Leader McConnell Pays Tribute to Friend and Colleague Chairman Lamar Alexander
‘Today, it is both my great honor and my regrettable task to honor someone who secured all three parts of that senatorial Triple Crown… Senator Alexander knows about 50 different issues as well as most Senators know three or four. He is hands-down one of the most brilliant, most thoughtful, and most effective legislators any of us have ever seen… He has cherished and defended the Senate the framers designed.’
WASHINGTON, D.C. – U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) delivered the following remarks today on the Senate floor regarding Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN):
“The Senate revolves around people.
“The body consists of 100 individuals. One of our key duties concerns the personnel whom we examine and confirm. And there are all the dedicated staff professionals who make this place go.
“Today, it is both my great honor and my regrettable task to honor someone who secured all three parts of that senatorial Triple Crown.
“The senior Senator for Tennessee — the Chairman of the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions — Lamar Alexander.
“Lamar first set foot here as a talented young staffer. Decades later, he appeared before us as a super-successful former Governor and university president with a nomination to the Cabinet.
“And for the past 18 years, the other 99 of us have gotten to serve alongside one of the most impactful Senators in modern history.
“I’ve known Lamar for more than 50 years. We first met in 1969, when I was working for the freshman Senator Marlow Cook and he worked in the executive branch.
“We met at the suggestion of his previous boss and mentor, Senator Howard Baker, Jr. Either he suspected our paths might cross again later, or he just saw two serious young guys in need of some livelier social lives.
“Now this may shock you, but I’m afraid young Lamar Alexander and young Mitch McConnell did not exactly go crazy and paint the town red.
“But I’ll take a five-decade friendship any day.
“Both of us headed back home to continue our careers. It was already clear that a bright future in elected office likely lay in store for him.
“Lamar’s reverence for public service started early. I believe he was about 10 years old when his father, himself a long-time local official, took him to meet his hometown congressman, Howard Baker, Sr. The father of his future boss shook the boy’s hand and handed him a dime. I think Lamar was hooked, then and there.
“Decades later, when Lamar announced his 1996 presidential run, he was in his hometown of Maryville. His speech began with a story about his mother. She’d read where he’d lovingly described his upbringing as lower-middle-class, and she’d taken umbrage at that.
“After all, Lamar had had a library card, and music lessons. In her words — ‘everything you needed that was important.’ And I’d certainly add loving parents to that list.
“This son of two educators grew up steeped in the importance of schooling. He’d later reference his mother’s work in early childhood education by saying he is probably the only Secretary of Education in history who spent five years in kindergarten.
“That passion would remain throughout Lamar’s career. His cutting-edge focus on improving opportunities and reforming education benefitted Tennessee hugely in the 1980s, and our whole nation during his time in President Bush’s Cabinet.
“But that isn’t the only way Lamar has honored his roots.
“You couldn’t walk across the entire state of Tennessee in a plaid shirt, get elected Governor before the age of 40, and serve more combined years as Governor and Senator than anyone else in the history of the Volunteer State without becoming entirely intertwined with the place.
“Every corner of the state is better for his service. His groundbreaking work to bring home good-paying auto jobs has paid dividends. So has his major focus on infrastructure and better roads.
“But alas, even building a statewide and then national reputation does not always translate into honest-to-goodness celebrity status.
“I understand that following Lamar’s governorship, a stretch of highway in Maryville was fittingly named the Lamar Alexander Parkway to honor him.
“I further understand that some time later, Lamar was driving on that very road and stopped for breakfast. When it was time to pay for his food, he handed over his credit card.
The woman on the other side of the counter glanced at the name on the card... then back at Lamar.
“Hey!” she said. ‘Were you named after this road?!’
“Now, as a man of faith, I’m certain Lamar knows Luke, chapter 4: “No prophet is accepted in his hometown.” Apparently neither are statesmen to be recognized on their own highway!
“Here in the Senate, too, Lamar’s impact has been massive. And the convictions that fueled it have been straightforward.
“He starts with a firm framework: The right-of-center principles that Ronald Reagan used to rebuild a confident, prosperous America and beat communism. The federal government isn’t meant to take over our states, neighborhoods, or lives.
“But Lamar’s career has also confirmed that conservative governance is not a contradiction in terms.
“There are genuine public goods it is government’s job to secure: Public roads, public lands, public education, certain aspects of public health.
“He’s dedicated himself to making those things better and stronger, especially for those who need opportunity most.
“This vision aligns with the greatest traditions of the Republican Party and indeed of American history. Government that is limited, but effective and smart. A system where power stays close to the people and working families can thrive and prosper.
“These principles made our colleague a nationally-known leader long before he was sworn in as a Senator. But I’d say they’ve reached full flourishing with Chairman Alexander’s astonishingly effective leadership here in this body.
“Students, families, and teachers benefit every day from the Every Student Succeeds Act, Chairman Alexander’s historic bipartisan makeover following No Child Left Behind. One report called it ‘the largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter-century.’
“Millions of medically vulnerable Americans also have their champion in our friend from Tennessee. The overwhelmingly bipartisan 21st Century Cures Act was the single most important law of the entire 114th Congress.
“It’s paving the way for more innovation and faster innovation to benefit patients who have no time to waste. Another Lamar Alexander production.
“His leadership was instrumental in the landmark legislation we passed two years ago to combat the opioid epidemic.
“Just this year, he was a driving force behind the Great American Outdoors Act, the Senate’s historic project to secure our parks and public lands for generations to come.
“The list doesn’t end there. There have been other education wins, like permanent funding for historically Black colleges and universities and simplifying the student loan process.
“There have been laws like the Music Modernization Act, which Lamar hammered out with our former colleague Senator Hatch. A legislative duet from two musical virtuosos in their own rights.
“Senator Alexander knows about 50 different issues as well as most Senators know three or four. He is hands-down one of the most brilliant, most thoughtful, and most effective legislators any of us have ever seen.
“He likes to say this about the Senate: ‘it’s hard to get here; it’s hard to stay here; so while you’re here, you might as well try to accomplish something.’
“Well — mission accomplished and then some.
“If you reviewed Senator Alexander’s resume and results without knowing the man, you might suspect he arrived as an established hot shot and threw his weight around.
“But even as Lamar has mastered the levers of power here, his character has never been captured by Washington. Lamar’s remained clear that he’s just been on loan from Tennessee this whole time.
“So we’ve had more than just a master legislator to call upon.
“We’ve been blessed with a sober, honest, deliberate statesman. Someone who cares as much about preserving this institution as the near-term results he can wring out of it.
“From daily conversations to committee business to the most dramatic moments on the floor, whether in the minority or in the majority, Lamar has taken pains to treat his colleagues exactly as he’d hope to be treated in their shoes. He has worked to build consensus in a consensus-based body.
“He has cherished and defended the Senate the framers designed.
“And it’s no exaggeration to say Lamar Alexander is one of the most brilliant people I’ve met in my life. His mind is a steel trap.
“I understand he likes to keep his staff experts locked around a conference table for long sessions, turning a complex issue over and over, until they’ve arrived at the best path forward for the country and the most precise, concise way to communicate it.
“Mastery of policy. Mastery of the English language. And I can’t forget to mention my friend’s good cheer.
“Lamar really does live by the motto he inherited from his good friend and fellow Tennessean, the late author Alex Haley: ‘Find the good and praise it.’
“I’ve leaned on Lamar’s wisdom for many years. But I think I’ve leaned just as much on his optimism. His can-do spirit. His ability to look on the bright side and then discern how some more hard work could make it brighter still.
“I will badly miss our regular dinners — even with our weeknight scheduling and official one-drink limit. Like I said, we weren’t exactly party animals in our twenties, either.
“But here’s something else that never changes:
“How reassuring it is to be weighing a thorny question and see Lamar Alexander sitting across the table.
“The Senate can be all-consuming. It’s not only our colleagues, but their spouses and loved ones, that all get folded into the extended family around here.
“So I am extremely grateful that it turned out Mitch McConnell was not the most important young person that Lamar Alexander met during his first stint in Washington. Not by a mile.
“Honey Alexander is a remarkable woman. She is a force of nature and an incredible partner for Lamar. She raised a young family in the Governor’s mansion for eight years.
“She charmed and impressed more voters during Lamar’s various campaigns than Lamar himself. And she’s devoted her own career to public health and philanthropy.
“Their shared love and mutual respect inspire everyone. Honey is just about the finest “in-law” the U.S. Senate could have ever had. Elaine and I are grateful to call her our friend.
“So, as much as I am dreading life in the Senate without my brilliant friend, even I cannot begrudge him the silver lining.
“This most distinguished public servant has more than earned the right to spend more days fly-fishing or walking trails in the Smokies… more mornings waking up on Blackberry Farm… and a much larger share of his time with Honey and their family.
“About six years ago, it fell to Lamar to eulogize his friend and mentor Howard Baker. Here on the floor, he quoted another Senator who’d said that when it came to the Senate, there was Howard Baker, and there was the rest of us.
“Well, my friend — for 18 years, there has been Lamar Alexander, and there’s been the rest of us.
“I am sorry that, in a few more weeks, it’ll just be the rest of us left. But you are leaving this body... and those of us in it... and the nation it exists to serve... stronger and better because you were here.”
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