Lamar! Conservative! Not!


The presidential race has begun in earnest, now that the formerly plaid candidate formerly known as Lamar! (in Mexico, Lamar!) has entered. The erstwhile (1979-87) Republican Governor of Tennessee and Bush Administration Education Secretary is back for the second race in what seems to have become a series. Sadly, the plaid shirt, his trademark since it helped elect him Governor in 1978, is banished to the closet. Now he is like everybody else, an exclamation point-less guy with a tie.

Confronted with a man who insists on being President of the United States, and who refuses to take no for an answer, one passes through stages of coping. First amusement, then pity, then annoyance, and finally a reluctant curiosity that shades into furtive admiration. What sort of man would do this? Surely he must have something to say, but what?

Just now, American presidential politics is richly endowed with writers. Pat Buchanan is a professional. Vice President Al Gore, we are not reassuringly assured, burned the midnight oil composing "Earth in the Balance." Bill Bradley wrote a basketball memoir and a political memoir. As it happens, Lamar Alexander is also a writer (at least four books), with a style as low-key and ingenuous as Buchanan's is fierce and cunning. Read the early works, and why he runs—and runs, and runs—turns out to be no mystery.

In 1986, he published "Steps Along the Way: A Governor's Scrapbook." Through its 160 pages of stories and boasts and reminiscences shines a true-blue baby-kissing do-gooding pol who loves, really loves, all the little things that make politics politics. He loves walking—always walk, never ride—in the Columbia, Tenn., Mule Day parade. He loves playing the piano along with the first student orchestra at the Governor's School for the Performing Arts, an orchestra that "was only an idea five years earlier." When his day goes haywire, he assures us, "Still I have used the schedule, despite all the interruptions, to try to focus on the activities that would move Tennessee ahead."

You chuckle. So do I. But one of the great pities of American life today is the cynicism with which we treat these people, the true-blue baby-kissing do-gooding pols. In the end, politicians who like politics, and who don't pretend to be above politics, are the only ones we can trust. Next to the creepy bloodlessness of Al Gore, Alexander's joy in politics is a tonic.

In 1987, newly out of office and casting about for something to do, Alexander moved his family to Australia for six months and then wrote a book about it. Rather unexpectedly, "Six Months Off: An American Family's Australian Adventure" is a charming book. "There is nothing worse than listening to a politician tell why he won an election," Alexander observes. Right you are, Lamar. Plus we learn how his young son Will went crazy for a day after eating a bottle of seasickness pills.

The later writings bring a change, subtle but darkening. Alexander becomes a presidential candidate and capital-C Conservative. In 1995, he publishes "We Know What to Do: A Political Maverick Talks With America." The candidate piles into a car (actually, a caravan) and drives around, meeting folks and recounting how the nation's real strength comes not from Washington but from the tough-love priest in Dallas who shelters the homeless ("No one is entitled to come into this shelter"), the police chief in Charleston who fights crime with common sense, the Cajun restaurateur in Louisiana whose pluck shows how America creates jobs. With the latter, Alexander records this conversation (slightly abridged):

"He eyed me suspiciously.

" 'Are you a conservative, or a medium? I won't even ask if you are a liberal.'

" 'A conservative,' I said. 'Not one of those Washington conservatives. I was a populist, conservative Tennessee governor.' "

There you have the presidential Lamar. In his latest works—a series of speeches he has given in the past few weeks to define himself—he adds a further element. Now he is America's scourge of bogus conservatism and "weasel words." He heaps scorn on George W. Bush's "compassionate conservatism" and Gore's "practical idealism": "They are words cleverly and deliberately put together to confuse people by meaning—nothing." He then rears up and declares:

"Let me state something for the record, Mr. Gore, plainly enough for you and your spin-meisters to understand. I am a Republican. I am an idealist. I am a conservative—and I am proud of it. None of these words require any modification to serve me either as a philosophy or as a political creed."

Personally, I support weasel words, because they give politicians room for compromise and equivocation. Alexander, being a politician, supports weasel words, too. What has changed is that he can no longer admit it.

On foreign policy, he speaks fluent Challenger-ese. That is, he complains about the incumbent's style (indecisive, ad hoc, reactive, etc.) and issues euphonic generalities (use "every means at our disposal" to nudge countries toward democracy, etc.); but he does not have any better ideas about the substance of the policy. This is not surprising, because if there were quick remedies for ulcers like Saddam Hussein or Slobodan Milosevic, they would have been applied long ago. And so he insists on "success strategies" rather than "exit strategies," and NATO should be expanded with "great care" while "rethinking" its role, and we can't ignore China but "there is no reason to get cozy with it either." We need to "say what we mean and mean what we say," except when we want to use "studied ambiguity."

These are not precisely weasel words; to be precise, they are pablum. Pablum, too, is essential in politics, because it lets politicians sound as if they have a plan when the real plan is to muddle through. Alexander is a master of the genre. He announces that he will "secure" Social Security, but he is careful not to say how. Meanwhile, he will cut taxes (triple the child exemption, end the marriage penalty, abolish the capital gains tax and the estate tax), and increase spending on defense and education. Nice, but "it can't come close to adding up," says William G. Gale, an economist at the Brookings Institution.

On education, which is one of his big selling points, Alexander feels strongly both ways. Free the public schools from burdensome federal regulations, he cries. Cut the federal education bureaucracy in half; stop trying to run schools from Washington. Meanwhile, use federal influence and money to end teacher tenure, to start merit pay, to provide $1 billion worth of $1,500 tuition "scholarships," and to substitute English tutorials for bilingual education. In one breath Alexander decries the Clinton Administration's educational "command and control" from Washington; in the next he promises to "lead a movement state by state to transform our schools."

It is instructive to compare that sort of talk with Barry Goldwater's two-word federal education plan from 1960: Stay out. "Federal aid to education is… an act of naked compulsion—a decision by the federal government to force the people of the states to spend more money than they choose to spend for this purpose voluntarily," said Goldwater. But conservatism was different back then. It was conservative.

Alexander fluently uses the conservative phrasebook (character, responsibility, cut regulation in half, etc.), but he succumbs to the modern expectation that a national politician, conservative or liberal, will have a national policy on everything. Alexander's Washington will lead the government and the culture to "honor once again the job of father and mother"; it will expand farm exports by subsidizing agribusiness advertising overseas; it will sponsor affirmative action "for everyone, always based on need, never based on race"; it will help local communities deal with problems such as traffic congestion; it will promote the use of ethanol rather than MBTE to oxygenate gasoline.

George Orwell said, in 1942, "All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy." In 1999, his observation is ripe for right-wing Americans. They disdain government and claim to oppose it, and all the while, they promise to use it in a thousand worthy ways.

This is not honest, but it is understandable. In the late 1990s, Bill Clinton's America, like Tony Blair's Great Britain, has reached a governing consensus broader than anything seen since the early 1960s, and the consensus is not conservative. Alexander is probably right to display himself as an exemplary conservative, but the conservatism he exemplifies, like Blair's reformed leftism, is no longer a program. It is a style of talking. It is less something you do than something you wear. Like, say, a plaid shirt.