Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose – the more things change, the more they stay the same.
A wise man said that more than a century ago, and it’s still kind of true, so I thought about him today when Lamar Alexander gave his farewell speech to the Senate, although “kind of” is not the 100 percent truth that can be backed up in court, as Cas Walker used to say (I figure I need to throw in some Cas to offset frenchifying the lead).
In fact, lots of things have changed since January 17, 1979, when the bright-eyed young Republican governor-elect Lamar strode into the governor’s office three days early to sweep out the mess created by a corrupt and half-crazy chief executive who seemed intent on pardoning every crook from Memphis to Mountain City with two nickels to rub together. Somebody in Music City even wrote a song about it.
In the process of beating Democrat Jake Butcher, Lamar put on a plaid shirt and walked more than 1,000 miles across the state and back to demonstrate something or other – endurance maybe – although he cribbed the idea from Walkin’ Lawton Chiles of Florida, who hiked up and down Florida in 1970 to get elected to the Senate. But still, it was a fine gimmick and Lamar swept into Democrat-controlled Nashville at high noon, vowing to restore law and order to a lawless town.
But here’s where things were different from today: Democrats helped him every step of the way.
Jimmy Carter’s U.S. Attorney Hal Hardin got the ball rolling when he called Alexander about a week before inauguration day and urged him to take office early because Gov. Ray Blanton was about to cut loose 52 more criminals – including eight murderers. Although Democrats controlled both houses of the General Assembly, they didn’t balk at the plan – in fact, they helped. House Speaker Ned Ray McWherter and Lt. Gov. John Wilder supported the move. McWherter stood right behind Lamar as he put his hand on the Bible to take the oath of office, and years later, when Lamar spoke at McWherter’s funeral, he recalled that Ned (who was the most powerful man in Nashville for a couple of decades) told him, “I’m going to help you be the best governor we ever had because that’s what’s best for the people of Tennessee.”
Too bad Lamar didn’t learn from that. He has waffled and faltered every time he’s had a chance to exercise even a smidge of oversight on Donald Trump.
Exactly a year ago, he disappointed a young constituent who found himself on the same Washington D.C.-bound commuter plane as the senator and wrote him an impassioned note begging him to hold Trump accountable for his actions. We know the rest of that story.
Anyhow, back to Lamar’s farewell: it was short and pretty and self-congratulatory. He said something about less pluribus and more Unum and moved his old pal Mitch McConnell, the iron-fisted partisan, to tears. Who knew The Grim Reaper had feelings?
So McConnell lost his composure while saying goodbye to his wingman. His voice went quavery as he fought back tears, creating a spectacle that cast momentary doubt on rumors that he is a reptile. Clearly, he will miss having dinner and one drink with Lamar, who was a pretty good governor, a darned good piano player and a coward when the cards were down.
Betty Bean writes a Thursday opinion column for KnoxTNToday.com.