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tv   Career of Sen. Lamar Alexander R-TN  CSPAN  December 23, 2020 6:30am-7:00am EST

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transition of power, news conferences and event coverage at retiring senator lamar alexander was interviewed about his time as a legislator on capitol hill, reflecting on his 18 years serving in the u.s. senate, and earlier as a governor of tennessee and the education secretary under president george h.w. bush. this is about 30 minutes. greta: senator lamar alexander, we are in the senate health, education and labor pensions committee room. you chaired this committee. why this committee? senator alexander: it has a third of the jurisdiction in the senate. so i lot comes through here. if you want to get rid of common core or fix no child left behind, this is where you come.
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if you want to get medical miracles into a doctor's office more rapidly, you come here. if there is an opioid crisis, here. big argument over labor, here. so a lot happens here. we've got 23 members of the senate, from elizabeth warren and bernie sanders to rand paul. so if we can get a consensus here, we think the country can live with it as well. greta: highlights of your chairmanship over the years? senator alexander: one emotional highlight was when i was sitting there and all 23 senators voted to report the bill fixing no child left behind. it may sound silly, but think about the elementary and secondary education. and everybody is an expert. it is like being in the university of tennessee football stadium with 100,000 people, all of whom played a little football, so they know what play to call. that is the way we are with everything from sexual orientation to common core, yet we were able to agree on a bill that the teachers union and
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governors association and state school officers all agreed. when we got that done here, that was a big moment. greta: it sounds very emotional. do you remember what you felt? senator alexander: i was working with patty murray. i first started out with a republican bill and she said, let's don't do it that way, let's write it together. senator baker used to say, the essence of being a good senator is to be an eloquent listener. so i listened to patty murray. we wrote it together. we had a lot we disagreed about, and we got it done. most people didn't think we could do it. the education secretary encouraged me to work on higher education and said that would be easier. and when i was done, i said the chances against this were probably five to one, and he said, i thought 10 to one. greta: any other interesting moments getting that past? -- passed?
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senator alexander: we had a republican house and president obama, and president obama called senator murray at the white house and said, there are two things i want in the bill. -- three things i want in the bill. i can, mr. president, give you two, but i cannot get the third one through the senate. i will have to do it in conference after the senate and house work on it, but i will not criticize the bill as we go through. i did what i said i would do and when he signed it in december 2015, he said you kept your word and i said, so did you. and i called it a christmas miracle. greta: is legislation made like that anymore? senator alexander: it is. that is 2015. 2016 was the 21st century cares. that was a bill, and i think two or three days. one example was on one of those days, i called joe biden who was
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vice president and i said, i am stuck at the white house. i have president obama's personalized medicine in the bill, i have your cancer moonshot, named after his son who died of cancer, i have senator mcconnell's medicine, and speaker ryan is figuring out how to pay for it. but i can't get the white house to move. i feel like a butler outside the oval office with a silver platter, and no one will open the door and take the order. and joe said, if you feel like a butler, try being vice president. [laughter] but again, we got that done and macconnell said it was the most important bill of that congress. that happened this year with the great america act that people -- outdoors act.
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people had been working on for 50 years on the land, water and conservation fund. it was first recommended in 1964. and maintenance in national parks and public lands, all of that. the songwriter's bill the year before, that was close to my heart. songwriters weren't getting paid for what they wrote because their songs were being played on the internet. in than the one that i have still not gotten done, which is simplifying the fafsa. you will think, that is not a big deal, but 20 million families have to fill out this 108-question questionnaire before you get your pell grant. and many students don't fill it -- it is so intimidating that many low income students do not fill it out, they do not go to college. senator maureen -- murray and i got half of it done last year and are trying to get the other half done before the end of this year.
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education such a passionate issue for you? senator alexander: because i grew up with it. my mother taught a preschool education program in a converted garage in our backyard in tennessee, right at the edge of the smoky mountains. she had 25 three-year-olds and four-year-olds in the morning and 25 five-year-olds in the afternoon. i got a head start. my dad was a school principal and was on the school board after he took another job for 25 years. so i grew up with parents who valued education. i got a good education. and when i became governor, i was in the third poorest state, tennessee, and i figured out better schools mean better jobs. so i spent a lot of my political capital on a better schools and colleges program. we became the first in the state to pay teachers more for teaching well, created chairs of excellence at our college, and
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that came a big part about we began to raise family income. that is why i got involved. greta: what other legacy moments can you think of from your term as governor? senator alexander: from governor? the biggest thing i was a part of as governor, and i don't like elected officials who take credit for everything that happens while they were alive, life doesn't work that way. you are usually on a team. now, a governor is more like moses, let's go this way. but as a senator, you are more like a party organizer where you -- parade organizer where you pick the route, recruit the drum majorick the and then march up the road. but my thing as governor was recruiting the auto industry. we had no auto industry in tennessee, but were a centrally-located state with a right to work law. every state north of us didn't have one.
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nissan was looking for a place to put its manufacturing plant, now largest in north america, and it came to tennessee. and general motors now put the largest plant in the world in tennessee. and today, suppliers have come -- and then we improve the roads, and today about 1000 suppliers have come to to tennessee. we have had a series of republican and democratic governors who worked together, handed off opportunities, and state's family incomes have gone straight up as a result of the arrival of the auto industry. greta: you said being a senator is like being parade -- being governor is like moses, a senator is like parade coordinator. what is it like being an education secretary? senator alexander: it depends on your president. i happened to have a really good george h w bush. one, his campaign manager said, he may have been the only person elected president because he was
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nice. but he was also modest, courageous, so he allowed me to develop what we called america 2000. when he called me to take the job i was president of the , university of tennessee and said, i have two questions. may i develop a plan to implement your education program subject to your approval? he said yes. and i said, can i build a team -- can i retune eight -- recruiting team to implement your team subject to your approval and he said yes. , that way, i was able to circumvent political operation from the white house and get whoever i wanted. i got the former head of xerox to be deputy education secretary. so president bush was great to work for because he gave me a lot of latitude. he delegated very well. he and barbara both participated in the things we were doing. greta: which role did you like best? senator alexander: governor. greta: you answered that
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quickly. senator alexander: you can see the results. if you recruit the nissan plant, it shows up. if you create a governor's school for teachers for writing, which i did, i can't talk with the teachers. -- i can talk with the teachers. and you have big road programs that you persuade the public and legislators to vote for the tax increase or you have zero debt, you can drive on the roads. so you can see the impact. that doesn't diminish other opportunities i've had. as a senator, i can work on your issues, fixing no child left behind affects 50 million children and 100,000 public schools. and this year, this remarkable vaccine development we have seen in our country. i think we take for granted that we are doing in eight months it usually takes eight years. a lot of work on our 21st century cures help with that.
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greta: who have been your political mentors over the years and why? senator alexander: my parents, to start with, who taught me to respect public service. my dad took me to the courthouse to meet our congressman when i was 10, and i thought i had probably met the most respected man i was ever likely to meet, other than my dad and the preacher. the three others were judge john wisdom a fifth , circuit court of appeal judge who ordered james meredith to be admitted to ole miss. i learned a lot from him. he had been a republican politician in louisiana. at one time, he carried a gun to go against huey long if necessary. i learned from him. two, howard baker, whose campaign i volunteered for in 1966. he taught me so much about being an eloquent listener.
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i heard his father-in-law, senator dirksen, say after his long speech on the senate floor, howard, occasionally you might enjoy the luxury of an unexpressed thought. that is good advice. and third, bryce harlow, who single-handedly gave lobbying a good name. he was president eisenhower's favorite staff member, in charge of congressional relations, president nixon's first appointee, and i was lucky to be executive assistant, really, aid, sitting there with -- with him listening to take phone calls from congressman and senators, and watching how he did it and how they reacted. so, they gave me a phd in government and politics, besides -- in politics. greta: given your last example, how did he impact you? i know you got to see him up close firsthand, but what advice
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did he give you? senator alexander: bryce harlow? number one was go home. in 1970. he always thought about going back home to oklahoma where he was from, and kept getting lured back to washington. he said, if you are ever going to go, go home. another was just how he conducted himself. here is an example. early in the nixon administration, business types in the white house were in terrible trouble here in the u.s. senate. nobody in the senate would talk to them because they wanted to be efficient, and there is nothing efficient about the senate. they went to see mr. harlow and i went with him and they were -- and there were a bunch of southern senators drinking bird been in the late afternoon and they knew him. he went down on one knee and said, i see before me 170 five accumulated of wisdom and experience.
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and they burst out laughing. and that was all it took. that just broke the ice. what i learned from that is, a gesture is very important in a body built on relationships. daddy -- body operates on relationships. for example i will go to the house of representatives and ask to see the house chairman as a gesture of respect. you cannot imagine how that helps. greta: you are well-liked on both sides of the aisle. what gestures have you made over the years to ensure you have friends on the democratic side? senator alexander: well, it is not because i am some good person. my goal here -- i see the senate's role as taking these big problems and ever country -- in our country, and forging some kind of solution.
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we going to fix no child left behind or solve the opioid crisis, and civil rights, earlier. a big solution that most of us can vote for, and the country can accept. to do that i need to get 60 votes to overcome a filibuster. to do that, i have to know democrats. i can count, i learned how to do that. ido it to get a result, but enjoy doing that. my wife has had about one third of our senators and their spouses down to our home. for the weekend. we have had the schumer's, mcconnell's, republicans and democrats. we do not talk politics. we talk about bears and lost hikers. but, if you know somebody, then you get to know them, and you might develop trust, and then you might find something that you both agree with, that is how it works, it is not that complicated. greta: who are your good friends
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from the democratic side. sen. alexander: i have a lot of them. that is like choosing among your children. the ones i work with the most are senator murray of washington state, and senator feinstein of california because they are the cement -- the senior democrats on the two committees i chair. they are tough cookies. senator murray's in the democratic leadership. is in the murray democratic leadership. however, if she and i get a deal, she has the credentials to sell it in her caucus. our attitude is that if she can get 30 and are -- in her caucus and i can get 30 and mine, and we have 60, we can probably get 80. greta: describe your friendship with mitch mcconnell. an. alexander: it goes back long ways. senator baker told me when i was working at the white house, he said you ought to get to know that smart young legislative
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assistant for the new kentucky and thatmarlo cook, was mitch mcconnell. we have been on parallel tracks and j -- in adjacent states over the past 50 years. we have not seen each other that much. he and his wife have stayed in our home, but we know and understand each other very well. and, so i do not surprise him as a senator. and, it is very helpful if you are trying to pass an important bill to know the majority leader because he is the only one who can put it on the floor. but he has told me is ring me a bipartisan bill that is good for the country, -- bring me a bipartisan bill that is good for the country and i will put it on the floor. we had -- he did that with the great american outdoors act. beensaid, people have
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trying to pass it for 50 years. he played on the floor in the middle of the pandemic in between an impeachment and an election, and we passed it. that relationship is important, not just because i enjoy it. we go out to dinner and have a good time, but, because it helps me do what i think i am supposed to be doing. feeling or were you thinking as you watched the majority leader give his farewell remarks to you. he became emotional. sen. alexander: what i was thinking is, part of the downside of politics is that you have so much incoming flak that you develop a shell, otherwise you would melt. and, if i get a lot of that, imagine what the majority leader gets every day, whether it is
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harry reid or whoever. het i was thinking was that does not have a a lot of opportunities to show his emotion. andas to have that shall, there he was. it showed a human side of him that i have seen before, and i was glad other people got to see it. greta: how have you served him over the years, with the friendship? in your friendship. sen. alexander: i have served him -- mitch is an institutionalist in the sense that he wants the place to work. now, he is political, he likes elections and judges, but he wants the senate as an institution to turn clara bettis unum.ribus into
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he wants the senate to be an institution so i have served him by serving up a series of legislation that are important to the country and have had bipartisan support so he can put it on the floor. i took in the songwriters act and i said i have 40 cosponsors. he said try to get 65. or you heard my story about 21st century cures, which would not have happened without him. i have served him in the senate and the country by giving him a steady stream of big bills that most of us could vote for. greta: you have seen a lot over your years, wars, impeachments, a pandemic. any votes that you have regret over as you depart? sen. alexander: yes. health --ainst the the horse slaughter bill. it sounds like a terrible thing to slaughter horses, but if you
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do not do it, they escape and run all over the country. that, and iagainst change my vote the next time it came up. greta: how did it come about that that is the vote that you remember? sen. alexander: because it was such a dumb thing to do. but, if you hear about it, you do not want to be a horse killer , so i voted no, i am not for that. and then i thought about it, what do you do with horses? we slaughter pigs and cows, and other things. and so, that is a disagreeable topic and i realized i made a mistake. greta: you are also a classic pianist. when do you play? sen. alexander: not as much as i like. i have a seven foot steinway in my home in east tennessee, and a nine foot steinway in my home in nashville. we are selling the nashville
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home and i will put that big one up in the mountains, and when i come back i will play every day. i have not been able to play much, i do not have a piano in washington. greta: how did that come about? sen. alexander: i had quite a mother. pianook me to classical experimental lessons when i was four at maryville college, so i was in competitions up to 15 or 16 and won a couple of statewide competitions. i found that i could play what i hear, i could play by ear. my music teacher would say, your left hand is jumping around you been playing that jerry lee lewis stuff. joyit is a great source of to me because i enjoy the classical music but i am not good enough to be a concert pianist. but, i am good enough to play what i hear, and i have done
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i wasne time when education secretary. i was invited to the retreat of republican senators to explain the education program and i got to talking and they were very bored. finally senator hatch said if you'd stop talking and play the piano for us we will support your education program, so i did and they did. greta: how else has it served you over the years? sen. alexander: music served me when i was a law clerk for judge wisdom in 1965 and 1966. i was not really a law clerk. he only had a position for one law clerk and he had given that to a harvard grabber -- graduate. he had a messenger position and he says i will treat you as a law clerk as -- but i will treat you as a messenger. i got tired of being paid so little, so i got a job at a place called your father's mustache and i would play for whoever was off. i would play the tuba and
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trombone, and the washboard. you play that with a spoon. greta: you might have a musical career after this. sen. alexander: when i ran for governor i had alexander's wash bed -- washboard band. i walked across the state for six months. the truck with me, i would get on the truck and we would play, and i would play on the trombone. greta: did you ever write your own songs? sen. alexander: i tried. once, i was outside the pharmacy, the drug store my was awn, and my son, who publishing director for kirby music had some songwriters working over the weekend. the as i was coming out of pharmacy i saw a couple sitting in a truck and i said how are
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you doing? the old woman said we are just falling apart together. thattold leigh bryce about and he said i could do something about that. he, and billy montana and another writer wrote falling apart together. they gave me one fourth of the credit. if you suggest any part of a song you get a little bit of the royalty. greta: did it make you rich? sen. alexander: it got me interested in the songwriters bill because my first royalty was $67 and i was thinking these guys cannot live on that. and ayce is a big singer good writer, and if that is how he makes his money these guys need to be paid. greta: that was the inspiration? sen. alexander: it was one. you live in tennessee and there were thousands of songwriters. but, i understood better because i had gone to a songwriters session over the weekend and i saw how they live and how they
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were not making any money from the songs they wrote. as you arehighlights thinking about winding down your days in washington? sen. alexander: i think about so many. i think i have had one of the best seats in the house for about 50 years. sometimes, even when i am in the middle of doing something, when i am the governor in charge or chairing a committee, i find myself just watching. it is such an interesting picture, you sit on the front row at an impeachment, to be working in the white house, and a little off is still there outside of the vice president's office, to walk across the state and spend the night with 73 different families, all of that is -- i have been very lucky to be able to do it. greta: what will you miss the most? sen. alexander: the friendships,
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the people. i mean, the senate is all about relationships. people who get here are usually pretty good at getting along with other people, otherwise people would not vote for them. whether they are democrats or republicans, even if we are in a pandemic and cannot see each other, we have nice relationships. and, i will miss those relationships, and i will miss the chance to take a big, complex problem, and see if i can figure it out like the great american outdoors act. what sort of bill would unify democrats and republicans here and in the house, and the outside groups, can i do this even though people have been trying for 50 years. can a group of us do that? i will miss that challenge, i like doing that. that is a satisfying thing to
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try and do. greta: you mentioned the pandemic. in your pocket you have them ask that you and your staff aware, if you could show your viewers. i am wondering for your younger viewers if you can explain the meaning of that pattern, or the relevant salve? -- ialexander: this is wore a red and black shirt and this pattern when i walked 1000 miles across tennessee in 1978 to be elected governor. i tried to shake 1000 hands a day. i did that because i had run before in 1974 and lost and my wife said it was because i was so boring. and, i did not seem to have a sense of purpose. so, i walked across the state, got the flatbed truck, the band, and i earned the right to wear red and black plaid in tennessee, people thought, because that was my symbol of being in touch with the people.
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it has been an important part of my political life for the last 42 years. greta: we thank you. sen. alexander: thank you. at 8:00g up tonight p.m. eastern on c-span, a look at the political career of retiring new york congressman peter king. end review the year continues on a focus on business and economics. thomas piketty offers his views on politics and history. on american history tv we marked the mayflower's 400th anniversary in a conversation with robert stone, director of the virtual mayflower project. he will show us how they used virtual reality to re-create the ship that traveled from plymouth + coming up in an


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