Sunday column: For an old politician, Alexander is doing OK

In the decades that I’ve paid attention to Tennessee politics, things have pretty much turned upside down insofar as the partisan alignment is concerned and, for that matter, insofar as the specific people involved are concerned — except, of course, Lamar Alexander and John Jay Hooker.

And maybe they’ve changed somewhat, too.

Personal disclosure note: I was paying attention back in 1970, the year I graduated from the University of Tennessee, having worked while in college for United Press International in its Knoxville bureau after a working-student stint on the News-Sentinel’s copy desk before that. My attention was diverted somewhat by being drafted into the U.S. Army late that year.

In 1970, Hooker was the Democratic nominee for governor, and Alexander left his job in the Nixon White House to return to his home state and serve as campaign manager for Winfield Dunn, a politically-unknown Memphis dentist who was the Republican nominee for governor. Dunn won.

Today, Dunn, 87, is retired from politics, except for serving as a gentlemanly senior statesman of sorts. Hooker, 84, is not retired from politics. He has run for office repeatedly since 1970, winning the Democratic nomination for governor for a second time in 1998, and he’s running for governor again this year, this time as an Independent.

And, curiously, Hooker, accurately labeled a liberal on many social issues, has become almost a folk hero for some of the state’s most politically conservative citizens as he crusades on the subject of picking the state’s top judges. He’s also derided as a “gadfly,” or worse, by many others on a bipartisan basis.

Alexander, 74, is still a star. Last week, he vanquished Republican challengers to clear a major obstacle in the path toward a third term in the U.S. Senate. He’s run about as many times as Hooker, but has been winning.

Yes, there was that first gubernatorial campaign in 1974 and a couple of tries for the presidency of the United States that flopped. And he found time in his post-governor, pre-senator era to do some time in appointive positions as U.S. education secretary and president of the University of Tennessee.

As Alexander likes to say in a stock stump speech, “I think I understand Tennesseans pretty well.” He obviously does, even though the electorate has changed in party leanings over his long career. Once upon a time, Republican primaries were more or less popularity contests. Now, as his primary campaign illustrates, they tend to be ideological struggles between the GOP mainstream and its right wing.

Alexander has adapted, proclaiming himself conservative and uttering the appropriate primary phrases, never taking a substantive position on anything controversial unless forced to do so — say, for example, last year’s vote on immigration reform legislation.

Once, when he was running for president, he referred to a fellow named George W. Bush as using “weasel words.” A theme for him in that campaign, referencing Congress, was “cut their pay and send them home.”

You didn’t hear any such thing from the senior-edition Alexander this summer. In fact, you never heard him mention an opponent’s name. He will try hard to avoid mentioning the Democratic nominee’s name this fall. But if Lamar has to adapt, he will.

The Alexander ideal is to sympathize with the political trend of the moment and make Tennesseans feel good about themselves. Another line from his current stump speech declares that Tennesseans are special.

“We’re not Kentucky, and we’re not South Carolina,” he said last week in Knoxville, adding: “This election is about tomorrow, and it’s about the future.”

Well, South Carolina had Strom Thurmond, who served 48 years in the U.S. Senate — switching parties along the way — and left the year Alexander arrived as he approached his 100th birthday.

Kentucky has Mitch McConnell, who vanquished his tea party challenger this year just as Alexander has done. But it appears the Senate minority leader is facing at least a fairly formidable Democratic opponent.

Looking to the future, is Alexander right or will we maybe be like Kentucky and actually have some general election competition? If not, there’s always John Jay Hooker, the man who gave Alexander his first political triumph by losing to Winfield Dunn.