The Politician

It was a cold day in February 1978 and several inches of snow covered the ground, but the house was warm when I got home from school on a Wednesday afternoon. And the house was buzzing with activity. My step-mother was in the kitchen preparing an elegant meal. The counter was crowded with pans and bowls and plates. Every stove eye was turned on with wonderful aromas emanating from the big pots. Home-made biscuits were in the oven. An important guest was coming for dinner, a Republican candidate hoping to be the next governor of Tennessee.

I didn’t know at the time how unusual it was for my father to embrace a Republican politician. He was a Southern Baptist preacher, but unlike most baptists in the south, he was a Democrat. He kept his political views mostly to himself and tried very hard to keep politics separate from his professional life. Rarely did he mention anything political in his sermons and I am certain that his religious friends and associates assumed he was a Republican.

In the mid 1980s, when the First Baptist Church of Mountain City, Tennessee honored him with a Pastor’s Appreciation Day, a list of his virtues was part of the program, and near the top of the list, in very big letters, was the word “Republican.” I’m sure that amused him and perhaps even embarrassed him a little.

My father practiced something that is very rare in today’s political environment. He voted for the candidate and not the party. If a candidate demonstrated moral integrity and Christian values, that candidate had my father’s support. Most often he voted for the Democrat, but once in a while he voted for the candidate with an “R” by their name.

When my mother died in 1977 and he married Eleanor Snyder Holloway, he joined one of the county’s most hardcore Republican families. He confessed to a reporter in 1982, when being interviewed for a feature article in The Elizabethton Star, “I have accused my wife of trying to convert me. She wants me to be a Republican, but all of my people are Democrats. I have always been a Democrat, and proudly so. However, I have backslid on occasion and voted for a Republican.”

I grew up not knowing very much about politics, as it was something rarely discussed in our home.  My first exposure to the political scene was in the summer of 1968, when one of my father’s friends took me to a political rally at the Bristol International Speedway. The speaker was George Wallace who wanted to be President of the United States. Mr. Wallace is well known as perhaps being the most racist and bigoted presidential candidate in modern history, but as a five-year-old, I knew nothing of his views or policies. What I do remember about that rally are people in the bleachers standing up and shouting over and over “Segregation now and forever!” My father’s friend was a Baptist preacher named Roy Branson. He and his wife, Alice, were also yelling those words and waving their arms in the air.  I didn’t know what the words meant, and I am ashamed to say that I also joined in the chanting. I can only imagine that my parents did not know where the Bransons were taking me when I went to their house to play with their children one afternoon.

The next time I was exposed to politics was in 1973 and 1974, when the Watergate scandal was on the news almost every night. It became obvious to me that Republicans and Democrats did not like each other. When my Grandmother Carrier stayed with us for a short time in the early summer of 1974, recuperating from a heart attack, I asked her why the two parties did not get along. “Republicans would rather throw you in the river than offer a hand to help,” was her reply.

My father was brought up in a family of Democrats and when he turned 18 in 1952 and was able to vote, he cast his first ballot for Adlai Stevenson. He voted for Stevenson again in 1956. Kennedy won his vote in 1960, and he supported Lyndon Johnson in 1964. I do not know my father’s choices in the elections won by Nixon, although I suspect he voted for Humphrey in 1968 and McGovern in 1972. I do know that he was very pleased when Jimmy Carter won the 1976 election and disappointed when he lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980. He wasn’t a fan of Reagan at first, but did support his 1984 re-election. And in 1988, he continued to support the Republican ticket and voted for George H.W. Bush. I am aware of his voting record from reading through the notes and letters he left behind after his death in 1991. He never tried to influence me, allowing me to choose my own political path. I considered myself a Republican when I was a very young person, but was actually apolitical and didn’t even vote until I was nearly 30. By that time, I identified as a Democrat and cast my very first presidential ballot for Bill Clinton.

“To earn my vote, I consider the candidate’s character,” my father told the reporter for the Star in 1982. “And I was pleased to vote for Lamar Alexander as our governor. I think he has done a great job. He has restored confidence to our state government and brought new industry to our state.”

But on that evening in 1978, dad was not sure that Mr. Alexander was the best choice. He had only recently announced his candidacy and his primary opponent was Jake Butcher, a Democrat who had a lot of support. Several years later when Mr. Butcher was prosecuted for bank fraud, I’m sure my father was pleased that he had supported Mr. Alexander.

Lamar Alexander had run for governor in 1974, but had lost to Ray Blanton, who turned out to be one of the most corrupt governors in the state’s history. Blanton was leaving office in disgrace and Tennesseans wanted change. It was the perfect time for Alexander to try again for the top seat in Tennessee government. And when he launched his campaign, his strategy was genius!

He put on a red and black checked shirt, a pair of khaki pants and hiking boots and started walking.

“When I decided to run again, I looked back over the 1974 race, which I lost, and figured out what I could do better,” he said in an interview at the time. “I realized that I had not given the people a chance to know me, and I had not taken the time to know them. I needed to get out and meet people, the farmers, the lawyers, the factory workers. And walking was the obvious way to do that.”

He must have also wanted to meet preachers because, as he walked from town to town, from one end of the state to the other, he made an effort to meet the pastors of small chapels and big churches. He began his walking tour in Marysville, where his parents lived, and then walked east to Mountain City, which took him almost two weeks, averaging ten or 12 miles every day. A few days before he was scheduled to reach my hometown of Mountain City, a member of his team called my father and asked if Mr. Alexander could spend the night at our home. Dad said that he would be welcome.

My step-mother was so excited she had trouble sleeping and spent a great deal of her time preparing for the occasion. By the time the day of his visit finally arrived, the house had been festively decorated, as though the Queen of England was stopping by for tea. Flowering plants had been brought in, as well as a few potted palms. And there had been so much dusting and cleaning that every surfaced glistened. The vacuum cleaner was pulled out of the closet whenever someone walked through one of the carpeted rooms. New towels were purchased for the guest bath and new curtains went up in the guest bedroom. My father was a good sport and helped with the preparations, but he was more comfortable just being himself and didn’t want to put on any airs.

And the meal was sumptuous. The dining room table was extended to its full length and was laden with platters and bowls and serving dishes, all filled with wonderful and aromatic food, including meats and vegetables and breads and salads. Lamps burned softly in the corners of the room and a candelabra cast a lovely glow over the table.

When Mr. Alexander walked into Mountain City very late in the afternoon, my father met him at the Republican party headquarters, where the exhausted candidate was greeted by a cheering crowd. After shaking hands, making a short speech and warming himself by the fireplace, my father brought him home. Also invited to the dinner was Rena Shoun, the Chairwoman of the Johnson County Republican Party. With her white hair and aristocratic bearing, she was a formidable woman. Already in her 80s, she had been the leader of the party in our county since the 1930s. Before any Republican candidate could get a foothold in the county, they had to seek the approval of Mrs. Shoun.

My step-mother had planned the meal carefully, right down to where people would be seated. I remember my father being at one end of the table, and Mr. Alexander at the other, with Mrs. Shoun at his right hand, making it easy for them to talk. Also at the table were my step-mother’s parents, Glenn and Polly Snyder, and a local businessman and his wife, whom my step-mother hoped would make a sizable contribution to the campaign.

Lamar Alexander charmed all of us with his down-to-earth manner and easy-going personality. He regaled us with tales of his journey and the interesting people he was meeting along the way. He enjoyed connecting with people and learning what they liked and didn’t like about government. He talked wistfully about his wife and children, obviously missing them. He said there were a lot of fine people in Tennessee and it would be an honor to serve them as governor.

As I listened to the conversation, I watched my father and could see how much he was beginning to like and respect Lamar Alexander. He had sat down at the table with a few misgivings, but had become a fan and supporter by the time dessert and coffee were served. We all had, especially Mrs. Shoun, who promised that she would do everything possible to make sure he carried Johnson County on election day. “And if you ever want to try for the Big Chair, the one in the Oval Office, let me know,” she grinned. “I campaigned for Dwight Eisenhower and he didn’t do too badly!”

After all the guests had departed and the dishes were washed and put away, Mr. Alexander and my father retired to the den, where they sat talking for hours. The den was directly above my basement bedroom, and I could hear the low mumble of their voices until the wee hours of the morning.

It was my job to rap on the guest room door at 7 a.m. the next day, and I did so nervously, but Mr. Alexander responded politely, thanking me for waking him. He joined us for breakfast and complimented the biscuits and gravy, scrambled eggs and sausage. And then he was gone.

He always referred to his campaign as “the long walk from Mountain City to Memphis” and by the time he did reach Memphis a few months and over a thousand miles later, he was lean and suntanned, but he had met thousands of people along the way. Tennesseans had come to regard him as a friend, and on election day, he handily beat Jake Butcher.

And he had not forgotten the night he spent at our home in Mountain City or the long conversation with my father. A few days after his victory, he called dad and asked him to offer the inaugural prayer.

I accompanied my father and step-mother to Nashville for the ceremony on January 20, 1979.  It was held outside, near the center of the city, and although it was a cool day with a light rain falling, the crowd was excited and very enthusiastic, with lots of cheering and applauding. I found a spot near the front and from under my umbrella, I beamed with pride as my father stood at the podium and offered this prayer: “Our heavenly father, today we confess our need for thy eternal presence. As we stand in the threshold of a new beginning, we ask for thy wisdom to guide us, thy love to strengthen us, thy holiness to protect us. We ask thy blessings on thy servant Lamar Alexander. Give unto him the spirit of wisdom. Let integrity and uprightness guard his path. Give him boldness and courage to do thy will. Gracious father, we thank thee for the men and women of every race, class and creed of our state. Grant that we may live in unity and love, willing to learn from one another, caring for one another, giving reverence unto those that have authority over us as thy magistrates of law and tranquility… through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

A couple of months later, the new governor appointed my father to the Juvenile Justice Commission, a position he held for the next four years. My father and step-mother were also guests at the governor’s mansion more than once and when Lamar Alexander ran for a second term, my father supported him without reservation. My father did not live long enough to see Mr. Alexander’s two unsuccessful tries for the presidency or his three terms in congress as a senator, but I am sure he would have supported those campaigns as well. It was not easy for my father to embrace a Republican politician, but Lamar Alexander earned his support, respect and friendship.

After my father’s death I found a folder filled with correspondence, and a couple of years later I decided to contact Mr. Alexander and let him know of my father’s passing. I received a very nice letter in reply.  “Your father made a lasting impression on me,” he wrote. “He was a wonderful person.”