Alexander may succeed, but how did he do in Ethics 101?

George Kaplan

April 11, 1991|By George Kaplan

THE BUSH administration outdid itself at mid-term in naming former governor of Tennessee Lamar Alexander to be secretary of education. But it may also have painted itself into a murky corner, for this gifted politician-educator brings an unsettling blend of substantive pluses and ethical question marks to American education's most visible job.

Few modern-day cabinet appointments have evoked higher approval levels. Alexander is an authentic education reformer: bursting with ideas, encyclopedically informed and capable of broad-vision leadership. His nearly perfect resume and winning personal style -- he has a homespun Alan Simpson-type personality without the nasty bite -- have drawn raves from policy-makers, educators and commentators.

But . . .

Lamar Alexander became a rich man while serving the people of Tennessee as governor and later as president of the state university. Through a series of technically legal transactions with fellow Tennesseeans and others, he parlayed personal advice and a scattering of insignificant financial investments into a kitty that may be worth close to $3 million. Is this a great country -- or what?

Alexander's financial odyssey since the early 1980s has been a magpie's nest of sweetheart deals, preferential and unsecured bank loans, exorbitantly priced consultantships, uncashed checks and timely transfers to and from his wife's accounts. Along the way, the two-term Tennessee leader took a $128,000 tax write-off for a post-gubernatorial family stay of six months in Australia that yielded a profitable book titled, unsurprisingly, "Six Months Off."

For a public servant who reportedly chose politics over wealth, TC Alexander has enjoyed an unusually prosperous run. While governor, he was part of a group that brokered the sale of the Knoxville Journal to the Gannett Communications Corp., a piece of business that dropped $569,000 into the Alexander family piggy bank. An investment in the Corrections Corporation of America at a time when privatization was an apparent option for the state's overcrowded prison system brought the governor's wife a profit of some $140,000 on an outlay of $8,900. Deals involving a profitable conference center, a commercial child care company, and Whittle Communications of Memphis later returned handsome benefits.

Membership on corporate boards produced an income of $110,000 in 1990 alone while Alexander was president of the University of Tennessee. Nothing remarkable there except that several officers of those firms received posts on various higher education boards.

In public comments late in the Senate's confirmation process, the then-future cabinet secretary vigorously defended his conduct and Midas-like successes, even though nearly all were linked in various ways to his official state positions. "I have made some good investments which, for a potential cabinet member, I hope is better than making bad ones."

This combination of super-sharp business acumen, useful connections and pride in both didn't faze the U.S. Senate, which approved Alexander's nomination by voice vote following unanimous approval (with one abstention) by the confirming Labor and Human Resources Committee. Getting an admirably prepared secretary of education into place after the dismal stewardship of his predecessor was clearly a more insistent priority than fluoroscoping the questionable moral dimensions of his extracurricular business life. Besides, federal legislators aren't big on financial disclosure.

For the first time, the nation has a genuinely qualified educational leader for all seasons in Washington, and George Bush may finally become the "Education President" he says he wants to be. Even though Alexander is no friend of teacher unions and believes that Burger King and IBM should run some of our schools, the powerful Washington-based school lobbies are ready to forgive, forget and cooperate. It's clear sailing for one of education's preeminent thinker-doers to make a difference, and according to press reports this week, that's exactly what Alexander is doing.

But the trade-off leaves a distinctly sour aftertaste. Have we become conditioned to believing that almost anything goes for public officials as long as it's not illegal or indictable? Is it too much to ask that the secretary of education set an example of principled behavior for our 50 million school children and 3 million teachers? Or is American education supposed to do as he says and not as he does?

The new secretary has repeatedly skirted the outer limits of propriety and decorousness. Part of his version of the American dream seems to be a relatively simple credo: Get it while you can and use your well-placed buddies while you're in positions to help one another. And don't look back. It is frightening to ponder what kind of society -- and what sort of schools -- we would have if American education were to identify itself with such a belief system.

It will not suffice for Lamar Alexander to observe the letter of the federal government's tough statutes on outside income and conflict of interest. He will surely do that.

What he must finally come to understand and embed in his consciousness is that public integrity is an absolute. It has no shadings. Personal gain is out. Selflessness is in. That's the way it has to be.

George Kaplan, a Washington-based education writer, is author of "Who Runs Our Schools? The Changing Face of Educational Leadership."

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