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Sen. Lamar Alexander leaves office under a cloud for enabling Trump’s excesses

Roy Neel  |  Guest columnistplay

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Tennessee Voices: A conversation with Sen. Lamar Alexander

Opinion and Engagement Director David Plazas spoke with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander.

  • Roy Neel is former chief of staff to Vice-President Al Gore and deputy chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.

An open letter to Sen. Lamar Alexander:

I write this with a heavy heart. I am a Tennessean of many generations. I care about respectful, thoughtful politics. While I am a lifelong Democrat, I have previously supported and voted for you.

We share Vanderbilt as our alma mater. I followed you there in the early ‘60s, not long after you helped move the University forward toward an integrated student body. For that you still deserve admiration and respect.

You distinguished yourself in public service as a serious, intelligent governor and senator who sought to find the middle ground between zealous advocates. Occasionally you succeeded, establishing a well-deserved reputation for leadership based on what is best for the country and Tennesseans, not just those in your party. And you always seemed to treat public service as an honorable profession practiced by people of honor and civility.

However, for the past four years you have become little more than an enabler of a president who clearly holds none of the values that you honored over a long career. And for that you leave office as an empty shell of your earlier political self.

A voice unheard

As Donald Trump tramples on his perceived opponents with crude insults and petty bullying, you have sat in the shadows saying or doing nothing. As he tries to destroy public confidence in our elections and winks his acceptance of white supremacists, your voice has not been heard, nor your actions felt. As he scorned the severity of  the virus that has killed more than 2,500 Tennesseans, you have been unwilling to challenge his failure of leadership.

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I do not question your support for President Trump’s policy initiatives nor his judicial appointments. After all, you are entitled to your conservative principles as an elected official from a state with many voters who share those views.

But you had an opportunity to help check your party leader’s worst behavior, behavior that is not simply an annoying personality trait or a handful of ethical lapses, but a fundamental assault on civil government. I am confident that you know this. Unfortunately, you squandered your opportunity, like so many otherwise thoughtful, responsible members of your party. Howard Baker would be shocked and disappointed.

Perhaps you are trying to stay in good favor with the president for a post-retirement appointment should he be reelected, an ambassadorship or cabinet post. I doubt you are that craven. You had no reason to worry about Trump’s most rabid supporters rejecting you at the polls. So even as you decided to not seek your own reelection, why did you not find your inner statesman?

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A poor example for the next generation

Whatever the reason for your unwillingness to counter the president’s most egregiously dangerous behavior, you will leave office under a cloud of cowardice.

Your actions — or failure to act — will have lasting consequences. By not standing up to the president’s attacks on fundamentally democratic, conservative principles, you have sent a message to the next generation of Tennesseans and all Americans: character and decency no longer matter so long as the ends justify the means.

To paraphrase the courageous challenge to the contemptible Sen. Joseph McCarthy during one of his witch hunt hearings, did you, sir, have no sense of decency?

Roy Neel is former chief of staff to Vice-President Al Gore and deputy chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.

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