With his signature red-and-black plaid shirt, Lamar Alexander may have made the presidential campaign season’s only fashion statement. Contrary to appearances, though, Alexander is hardly the common-touch outsider that his working-class flannel proclaims. Indeed, the Tennessee native was a legislative aide at 27 to Senate Majority Leader Howard Baker Jr., a low-level member of the Nixon Administration and Secretary of Education under President Bush in 1991-92. And though he spent 13 of the past 17 years as a public servant, his family fortune has grown from $151,000 to more than $3 million, much of it earned through savvy deals with friends in the corporate world. “It may be legal, it may be moral, but it’s not an outsider’s success by any stretch of the imagination,” says Lloyd Daugherty of the Tennessee Conservative Union.
Alexander, 55, emerged from the bottom half of the GOP pack in the crucial Feb. 20 primary in New Hampshire, running a solid third behind right-wing commentator Pat Buchanan and elder statesman Kansas Sen. Bob Dole. With no clear front-runner coming out of the Feb. 27 contests and primaries approaching in key states near Alexander’s Tennessee base, Republicans—including twentysomething voters—are taking a serious look at the two-term governor. Larry Kidwell, national chairman of the Young Republicans, says Alexander is appealing because he projects a positive image of the future.
However complex his resume and financial profile, Alexander’s roots are unassailably modest. He was born in tiny Maryville, Tenn., not far from Knoxville, the first of three children of Andrew Alexander, an elementary school principal, and wife Florence, who ran a kindergarten in their converted garage. He was the proud owner of a library card at age 3, began piano lessons at 4 and “got drug [sic] to [Presbyterian] church three times a week whether I liked it or not,” he says. He once envisioned a career in music, but “I didn’t want a career as a pianist because they travel all the time,” he now says with a laugh.
An accomplished student, Alexander graduated magna cum laude from Vanderbilt University in 1962 with a degree in Latin American history, then earned a law degree from New York University in 1965. The following year, after clerking for a federal judge in Louisiana, he returned to Tennessee to manage Baker’s successful 1966 Senate race and was rewarded with a job in Washington. During a softball game between Baker’s staff and aides to Texas Republican Sen. John Tower, Alexander met his future wife, Texan Leslee “Honey” Kathryn Buhler, now 50. “Lamar says he noticed me when I slid into first base,” says Honey. The couple have four children: Andrew, 26, an employee at Curb Records (a country label); Leslee, 23, a writer for the environmental Conservation Fund; Kathryn, 21, a senior at Brown University; and William, 16, a student at Montgomery Bell Academy.
Alexander’s first try for public office, a 1974 run for the governor’s mansion in Nashville, coincided with furor over the Watergate scandal. As a former Nixon staffer campaigning in a blue suit, Alexander lost big, but he learned a valuable lesson. Four years later, donning a red plaid shirt and walking 1,000 miles across the Volunteer state, he won. “The shirt shows that the campaign is not all blue suits, airplanes and Secret Service,” he said.
While earning praise for balancing the state budget, reforming its schools and wooing car manufacturers who brought high-paying jobs, he also earned a reputation as a businessman whose connections paid off. His $1 option to buy the Knoxville Journal newspaper in 1981 with Baker and others turned into $620,000 five years later when Alexander and his partners were bought out by the Gannett Company. While president of the University of Tennessee from 1988 to 1991, he transferred his share of an inn to Honey, then recommended its use for $64,000 in university functions. “I plead guilty to being a capitalist,” said Alexander, whose financial dealings were reviewed and cleared by the U.S. Senate before he became Secretary of Education.
During his terms as governor, the long hours took a toll on his home life. “I went through all the motions of trying to be a good father,” he says, but his “heart sank” when he read a high school essay by daughter Leslee, comparing him to “an egret, standing on one leg and viewing the world. Although powerful in government, he is withdrawn in family life.” Shortly after leaving office in 1987, at Honey’s insistence, Alexander packed up the family and moved to Australia for six months. Their reunification was, he says, “the most important thing I’ve ever done.”
That is, until he declared for the Presidency. Cushioned by a $295,000 retainer from Baker’s Tennessee-based law firm, Alexander began laying the groundwork for a run in 1993. And despite his moderate background, he is flogging some unusual notions, vowing to establish a fifth branch of the military to patrol U.S. borders, to replace the federal welfare system with a network of local foundations and to eliminate his old Department of Education. The campaigner who never met a piano he didn’t like also understands “the vision thing.” “They used to say of Count Basie that he could sit down with the most disheveled group of musicians, tinkle a few keys on the piano, and they would start playing better than ever before,” he says. “That’s really what a good President does.”
GLENN GARELIK with the campaign and JENNIFER MENDELSOHN and LINDA KRAMER in Washington