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Front Page - Friday, December 28, 2018

Rogers column: Lamar says he’ll miss his friends from both sides

It’s not normally big news when a 78-year-old man decides to retire – at age 80. 

Yet Sen. Lamar Alexander created a flurry of chatter recently when he announced his decision not to run for a fourth term in 2020.

“I’ve had my turn,” Alexander said in an interview with The New York Times. “Everything comes to an end sometime, and it is good to know when that should be.”

For most working stiffs, that end comes long before 78, or 80. Thank goodness.

But the United States Senate, sometimes called the most exclusive club in America, is not like most jobs. The average age of members at the start of the current Congress was 61.8 years, “among the oldest in U.S. history,” the Congressional Research Service confirms.

The five oldest are Dianne Feinstein of California and Chuck Grassley of Iowa, both 85; Orrin Hatch of Utah (who’s about to exit), Richard Shelby of Alabama and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, all 84. Feinstein is a Democrat; the rest are Republicans.

Hatch will have been there 42 years at his departure; Grassley in the New Year will be at 38 and counting. The other three have each been there 24 years or more.

Clearly, there’s something about the place that makes people want to hang around. Some of them – I’m not calling any names here – for too long.

I’m no fan of term limits. I figure voters can exercise that power when they want. But I am curious as to what keeps some politicians motivated to stay on the job at an age that most of us have put ourselves – or been put – out to pasture.

Alexander told me what he expected to miss about the job, in a phone conversation he squeezed in on one of the last working days before Congress was to adjourn.

First he mentioned “not being able to get up every day thinking I might be able to do something good for the state and the country, and going to bed every night thinking maybe I have.”

I suspect most Tennesseans say they believe that, on balance, Alexander has succeeded more often than not.

“I’ll also miss the relationships,” he said. Most people on the outside, he went on, are under the mistaken impression that senators are at each other’s throats.

“The fact is we’re disgustingly civil to one another,” he acknowledged. “I have many good friendships on both sides of the aisle,” he added, with many of those friends having visited the Alexander home.

What he will not miss is the unpredictable schedule that is the nature of a legislative body. Or at least, of this legislative body in these times.

“Here I am on the Saturday before Christmas when the Senate has already given the president what he asked for on the border wall, and he won’t sign it,” he said.

I didn’t pursue that topic. It’s always my aim, when possible, for this column to be a Trump-free zone. Nor am I interested in speculating about a successor, other than this: It will be a Republican.

It’s also probably a mistake that I used the word “retire” to describe what Alexander will be doing. When he was first elected to the Senate in 2002, he said, he’d basically spent half his life in the private sector and half in some form of public service, whether elected or appointed.

Every time he’s been out of politics, he added, he’s had no trouble finding something else to put his energy into.

“I’ve just completed this stage of my life,” he said, “and I’m in good health and really doing a job as well as I ever have.”

He hasn’t given much thought yet to what the next stage will be, he said, but he isn’t worried about idle time:

“There’s plenty to do in the world.”

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville.