Lamar Alexander: He gives politicians a good name

Tennessee Republican Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderThe Hill's Morning Report - How will Trump be received in Dayton and El Paso? McConnell faces pressure to bring Senate back for gun legislation Criminal justice reform should extend to student financial aid MORE, who announced this week that he will retire when his term is up in 2020, is one veteran politician who won’t have to die to get a positive story written about him. 

He has a long record of public service that deserves high praise — two-term governor of Tennessee, Education secretary in the George H.W. Bush administration, president of the University of Tennessee and three-term U.S. senator from Tennessee. He even ran for president — twice — in 1996 and 2000.

His eight years as governor and 18 years as senator will make him the longest serving governor and senator in Tennessee history. He must be doing something right.

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As chairman of the important Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, Alexander built a distinguished record. In October, he co-authored sweeping opioids legislation that addresses prevention, treatment and recovery. President TrumpDonald John TrumpFacebook releases audit on conservative bias claims Harry Reid: 'Decriminalizing border crossings is not something that should be at the top of the list' Recessions happen when presidents overlook key problems MORE called it “the single largest bill to combat a drug crisis in the history of our country.”

In 2016, Alexander wrote the 21st Century Cures Act to speed up medical product research and development and bring new advances to patients faster and more efficiently.

He also is credited with spurring the Every Student Succeeds Act which made needed fixes to the “No Child Left-Behind” Law. His work was widely hailed and honored by the National Governors Association as a major education advance.

The list goes on.

Through it all, Alexander, 78, has managed to exude a can-do positive attitude and a wry sense of humor. And he doesn’t run out on television every five minutes to trash political rivals, spout pithy partisan lines, or toot his own horn — all easy ways to become a media darling in Washington. He’s busy reaching across the political aisle and getting things done.

In other words: Boring.

When running for president back in 1996, he like to say he was inspired by his grandfather’s advice: “Aim for the top. There’s more room there.

But he kept his feet firmly on the ground. Wearing his signature red-checked hunting shirt, he walked 90 miles across New Hampshire in 1995 to get to know voters better. He often told the story of his walking into a Hooksett general store and saying to some guys hanging out there, “Hi, I’m Lamar Alexander and I’m running for president!”

“Yeah, we were just laughing about that,” came the droll Yankee reply.

So, if this guy is so good, how come most Americans hardly know anything about him?

Well, in case you haven’t noticed, positive stories about politicians, particularly Washington politicians, have become as rare as reporters willing to write them. In today’s Wild West media world, many reporters aspire to be gunslingers. Stories that say a politician did something right somehow suggest that the newsperson who writes it is going soft, or worse, in the politician’s pocket. No one in the political reporting business wants to be accused of that.

But I am a long-time political reporter from a different era. I came of age at a time when you called them as you saw them: A politician did something wrong, you reported it; a politician did something right, you reported that, too.

Not only was it more fun to report that way, it also helped constituents get a fuller picture of the people they elected.

With today’s media over-emphasis on the bad, and the eagerness to stoke and trumpet partisan rancor, it is little wonder that most Americans think all politicians are bums. A Gallup Poll in April found just 18 percent of Americans, fewer than one in five, approved of the job Congress is doing.

But at the same time, public trust in the news media is nothing to brag about: An October Gallup Poll found just 45 percent of Americans trust the news media to report fully, fairly and accurately.

Having covered Alexander from when he was governor through his early years in the Senate, I gave him a phone call when I heard he would not seek re-election in 2020. He sounded his old chipper, upbeat self as he talked about his early decision to not run again.

We talked a bit about the state of political reporting and he recalled when it was possible to have civil sit-down conversations with reporters. Now, he said, “They mostly just chase you around as your walk through the Capitol and shove recorders in your face.”

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He said he decided in August when he was on his annual Canadian fishing trip but kept it close to his vest in case he changed his mind. But as the end of the year approached, he realized that if he was going to seek a fourth term, he would have to start now putting together a campaign organization and raising money. That, he said, would take away from the important work he still has to do in the Senate. So, he decided to forego another run.

“I love what I am doing and feel great, but it’s time to give someone else that chance,” he said.

Meanwhile, he says he has two full years as committee chairman to focus on critical work ahead. His goals, he said are simple, but crucial to the American people.

“I want to reduce the cost of health care and make a college education worth the price,” he said.

You can’t do that by shooting off your mouth.

Richard Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist, and author of “Politicians Are People, Too.” He teaches politics and journalism at American University and in The Fund For American Studies program at George Mason University. Follow on Twitter @benedettopress