Search Form
First, enter a politician or zip code
Now, choose a category

Public Statements

Politics and Government

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, on July 11, I addressed the Fund for American Studies annual Congressional Scholarship Award Dinner here in Washington. I ask consent to have this transcript of my remarks printed in the Record.

There being no objection, the material was ordered to be printed in the Record, as follows:

Very often, young people say to me, ``How can I get involved in politics and government?'' Tonight there are at least 85 of you here who are young and may be wondering about that, so I'm going to tell you exactly how to do it.

Here's the secret formula: Pick someone whom you admire. Volunteer to help carry their bag, write their speeches, do anything they ask you to do that's legal. Watch what they do, watch what they do well, watch what they do wrong, and learn from it. That's the way I would suggest to get involved in politics and government.

Now, back when I was governor, I made a speech and my late friend Alex Haley, the author of Roots, was in the audience, and he came up to me afterwards and said, ``Lamar, may I make a suggestion to you?'' And I said, ``Of course Alex.'' He said, ``When you start a speech, if you will just say Instead of making a speech, let me tell you a story,' people might actually listen to what you have to say.'' So instead of making a speech, let me tell you some stories to illustrate my secret formula for how to get involved in politics and government.

I'm going to mention three of my mentors, and I think it's important for you to know that I had no special connection to these three who helped me get involved in politics and government.

When I was running for president some years ago, the New York Times wrote an article that said, I grew up in a small town in lower-middle class family, in a small town on the edge of the mountains in Tennessee. And, when I called home later in the week to talk to my mother, I found her reading Thessalonians to gather strength on how to deal with this slur on the family. She said, ``Son, we had never thought of ourselves in that way. You had a library card from the day you were three, you had music lessons from the day you were four. You had everything you needed that was important.'' So I had everything I needed that was important, but to these three men, who helped me so much, I had no special connection at all.

The first was John Minor Wisdom. Toward the end of my third year at New York University Law School, I didn't know what to do and the dean of the Law School said, ``Would you like to clerk for Judge Wisdom in New Orleans?'' And I said, ``Well of course, he's one of the best in the country.'' He said, ``There's one hitch, he's already got a clerk and he's only allowed one.'' So I said, ``Well how do I get to be a clerk?'' He said, ``He has a position of messenger that pays $300 a month, and if you'll take the job as messenger he'll treat you like a clerk.'' So, I took it. I drove down to New Orleans--the Harvard guy got a clerkship, and I was the messenger. Of course, Judge Wisdom treated me like a clerk and I had a wonderful year. I did get tired of making so little money, so I went down to Bourbon Street and got a job playing trombone, washboard and tuba at a place called ``Your Father's Mustache,'' and that's how I got started with Judge Wisdom. So, if you want to be a clerk, and someone offers you a job as messenger, take it, and then learn to play the trombone, the washboard, and tuba.

Now my second mentor: Howard Baker. Many people here know Howard. I could speak about him for a week, and he is undoubtedly the most important person in my life, other than my own family members. But how did I get connected to him? Well, I didn't know him. His father was our congressman. My dad took me to the courthouse to meet Mr. Baker, Howard's father, when I was ten years old. He gave me a dime, I remember that, and I thought I'd probably met the most respected man I was ever likely to meet, other than my father and the preacher. But when I was getting through with Judge Wisdom I noticed that Howard Baker was running for the United States Senate from Tennessee. We'd never had a Republican Senator, so I wrote him a letter, volunteering to work in his campaign. I never heard from him. So I was home for Easter in 1966 and I finagled an appointment with him, got in to see him and volunteered for his campaign. The long and short of it was, a couple of months later I had a little bit of a paying job.

Then, to our surprise, he got elected, he brought me to Washington, and I was his first legislative assistant. We had, as he likes to tell it, a perfect relationship. One of my duties was as his speechwriter. I would write a speech, give it to him, and he seemed happy. Well one day, I wanted to hear him deliver one. He didn't say a word of anything I'd written. I went a second time. Not a word. So I asked to see him. I said, ``Senator, we have a problem.'' He said, ``What's the problem?'' I said, ``I work hard, write these speeches and you never give a word of it.'' He said, ``Lamar, we have a perfect relationship. You write what you want to write, I say what I want to say.''

Now the mentor I'd like to talk about tonight is a man well known to this organization because this institute was once named for him--Bryce Harlow.

In 1968, I was working for United Citizens for Nixon-Agnew in the Willard Hotel, and it was filled with people who didn't quite fit into the Republican establishment at the time, one of whom was Bud Wilkinson, the most famous football coach of the time. And when the campaign was over, I didn't have a job. And so Bud said, ``Well, let me call Bryce Harlow.'' Which he did, and I got a job. And so Bryce Harlow was President Nixon's first appointee and I, without ever having known him, ended up as his executive assistant, which means I sat in his office in the West Wing of the White House, about eight feet from him for six months, smoking cigarettes with him, answering the telephone and getting a Ph.D. in politics and government from the wisest man in Washington, D.C. Today, that office is the office of the Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden.

After Bryce got tired of me sitting so close to his office for six months, he moved me out and created a little cubbyhole. And, if any of you are in there visiting Joe Biden, you can still see that cubbyhole today.

But why do I say that Bryce Harlow was the wisest man in Washington, D.C.? Well, here's an example. He was from Oklahoma. He was recruited to Washington to work for General George Marshall. He used to tell me, and here's a lesson, that he was very popular with the generals because he could take shorthand. Bryce was a small guy. He said there's nobody more popular in a room full of generals than a short little guy who can take shorthand and write down all those orders. He moved straight up the ladder. So the lesson is: learn shorthand. Bryce stayed in Washington, worked for the House Armed Services Committee, and became President Eisenhower's favorite staff member.

He was in charge of government relations for Proctor & Gamble when he wasn't in the government. And when President Nixon was elected, Bryce Harlow was his first appointee. The campaign transition headquarters was in the Pierre Hotel, New York City. And on one occasion, Mr. Nixon, the president-elect, had said something about foreign policy that made President Johnson, who was still President, very upset. So, President Johnson called the one person he knew in the Nixon campaign, Bryce Harlow. As Mr. Harlow is sitting there listening to President Johnson chew his ear out on the phone--saying ``Bryce, there's only one President at a time, and I am that President!''--Mr. Harlow's secretary comes in and says, ``Mr. Harlow, President Eisenhower is calling for you.'' So, Mr. Harlow, listening to President Johnson, told Sally, the secretary, ``You'll have to put President Eisenhower on hold.'' Then Larry Higby, who was working at the Pierre Hotel, came running in and said, ``Mr. Harlow, Mr. Harlow, President Nixon wants to see you immediately.'' So, you can see that Bryce Harlow was in demand, with the current president chewing his ear off, the former President on hold, and the President-elect demanding to see him in his office.

The wiser members of the White House staff would drop by that office and ask Mr. Harlow what to do. Here's an example: Peter Flannigan, who lives in New York and is a great friend of mine still today, was a very good businessman. I remember he came in to see Mr. Harlow and said, ``Bryce, I just wanted to chat with you. I'm in charge of the Independent Regulatory Agencies, and we are a pro-business administration, we need efficiency in government. There's a television license that's been pending for 18 months for a Miami station. I'm going to call over there and I'm not going to tell them what way to decide, I'm just going to say that we want to know the status of the case.''

And Bryce responded, ``Peter, do you remember Sherman Adams?'' And Peter said, ``Well of course I do. He was President Eisenhower's disgraced Chief of Staff.'' Bryce said, ``Peter, do you remember what disgraced him?'' Peter said, ``No I'm not sure.'' Bryce said, ``He made a telephone call to an Independent Regulatory Agency on behalf of a friend who was a campaign contributor and had given him a Christmas present.'' So Mr. Flannigan thought about this and thought better of making that telephone call.

We young people in the White House were very impatient. We wanted the president and his top advisors to do even more this way, even more that way. And I remember Mr. Harlow saying to me, ``No Lamar. Remember that in the White House, just a little ripple here makes a very big wave out there. So, just settle down, just a little bit.''

In the early months of the Nixon administration, the new, brasher young members of the White House staff, and some of the old ones too, were in deep trouble with the United States Senate. They knew nothing about the Senate. Finally, they came to Mr. Harlow and said, ``Bryce, we can't get anything done, can you help us out?'' So Mr. Harlow got his bag, got in a car, drove up to the Senate, went to some back room where Senator Eastland and a bunch of the old boys, who were the Southern senators, were all clumped together having a bourbon in the late afternoon. They were in a very foul mood about the Nixon White House. Mr. Harlow went in, he went down on one knee, bowed to them and said, ``Ah, I see before me 155 years of accumulated seniority and wisdom.'' Upon which they all burst out laughing, and everything was fine. He had the experience and the good judgment just to show a little respect to the office that these Senators held, and that was really all it took for him to get what he wanted.

I remember once that an irate Democratic chairman called, complaining because the new Republican administration was announcing grants in his district before Democratic congressman knew about it. Bryce said, ``Mr. Chairman, I understand your feelings. Let me call you right back, I want to check on something.'' So he called Larry O'Brien, who was the Chief of Congressional Relations for President Johnson in the Democratic administration. He said, ``Now Larry, could you tell me exactly how you and President Johnson announced those grants when you were in office?'' Once he heard, he called back the chairman and he said, ``Mr. Chairman, I've just checked with Larry O'Brien and here's exactly what President Johnson did. We're going to be exactly fair with you, we're going to do just the reverse and let the Republicans announce them.'' And there was this big laugh on the end of the line. So he got done what he had to do, but he did it in a way that made the other person feel good about it.

Bryce Harlow had a great sense of ethics. One of his personal ethics was that he never wrote a book. He thought it would be a betrayal of all the confidential relationships that he had in the White House, and couldn't do it. It's a shame he didn't, in a way, because he was the best writer around in the Nixon and the Eisenhower administrations.

On one occasion, he was planning to take a vacation with his wife in Mexico with an old friend. There couldn't be any possible conflict of interest with this friend--they'd known each other forever, and there was really nothing Mr. Harlow could do for this person. Then about a week before the trip, the friend called, asking for a small favor, and the next thing I knew, Mr. Harlow's secretary was calling the friend saying, ``I'm so sorry, but the President has asked Bryce to go to thus and so, and he won't be able to go on the trip.'' She didn't embarrass the friend, but he also didn't even take the risk of an appearance of impropriety based upon a tiny favor that the friend had asked of him.

I heard it said a little earlier that ``Your word is your bond.'' That's Bryce Harlow's phrase, he always would say to a lobbyist or anyone working with a member of Congress or with a Senator, or even with another Senator, ``Always tell the truth, tell the exact truth. Don't overstate a thing, don't understate a thing, and if you have to, tell the other side to make sure that whomever you're speaking with is never surprised as a result of what you've just told them. And always keep your word.'' It gave him a tremendous reputation in this community and it greatly influenced hundreds of people who work here.

One other thing, he told me a story that I've remembered for a long time about his days with the Eisenhower administration. Some people must read books about Lyndon Johnson and suspect that maybe most of the people who work in high positions of trust--in politics, in business, in universities, or whatever line of work--are always shading the truth and looking at the angle and elbowing one another and taking advantage. How else, you might ask, would they get to the top? It's hard to get a picture of what people who are really at the top actually do when they make decisions.

While I can't tell you what they all do, I can tell you this is the story that pretty much symbolizes my impression of most of the successful people I know in politics and how they make their most difficult decisions.

President Eisenhower was having a Cabinet meeting in the 1950s. Some great issue was laid before the Cabinet, so the President put the issue to the Secretary of State, ``Mr. Secretary, what shall we do?'' ``Well, from a foreign policy point of view,'' said the Secretary, ``we must do X.'' ``Mr. Secretary of Defense, what shall we do?'' ``Well, um, from a defense point of view, if we did X that would be a disaster for the country, so we've got to do Y.'' ``And Mr. Treasury Secretary, what shall we do?'' And the Treasury Secretary had Z as an angle. Before long they went around the cabinet room and they all had a different opinion about how the decision might affect the department each headed. And then President Eisenhower asked this question, ``Well gentlemen,'' (and I think they were all gentleman but one at that time), he said, ``What would be the right thing to do for the country?''

The Secretary of State said, ``Well Mr. President, the right thing to do would be C.'' And Secretary of Defense said, ``Yes, the right thing to do would be C,'' and pretty quickly they all agreed that would be the right thing to do for the country. And so the President of the United States said to his Press Secretary Jim Hagerty, ``Jim, then that's what we'll do, go tell the press.''

Now, here we have, not an unsophisticated man, this was the leading general during World War II, this was a man who was President of the United States. He had the biggest job in the world. And he was making a big decision. And when it came time to ask the question that had to be answered before a bunch of very sophisticated people, his question was, ``What would be the right thing to do for our country?'' I think you'll find more often than not that when we're puzzled by what to do, that's the right question. And the answer isn't always obvious, but that question will lead to the answer more quickly than just about any other question that you can ask.

So thank you for allowing me to come tonight. I'm here to honor you. I'm glad to have a chance to tell you about the great Bryce Harlow, who has meant so much to this organization. My advice about how to get involved in politics and government is: Pick someone who you admire, volunteer to work for them, carry their bag, do anything that they ask you to do that's legal, learn from them, watch what they do right, watch what they do wrong--and one more little piece of advice that my railroad-engineer grandfather used to tell me when I was a little boy, he'd say ``Aim for the top, there's more room there.'' Thank you.

Skip to top

Help us stay free for all your Fellow Americans

Just $5 from everyone reading this would do it.

Thank You!

You are about to be redirected to a secure checkout page.

Please note:

The total order amount will read $0.00 but know that a recurring donation of the amount and frequency that you selected will be processed and initiated tomorrow. You may see a charge of $0.00 on your statement.

Continue to secure page »

Back to top