do more without Washington standing all over us, and he agreed with that, couldn’t get it done. It would have been a waste of time for President Bush to try to do it.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask you about another issue that seems to be occupying a lot of your rivals and your party, and that has to do with the influence of social conservatives and the Christian right in the party. Sen. Specter and others are saying there’s too much influence. Where do you stand on this whole issue?

LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, I stand where I stand. What I’ve learned to do is to say what I believe. Where do I want the country to go? Talk about job growth and more freedom from Washington and personal responsibility and make sure I say the same thing at the Christian Coalition meeting that I say at some other meeting. The Christian Coalition doesn’t scare me, doesn’t bother me, doesn’t concern me. I like having their energy in our party. The main interest of most members of the Christian Coalition is the breakdown of the family. I think that’s our biggest problem, and if the whole country was as concerned and active in issues of the family as members of the Christian Coalition are, we’d probably be better off as a country.

MARGARET WARNER: And do you support, for instance, the Contract with the American Family that the Christian Coalition is asking the Republican Congress to pass now?

LAMAR ALEXANDER: Some of it I do. I have my own agenda. I try not to adopt other agendas. Some I do, some I don’t.

MARGARET WARNER: Carol Long from the National Right to Life Committee has said, though you call yourself pro-life, she and others can’t figure out really where you are on abortion. What is your position on abortion, and what would you promote as President on the abortion issue?

LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, my belief is this: 1.5 million abortions is a tragic number in this country. I think it is wrong. And I consider myself pro-life. I believe states have the right to restrict abortion, and that the government in Washington should stay entirely out of it. I don’t think federal laws reduce the number of abortions or reduce the number of guns in schools or help children get educated. I think we need less of Washington and more from ourselves.

MARGARET WARNER: So do you support, for instance, a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe V. Wade?

LAMAR ALEXANDER: I do not, because I do not think Congress should take its time trying to persuade this country, which it won’t do for the foreseeable future, to overturn that law by constitutional amendment. I think, instead, the pro-life effort should be on state restrictions and on persuading us and our own families and our own neighborhoods to reduce the number of abortions.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, let me ask you a bit about the campaign. You have been fairly successful in raising money. You’ve also spent, I think, $8 million, more than anyone except Sen. Dole or Sen. Gramm. Are you where you hoped to be in terms of voter response at this point?

LAMAR ALEXANDER: Well, of course, I’d like to have more, but for a candidate from outside Washington, I’m right on track. Where people know me, which is in Tennessee and in the first three contests, Florida convention, the Iowa caucus, the New Hampshire primary, I’m moving up very rapidly. What I’m finding is that as people look at Sen. Dole and the other Senators, they may respect them as a Senator, but they don’t think of them as having the vision to be the first President of the next century, which is what we’re electing. So we paid for all of our campaign for ’95. We’ve raised enough money to do that. We’ll have several million in the bank on the beginning of ’96. I think the race will come down to Sen. Dole and me. That’s not a bad choice for our party, or for our country. We’re just very different.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, thank you, Governor. Thanks very much.


MARGARET WARNER: Lamar Alexander told me today that Colin Powell’s decision not to run for President “will be a big break for me.”