One day back in the 1960s, Republican Sen. Everette Dirksen took a call from President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson invited Dirksen to come over to the White House that night for a drink. Dirksen told the president that since he had been over there for a drink the night before he would have to decline. His wife insisted he come home, she had plans.
Later that afternoon a couple of Beagles bounded into Dirksen's office, followed by the President of the United States. Johnson told "Ev" that since he wouldn't come to the White House to have a drink with him, he had come over to have a drink with Dirksen.
Dirksen, the Republican leader, and Johnson, the Democratic president, went on to pass the historic Civil Rights Bill with a coalition of Republicans and Northern Democrats over the objections of Southern segregationists.
Recently, a low-level staffer at the White House sent an e-mail to the office of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander asking if the senator was available Thursday night to attend a screening of Steven Spielberg's movie Lincoln. The staffer checked the calendar and replied that Alexander was scheduled to be back in Tennessee that night for an event.
The next week, Alexander's name showed up on a list given to journalists of Republicans who had "snubbed" invitations to the White House, demonstrating that President Barack Obama was trying to work with Congress but not getting any cooperation.
Contrast a call from and a visit from the president to an exchange of e-mails between staffers and you might understand what's wrong with Washington and why nothing ever gets done.
I suspect that if the president had called Alexander, the senator would have revamped his schedule, out of courtesy if nothing else.
In a wide-ranging conversation during the President's Day recess, between sips of sweet tea, Tennessee's senior senator told those two stories and added that he didn't know if President Obama just doesn't want to work with senators or whether he just doesn't know how.
Politico had just published a story about senators that Obama would need to work with to pass some of his major bills, yet the senators had yet to get any calls from the White House. In speculative stories out of Washington these days, Alexander and his colleague U.S. Sen. Bob Corker often appear as possible Republican votes to work out a compromise on major legislation.
I don't think so.
Alexander said he hasn't seen any gun bill he would vote for and I got the impression such a bill will never exist. If Alexander has an opponent in his re-election bid next year, it will likely be from the right wing of his party, in the primary.
Alexander is running hard. He isn't walking across the state as he famously did running for governor back in the 1970s. But he concedes he is running as hard as he ever has. He saw colleagues like Richard Lugar and Bob Bennett defeated in primaries. Saxby Chambliss has quit. Just that day a first-term Republican senator from Nebraska announce he didn't intend to run for re-election.
"Lugar and Bennett were surprised. I won't be." The senator says he will have a SuperPac and should be able to withstand any challenge. I asked him about some tough votes that might be coming along and how he would vote on some of them, like immigration reform. He offered the novel explanation that it would depend on what's in them.
I think Washington pundits and the Obama administration may be surprised by Alexander's votes. Alexander was a two-term governor, a cabinet secretary, a presidential candidate, and has served in the Senate. He's accomplished all that because he is politically astute—by that I mean he won't do anything stupid.
In the meantime, he recently attended a Knoxville Republican club meeting, he has arranged meetings with some of his long-time critics, he has gone to bat for fishermen on the Cumberland River, he's a sponsor of a balanced budget amendment, and legislation to fix the Chickamauga Lock.
He may be 72 years old, but anybody who beats him will have to get up early, go to bed late, and bring a ton of money.
He's still Lamar!