Alexander delivers farewell speech to Senate

Retiring U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Maryville) has delivered his farewell speech in the Senate, drawing an emotional response from colleagues.

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how to gum up the works of a body of one hundred that operates mainly by unanimous consent,” Alexander said. “Here’s my view: It’s hard to get here, hard to stay here, and while you’re here, you ought to try to accomplish something good for the country.

“But it’s hard to accomplish something if you don’t vote on amendments,” he said. “Lately, the Senate has been like joining the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing.”

Here are Alexander’s remarks, as prepared for delivery to the Senate on Wednesday.

On March 9, 1967, the newly elected United States Senator from Tennessee, Howard Baker, Jr., delivered his maiden address, his first speech on the floor of the Senate. He spoke too long.  Afterwards, Sen. Everett M. Dirksen of Illinois, the Republican leader who was also Baker’s father-in-law, walked over to congratulate him and offer this advice: “Howard,” Sen. Dirksen said. “You might occasionally enjoy the luxury of an unexpressed thought.”  Still good advice for my farewell address.  

As Sen. Baker’s legislative assistant I was his speechwriter for that maiden address 53 years ago—or at least I thought I was. The problem was, he almost never said in his speeches what I had written.  I asked him if something was wrong with our relationship.  He said, “Lamar, we have a perfect relationship. You write what you want to write and I’ll say what I want to say.”    

I’ve learned a couple of other lessons about making speeches.

One was from the author of Roots, Alex Haley, who once heard me speak and afterwards took me aside and suggested politely:  “If, when you begin a speech, you would start by saying, ‘Let me tell you a story’, someone might actually listen to what you have to say.”

The other lesson came from the journalist David Broder, who gave this advice to Ruth Marcus about her new Washington Post column: one idea per column.

The one idea for this speech

So here is a story about the one idea I have for this speech.

In August, 1968, Sen. Baker was visiting the Republican Leader’s Capitol office when he overheard this telephone conversation between Sen. Dirksen and President Lyndon B. Johnson. Dirksen was saying, “Mr. President I cannot come down and have a drink with you tonight. I did that last night and Louella is very unhappy with me.” About thirty minutes later, there was a commotion in the hall.   Dirksen’s office door swung open and in walked two beagles, three Secret Service men and the President of the United States. “Everett,” Lyndon Johnson, “If you won’t come down and have a drink with me, I’m here to have one with you.” And the two disappeared into Dirksen’s back office.      

Later that year, around a long table in that same office, the Democrat President and Republican leader worked out broad agreement on the Civil Rights Act of 1968.  They needed 67 votes to break a filibuster and cut off debate before they could pass it. But after it became law, the senators who voted “no” went home and said, “It’s the law. We have to accept it.” And that Civil Rights Act and many other civil rights laws are still the law today.

That is the one idea I have for this speech:  Our country needs a United States Senate that works across party lines to force broad agreements on hard issues—creating laws that most of us have voted for and that a diverse country will accept.   

In the 1930s, our country needed the Senate to create Social Security. 

After World War II, the United Nations.

In the 1960s, Medicare.

In 1978 to ratify the Panama Canal Treaty.

More recently, in 2013 to tie student loan interest rates to market rates, saving borrowers hundreds of billions of dollars. 

In 2015 to fix No Child Left Behind. There were 100 alligators in that swamp. The Wall Street Journal said it was the “largest devolution of federal control to the states in a quarter-century.”  It was a law so hard to pass that President Obama called it “a Christmas Miracle” when 85 senators voted for it.  

And in 2016 to pass the 21st Century Cures Act—moving medical miracles faster into patients’ lives. That bill seemed to run off the track every two or three days. On one of those days, I called Vice President Joe Biden and said, “Joe, we’ve included personalized medicine for President Obama. The Cancer Moonshot is there for you. We have Sen. McConnell’s regenerative medicine. And Speaker Ryan has worked out a way to pay for it.  But I can’t get the White House to move on it. I feel like a butler standing outside the Oval Office with the order on a silver platter, and no one will open the door and take the order.” 

Biden said, “If you want to feel like a butler, try being Vice President.”

Because Senate rules literally forced us to work out a broad agreement to pass 21st Century Cures, in the end it got 94 votes. Sen. McConnell called it “the most important legislation” considered in that Congress. Today it is helping to produce COVID tests, treatments and vaccines in record time.   

In 2018 a once in a generation change in the copyright laws so songwriters could be paid fairly.

And this year, the Great American Outdoors Act. The most important conservation and outdoor recreation law in 50 years.

Enacting these laws took a long time, much palavering, many amendments, many years. Too many years, civil rights leaders, patients, students, songwriters and conservationists would say.

But those laws didn’t just pass.  They passed by wide margins. The country therefore accepted them.  And they are going to be there for a long time.  

And most of these laws were enacted during divided government, when the presidency and at least one body of Congress were of different political parties.  Divided government offers an opportunity to share the responsibility—or the blame—for hard decisions, such as controlling the federal debt. 

That’s why our country needs a United States Senate, to thoughtfully, carefully and intentionally put country before partisanship and personal politics, to force broad agreements on controversial issues that become laws most of us have voted for and that a diverse country will accept. 

Turning pluribus into unum

Nearly 60 years ago I traveled from my home in the Tennessee Mountains to enroll in New York University’s law school. It was my first trip to New York City. I had asked for a roommate with a background as different from mine as possible.  

One roommate turned out to be a tall skinny guy from New Jersey. His parents were Italian immigrants. His mother was a seamstress. When I spent the night with them in New Jersey she was so concerned about the frayed collar on my one white dress shirt that she turned it while I slept.

Years later, that roommate, Paul Tagliabue, invited me to the annual Italian American Dinner here in Washington. It was a boisterous scene: Men and women bursting with pride for their Italian heritage. Cheers for Scalia, the justice, for Stallone, the actor, for Pelosi, the congresswoman, and Tagliabue, the National Football League commissioner. But what struck me most that night was this: As proud as they were of their Italian heritage, they were even prouder to say, we are all Americans.      

Ken Burns, whose films tell stories of who we Americans are, reminds us that the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote that our nation suffers from “too much pluribus and not enough unum.”  Attracting people from so many different backgrounds makes our country stronger. But a greater achievement is combining that diversity into one country. 

That’s why the motto above the presiding officer’s desk in this senate is not just one word, “pluribus.” It is “E Pluribus Unum,” out of many, one.  More than ever, our country needs a United States Senate to turn pluribus into unum, to lead the American struggle to forge unity from diversity.

Another way to do it

Now, some advocate another way to operate the Senate.  

End the filibuster, the senate’s best-known tradition. In the movie “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” Jimmy Stewart called it “the right to talk your head off.”  Don’t worry about working across party lines. Pass everything with a majority vote. 

Presidents would like ending it.  They would get their way more easily if we ended the requirement that 60 senators vote to cut off debate before we vote on a legislative issue.   It would allow the passions of the people to roar through the Senate like a freight train, just like they roar through the House of Representatives.  

If you’re a Democrat: Abolish right-to-work laws. Repeal limits on abortion. Pass restrictions on guns.  

This is very appealing—if you are in the majority for the moment.

But what about when the other party is in charge and the freight train roars in the other direction, this time imposing Right to Work, Pro Life, and Gun Rights laws?   

Is such back and forth and back and forth what a fractured country really needs?  That is why the framers created the Senate as the cooling saucer for the passions that President Washington talked about. And the filibuster—the right to talk your head off until you force a broad agreement—is the preeminent tool the Senate uses to turn those passions into a compromise that most senators can vote for and that the country can live with. 

Alexis De Tocqueville, the young Frenchman who wandered through the United States in 1831 and 1832 and wrote the best book yet on Democracy in America, saw two great dangers for the young country: Russia and the tyranny of the majority. 

Ending the filibuster would destroy the impetus in the United States Senate to force broad agreements on hard issues and unleash the tyranny of the majority to steamroll the rights of the minority.  

A more effective Senate

But, you may accurately say, the Senate is not solving a lot of these big problems. It is not even voting on them—sometimes because the majority won’t bring the issue to the floor and sometimes because of obstruction by the minority.

If a carbon tax is a solution to climate change, why are we not voting on it?

Or on ways to help the DACA children?

Or on ways to control the federal debt?

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out how to gum up the works of a body of one hundred that operates mainly by unanimous consent.  Here’s my view:  It’s hard to get here, hard to stay here and while you’re here you might as well try to accomplish something good for the country.

But it’s hard to accomplish something if you don’t vote on amendments.

Lately, the Senate has become like joining the Grand Ole Opry and not being allowed to sing.

This is a real waste of talent. Our one hundred members have included Rhodes scholars, Supreme Court law clerks, governors, military heroes, turnaround CEOs, astronauts, master teachers. One of us has even run the Olympic Games. Such a talented body of 100 ought to accomplish a lot more.     

What will change it?

You don’t have to eliminate the filibuster to restore the Senate to its traditional role of working across party lines to solve big problems. 

It was not so long ago that the Senate worked from Monday to Friday, considered hundreds of amendments on major bills, most votes were majority votes, and there were conferences between the House and the Senate to work out the final broad agreement. 

That was under the existing rules.

Let me say that again. That was under existing rules.  

So we don’t need a change of rules.

The Senate needs a change of behavior.

And the behavior that needs to change first is for individual senators to stop blocking amendments of other senators.  If you are opposed to something, just vote no. Why stop the entire body from even considering the amendment? Why join the Grand Ole Opry if you don’t want to sing?

And I guarantee you that if 15 or 20 Republicans and 15 or 20 Democrats in this talented body set out to change that practice, it would change.

This a been a great privilege for me

Some former governors don’t like being a senator. But not me. The jobs are just different. In both jobs you pick an urgent need, develop a strategy and try to persuade at least half the people you are right. Being governor is like being Moses. To get something done, you say, “let’s go this way.”  Being a senator is more like being a parade organizer. You pick the route, recruit the marchers, select the music, and even pick someone else to be the drum major—and then you walk in the middle of the parade so the marchers don’t march into the ditch.  That’s the way you get things done in the United States Senate.

I love the traditions of the senate. The hard marble floors. The elaborate courtesies. Scratching my name in my desk drawer beside Howard Baker and Fred Thompson’s name.

I’ve made a lot of friendships in the Senate.     

My best friendship began at a softball game in the summer of 1967 between Sen. Baker’s staff and the staff of Texas Sen. John G. Tower.  A 21-year-old Tower staffer named Honey Buhler slid into first base wearing red shorts. I was captivated and 18 months later we were married in Victoria, Texas.  For 52 years she has been an unselfish and caring wife, mother, campaigner and advocate for families and children, especially her own.   

In 1969, Sen. Baker told me, “you ought to get to know that smart young legislative assistant for the new Kentucky senator, Marlow Cook.”  That smart young assistant was Mitch McConnell. 

Mario D’Angelo in the Senate barbershop first cut my hair in 1977 when I came back to help Sen. Baker after his election as Republican leader.    

Some experiences weren’t so friendly, such as my confirmation hearing in 1991, after President Bush nominated me to be Education Secretary. A Democrat senator put a hold on my nomination for two months before I was mysteriously confirmed late one night.

Back then, I found a new way to make friends when Republican senators at their retreat said they would support Bush’s education program if I would stop talking and play the piano. I did and they did.

I have strengthened friendships in the so-called inner sanctum, the room downstairs that Sen. Schumer and I resurrected in 2011, when we led the Rules Committee, where senators of both parties could get a snack and have a private conversation.

Probably one third of the senators and their spouses, Democrats and Republicans, including the McConnells and the Schumers, have spent a weekend at our home in the Smoky Mountains. Instead of politics, we talked about lost hikers and we told bear stories. 

I have even learned here how to count my friends: In 2006, I wrote 27 thank you notes for 24 votes when I lost the whip race by one vote. 

Having learned to count, I enjoyed being elected chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, but I left that leadership post nine years ago so I could focus on the issues I cared about the most. 

Since then I’ve done my best to leave some footprints that are good for our country: fixing No Child Left Behind and passing 21st Century Cures and simplifying federal student aid with Patty Murray—Sen. Bennett was also there from the start on simplifying the FAFSA—building up the national laboratories and supercomputing  with Dianne Feinstein, joining the bipartisan parade of Portman, Warner, Gardner, King, Manchin, Daines, Heinrich, Burr and Cantwell that created the Great American Outdoors Act; then there was the law to help songwriters, and with Senators Murray, Jones and Tim Scott to permanently fund black colleges, and with Blunt and Shelby to create the shark tank at the National Institutes of Health finding new ways to create an expected 50 million more COVID-19 diagnostic tests per month. 

None of this could have happened without exceptional staff.  Instead of thanking them in a rushed way now I’m going to make a separate “salute to staff” address acknowledging their contributions. Maybe I’ll start a new Senate tradition.

My favorite time as a senator has been inviting onto the Senate floor American history teachers who are attending the academies that were established in the legislation proposed in my maiden address. After that speech, without my knowing it, Ted Kennedy quietly rounded up nearly 20 Democrat cosponsors for that legislation.  Senators Wicker and Blackburn, then House members, helped it pass there.  

Whenever those teachers come onto the floor, invariably they study our desks.  They look for Daniel Webster’s desk, and the Kennedy brothers’ desk, and the desk of Jefferson Davis, who left the senate to become President of the Confederacy. There is a chop mark on Davis’s desk inflicted by the sword of a union soldier who was stopped by his commanding officer, who said, “Stop. We are here to save the union. Not to destroy it.”   

Invariably one teacher will ask, “Senator, what would you like us to tell our students about being a United States senator?”

My reply is always the same: 

Please suggest to your students that they look at Washington, D.C., as if it were a split screen television. On one screen are the tweets and the confirmation hearings.  But on the other screen, senators are working together to strengthen national defense, national laboratories, national parks and the National Institutes of Health. 

I hope you will remind them that we live in a remarkable country with the strongest military, the best universities and an economy that produces more than 20 percent of all the money in the world. That we are not perfect but, as our Constitution says, we are always working to form a more perfect union. That, as Samuel Huntington wrote, most of our arguments are about conflicts among principles with which most Americans agree.  And most of our politics is about disappointments in not reaching the high goals that we have set for ourselves, such as all men are created equal.  The late NAACP President Ben Hooks used to teach his University of Memphis students, “America is a work in progress. We’ve come a long way, and we have a long way to go.” 

Remind them that most of the rest of the world wishes they had our system of government and that the United States Senate has been, and I hope continues to be, the institution that does more than any other to create broad agreements to solve great problems and unify our country.

And, finally, please tell them that I wake up every day thinking I may be able to do something good for our country and that I go to bed most nights thinking that I have.  Please tell them that it has been a great privilege to be a United States Senator.

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