Lamar Alexander Lamar Alexander Emphasizes Individual Liberty

Born in Blount County, Tennessee, Lamar Alexander was raised by his schoolteacher parents, who taught in Maryville and sent their son to public schools there. He was a Boy Scout, later receiving the highest scouting honor, the rank of Eagle Scout, and graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Vanderbilt University, eventually receiving his law degree from New York University. The Republican was a law clerk and an aide to Tennessee Sen. Howard Baker before he was elected governor of Tennessee in 1978 and he became the state‚s first governor to serve consecutive four-year terms. Alexander ran unsuccessfully for president in 1996 and lives in Nashville with his wife Leslee, “Honey”, with whom he has four children.

The presidential candidate is drained by the time he shows up for an interview at a Beverly Hills hotel. He hasn’t eaten dinner, he hasn’t checked in and he‚s a half an hour late for the interview. Alexander thanks his escort, greets both campaign staffers and this reporter and carries his luggage to the front desk, asking about tonight‚s basketball game. By the time the 58-year-old reaches his room, a different impression of the folksy, plaid shirt politician emerges.

The former University of Tennessee president is more intellectual than one might assume, his answers are thoughtfully worded and direct and he’s self-assured. Many would say he ought to be; he’s been running for president for a long time. But, if there is one clear trait, it is that he is noticeably unconcerned with others’ opinions of him. The quality suits him now more than ever; his campaign is struggling against the onslaught of Texas Gov. George W. Bush. As the crucial Iowa caucuses approach, Lamar Alexander, who successfully championed school choice while governor of Tennessee and later served as secretary of education, is oddly and quietly at peace with his own ideas and efforts, which echo a dwindling philosophy in the Republican Party: individualism. His agenda is neither fully religious nor explicitly pragmatic—the sole contender to oppose Bush’s compassionate conservatism (he calls them “weasel words”) is his own man.

What one principle must the Republican Party stand for?

Freedom. It is the essential principle of our country and it should be of our party.

Other candidates have proposed privatizing Social Security through the use of private, individual accounts. Should individuals be in control of their own Social Security money?

Yes. A retirement account would give individuals more control over their own savings. The president wants the government to invest the money and that’s wrong. Individuals should invest the money.

Would you rescind the restrictive provisions of the Kennedy-Kassebaum health care law, such as the rule that forbids Medicare patients from paying out of pocket for services covered by Medicare?

I think that rule is wrong. When the government steps in to support health care costs, it should not limit the ability of individuals to spend more of their own money to take care of themselves better. In fact, the president's Medicare Commission was on the right track when it proposed moving toward a premium support system in which the government would pay most of the cost of health insurance but the individual would have the option of buying his or her own health insurance.

Do you favor expansion of medical savings accounts (MSAs) to all Americans?

I like the medical savings account because it begins to eliminate third party payment of health insurance. Nobody knows the cost of their health insurance, though in almost every other aspect, the American consumer pays for insurance. I like the MSA because it makes the consumer more responsible for the cost of his or her own health care. I would like to gradually expand MSAs to all Americans, watch the expansion, and see what happens. Health care costs for individuals are among the biggest burdens in our society right now. One of the ways we can make it easier for individual Americans to afford health care is full individual tax deductibility.

Do parents have a fundamental right to choose their child’s education?

They should. Right now only rich people have that right in practice. Poor people don’t. If you have money, you move across town to get to a good school. If you’re a single mom and your kid is stuck in a school with guns and drugs, you don’t have any options. Our goal should be to give every parent the choice of a good, safe neighborhood school. That requires the federal government stepping in with what I call a hope scholarship for children—a $ 1,500 scholarship that would follow every middle and low income child to any accredited school. Think of it this way: you’d have $ 1,500 pinned to your shirt and you would decide what school you prefer, any accredited school, whether it’s a Catholic school, a non religious school, a public school or a home school. The money is available for any educational programs and activities that parents think benefit their child. That means an afterschool program at the public school or a charter school. I predict that most of those kids will attend public schools. But don’t take my word for it; let’s try it for five years in those states and school districts that would like to try it and watch what happens. You either trust the parents or you trust the government. I trust the parent. The parent should choose the school. The parent should decide what is best for the child.

Do you favor campaign finance reform?

I favor free speech and full disclosure. The so-called campaign finance reform bills in Washington are a fraud. A complete fraud. I’ve never seen more baloney in all my life. If we’d had the present set of campaign rules in place in the 1970s, neither George McGovern nor Eugene McCarthy could have mounted a campaign against the Vietnam War. What really bothers me is this overregulation of campaign finance in the name of good government; it does what federal regulation usually does—it messes up the system.

Is the religious right with its opposition to abortion, homosexuality, medicinal use of marijuana and the right to die the soul of today’s Republican Party?

The soul of the Republican Party is a devotion to liberty and limited government. The fundamental impulse of the so-called religious right is a worry about the breakdown of a moral society, the family structure, the lack of an ability in our country to say that some things are right and some things are wrong—that’s the most serious problem we have as this country—so I’m glad that the energy of Christian conservatives is a part of the Republican Party. The main thing I hope to do is to help our party shift its agenda.

Barry Goldwater favored the right to an abortion and gays in the military. Was he a good Republican?

Of course. He was one of the best. He had consistent beliefs and we all admired him for it. If you’re talking about the abortion issue, which is a difficult issue because it’s a moral issue and it’s one most all of us feel strongly about, there is a pro-life majority in the country which I would seek to lead to create good society where there are the fewest possible abortions. I would do that by having government not [subsidize] abortions, and by leaving states to limit and restrict abortion within the constitution. I do not believe in a constitutional amendment to overturn Roe v. Wade. I do believe [abortion] is wrong but I don’t believe that everything that’s wrong has to have a federal law making it illegal.

You’ve said that one of today’s dominant concepts at universities, diversity, is dangerous. Why?

Well, President Clinton has said that diversity is our highest value. I’m sure he’s the first president ever to say that and I hope he’s the last because, as much as we value diversity, we have a higher value and that‚s turning all that diversity into one nation, where we say: “I am an American.” We’ve gotten away from that. We’ve become embarrassed to say that and we shouldn’t be. We should be reminded—after struggling in this terrible war in the Balkans—of what can happen when we become so preoccupied with our own ethnic minority. What makes America different is that we prize where we came from, we honor the languages and traditions of our grandmothers and grandfathers, but when we go to an Italian American dinner, as Italian as we may be, the most emotional moment comes when we say the Pledge of Allegiance to the American flag. The turn of the century is a good time to remember that, while we’re proud of where we came from, we’re more proud to say: “I’m an American.” The Balkanization of the country is one of the greatest challenges in this new century. We’re dividing into ethnic groups based on race, we’re calling for more race consciousness rather than less, we’re not teaching children English—all those are leading us in the wrong direction.

Is individualism the antidote to the growing influence of multiculturalism?

Yes. We are a nation of individuals, not a nation of groups. There’s no other way to make sense of America unless we honor and recognize that. That’s why, when I was a college student in the South during the early 1960s, I fought to integrate Vanderbilt [University] because it was barring students because they were black. As governor of Tennessee, I supported the Voting Rights Act and a holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., and I appointed the first black justice. When, as secretary of education, the question came to me: “Is it right or wrong to have college scholarships based on race?” I said “wrong” for the same reason I fought to integrate Vanderbilt thirty years earlier. We need less—not more—race consciousness.

What unifies us as Americans?

That we are a nation of individuals, not of groups. That if you come to America, you are entitled to rights and privileges not because you are a Chinese American but because you are an individual. Another principle is the rule of law—we are not ruled by whim we are ruled by law, even the president is supposed to follow the law—and we have certain freedoms. You are expected to become an American when you come here. Not because you look a certain way, or have a certain color or a certain place but because you subscribe to these principles.

You have denounced video games as a causative factor in the Columbine killings. Can government, by restricting guns, the Internet and video games, make today’s parents better or are parents responsible for their actions?

I don’t want to see the government telling parents what to do. But we’ve made discipline illegal, we’ve paid people not to marry and we’ve penalized them when they do, we’ve replaced Captain Kangaroo with Jerry Springer as a substitute teacher, a great many parents don’t have access to good, safe neighborhoods, the drug problem has become a drug epidemic and we’ve all gone to work outside the home. We’re spending less time with our children just at the time when our children are growing up in a tougher world. Instead of honoring the Littleton tragedy by having a congressional session to see how many laws we can pass to regulate the behavior of children, let‚s see how many laws we can pass and attitudes we can change in the culture that make it easier for busy parents to be better parents: cut their taxes, give them choices of schools, get rid of the laws that interfere with flexible working hours.

Sen. Kit Bond, (R, MO), recently proposed a commission that would evaluate the idea of taxing violent films at a higher rate. Do you favor that idea?

I have not become a fan of taxing violence any more than I’m a fan of taxing prostitution. I’m just not ready to support that.

Do you support free speech on the Internet?

We ought to let the Internet flourish, with as little regulation and taxation as possible until we learn to deal with this new phenomenon.

Would you put prayer back in public schools?

Children are free to pray in schools today under our constitution, in my opinion.

Does freedom of religion also mean freedom from religion?

Of course it does. My Scotch-Irish ancestors helped foment the revolution in this country as the mountaineers of Tennessee because they were tired of paying taxes to support the bishops in the Church of England to which they didn’t belong. They wanted freedom from the Church of England and some people want freedom from any religion and that’s part of the freedom to be an American.

Is America founded on faith or reason?

That’s a very good question. The first people to come here were Christians. That’s important in terms of understanding our optimism, sense of work ethic, and strict sense of right and wrong and our missionary zeal. But, obviously, by the time we got to the Revolutionary War, reason played a great role, particularly in the writings of Madison and Jefferson, in the founding of our country.

Should altruism be a core principle of U.S. foreign policy, as President Clinton has said in defense of his deployment of American troops to Kosovo?

No. The chief principle of our foreign policy should be to defend our freedom. Making the world a safer place is a secondary interest.

Would a Chinese invasion of Taiwan be an act of war?

We have an obligation to defend Taiwan and we should make that clear to the Chinese. They want to dominate Asia and we’re not leaving.

Should we have a missile defense program like the Strategic Defense Initiative?

Yes. We should begin to deploy a missile defense system starting with a relatively inexpensive Aegis submarine system and theater system and, as technology develops, we should deploy a missile defense system to defend our cities along the [West] coast. We need to defend ourselves against missiles. The recent Chinese espionage case reminds us that we probably have to do it more quickly and expensively than we might have expected.

Do you have to win the Iowa caucuses?

No, though it would help if I did. I need to compete for first place in all the early contests. There are different routes to winning the presidential race. Governor Bush has fame, money and endorsements. I have hard work, [ Iowa] Gov. [Terry] Brandstad and a head start. Either route will get you to the starting line. The common wisdom is that there are three tickets out of Iowa: win, place and show. I got show last time. I’d like to do better this time.

Will you criticize Bush?

Of course I will. There are some people in the Republican Party who think we ought to pick presidents the way the Soviet Union used to make cars: “here’s one, it’s good for you, now drive it.” That’s the worst thing we can do. Ours is the party of free choice and competition.

This 1999 interview with Lamar Alexander was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Los Angeles Daily News, San Jose Mercury News, Arizona Republic, Bangor (Maine) Daily News, and the Casper (Wyoming) Star-Tribune.

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