New Footnote to 1984

Yesterday afternoon in Murfreesboro, Al Gore got some tongues wagging with a tantalizing new footnote to Tennessee’s history of bipartisan cooperation in the 1980s.

The scene at MTSU was a well-attended book launch for the new biography of Al’s dad, the late Senator Albert Gore Sr. Its distinguished author, the historian Anthony Badger, and former Vice President Gore were featured on a 90-minute panel discussion about the elder Gore’s life and politics.

One of the panelists, History Professor Mary Evins, asked Al to talk about the influence of his mother, the late Pauline Gore, on the political careers of father and son. The son spoke effusively about his accomplished mom, who had been the first woman graduate of Vanderbilt’s School of Law and was a shrewd political thinker in her own right.

Gore also told the audience how Senator Howard H. Baker Jr., the eminent Republican, had had a long friendship with the Gore family, all Democrats. That much we knew.

What we didn’t know was what Al shared next. He spoke of a pair of sensitive, secretive phone calls that Baker placed to Mrs. Gore in the tumultuous political year of 1984 – a year that was freighted with a mixture of high-profile speculations that churned the state’s politics. Among that year’s big questions were these:

-      Was it possible President Ronald Reagan might not seek a second term in the White House? If yes, might Baker now run for President?

-      Would that mean the young Congressman Al Gore of Carthage, then representing the 4th District, might make a statewide run for Baker’s Senate seat?

-      Might Lamar Alexander, the young Republican governor just then beginning his second term at the state capitol, also run for Baker’s seat – thus setting up a spectacular Gore-Alexander contest? (I was then on Alexander’s governor’s staff and remember thinking that I hoped this would never happen; Alexander was my boss and friend, while Gore was a friend from our newspaper days, both with keen intellects and gifts for public service, and I worried that a head-to-head race would mean Tennessee would certainly lose one of them.)

This was, after all, a time in Tennessee politics when strong candidates of both parties were in play. But Baker, meanwhile, was keeping his own cards close about seeking another term.

Yesterday, Gore intrigued some among the older politicos inside MTSU’s Tucker Theatre when he described two telephone calls that Baker himself had placed to Pauline Gore that season, asking that she keep secret what he was about to share, but to share it with her son. She agreed.

Call 1: Baker confided to her a decision he had made but would not announce for another two weeks: He had decided he would not be running for another term. He knew this information would have great implications for the Gore family, whom he respected.

Call 2: Two weeks later, Baker called again. This time he told Mrs. Gore that Gov. Alexander would also announce shortly that he would not run for Senate in that year either. (Alexander eventually ran for Senate in 2002, when he won his current seat.)

This revelation was just a couple of minutes out of a much longer program. But as the campus event adjourned yesterday, many of us there found ourselves asking each other, “Did you know that story, about those phone calls?” “Had you known Baker disclosed all that to Mrs. Gore when he did?” All the answers I heard to these questions were “No.” At a post-event reception on campus, I asked Gore to confirm that I had heard him correctly. I had.

This morning I caught up with Senator Alexander also. I asked him what he knew of Baker’s “across the aisle” phone calls to Mrs. Gore in 1984. Surely Baker, his long-time mentor, would have coordinated very carefully with him on such sensitive political communications with the Other Side.

“I didn’t know about the calls,” Lamar told me. “I knew Howard was close to Pauline Gore. And he was always reaching out to Democrats. He specialized in having good relationships with people on both sides of the aisle. It doesn’t surprise me a bit that he would call Pauline.”

“Baker had recruited me over time to be his successor,” Alexander added. “Reagan had even talked to me about it. But I decided pretty promptly that I didn’t want to do it. It wasn’t a hard decision for me, when I had a chance to be governor for another four years. I wanted to finish the job. I thought it was wrong to ask the people for the job and then not finish the job.”

In the end, of course, President Reagan ran for a second term and was re-elected. Baker did not seek a fourth Senate term. Gore ran, won, and took Baker’s seat in the upper chamber. And the race between Alexander and Gore never happened.

Why is such an old footnote so interesting to me now, half my lifetime later?

Because today our politics – so hyper-partisan and hardened in its spirit now, so nationalized and fierce in its tone – just isn’t like that anymore.