As a one-time (more than sixty years ago!) but long-out-of-touch friend of Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), I have often wanted to write him to question his silence vis-à-vis the tragic aberration that is Donald Trump and the collaboration of the Republican Party in the undermining of our democracy. Not having his private address, however, I was loath to risk a “Thank you for your views, which are very important to us” response from his staff, with no way of knowing if he himself ever received my letter. I expect those same screeners, however, will make sure he sees an op-ed concerning him.
Lamar and I were born to middle-class families in small towns in East Tennessee, and we both imbibed with our mothers’ milk the simple, honorable values of that mostly wholesome setting. Our public school educations reinforced the norms of fairness and truth-telling and began to show us the importance of “getting your facts straight.”
Then we were privileged to traverse together the life-altering adventure of a liberal arts education at Vanderbilt University, sensitizing us to the power of language and awakening us to the insights of history, philosophy, literature, and other liberal arts disciplines. As his fraternity brother and friend, I knew Lamar to be an exceptionally intelligent, hard-working, and trustworthy young man. These qualities served him well in law school, as Tennessee’s Governor, and in the other positions of great responsibility he has held.
It is thus all the more perplexing that he has not distanced himself from the vulgar, amoral, mendacious, and emotionally unstable reprobate currently defiling the Office of the Presidency or from the unprincipled and utterly undemocratic machinations of his party. (I must emphasize that all these harsh adjectives, far from mere opinion, have been thoroughly documented, even as they have been dismissed as “fake news” by those with no regard for objective reality.) The question all this raises for me is: What has happened to those basic values Lamar and I were taught early on—honesty, civility, decency, and shame?
When, for only the third time in our nation’s history, impeachment of the president must be acted upon, the Senate seems poised to place its imprimatur on the pernicious idea—the hallmark of the Trump Era—that truth is optional, that facts can be rendered moot by childish name-calling or partisan reinterpretation. At such a dire moment, the imperative has never been greater for every Senator to consult his or her conscience and to ponder the oath they have sworn: to “support and defend the Constitution”. The Constitution, not the President.
Life has taken Lamar and me in profoundly different directions. It is the stuff of novels that two people with almost identical backgrounds could wind up with such radically divergent political perspectives. Still, time and circumstance cannot have completely erased the core values we learned growing up.
Doubtless, there are intense pressures—even dangers—that anyone in a position of power must contend with. Ultimately, there is only one way to defy such threats—with courage. I can only hope that, at this pivotal point in our nation’s history, Senator Alexander will muster that courage and reflect on whom he has most admired and why—and on how he himself wishes to be remembered. Having done so, he will surely then employ his considerable abilities and unique position to begin making our country whole again.
Richard L. Clinton is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Oregon State University.