WASHINGTON -- "I'm embarrassed," a businessman confides to the bellhop escorting him through the Jefferson Hotel. "There's a guy in the lobby who was running for president two months ago, and now I've forgotten his name."
"Governor Alexander," the bellhop whispers.
"That's right," says the businessman. "Lamar Alexander."
Running for president is rough. It is dehumanizing, physically exhausting and unspeakably cruel. Lamar Alexander knows.
"It's like walking above Niagara Falls on a swaying tightrope as the wind blows and the crowd shouts, 'Fall!' " he says.
But campaigning is a pleasure trip compared with what it's like to suddenly lose. One day you're a celebrity, a familiar face on the nightly news. The next day, you're a failure a nobody. A near-death experience, Alexander says.
The first time he lost a big campaign, a try for governor of Tennessee in 1974, he was "drained, sick. I had never felt worse."
This time, losing on the national level, in a high-stakes candidacy he waged virtually nonstop for more than two years, was "a bigger funeral," he says with a laugh.
The hardest part, at least at first, was how abruptly it all ended, almost without warning, in the first month of the primary season: "It's like going at 100 mph around a track for a couple of years," he says, tracing quick circles on the table top with his index finger. "And then hitting a brick wall."
Alexander had his proverbial 15 minutes of fame in February. After a surprisingly strong showing in Iowa, his long-shot candidacy caught fire. Hordes of TV cameramen clogged the frigid sidewalks of New Hampshire and mobbed the candidate and his plaid-shirted army of supporters as they campaigned for votes. With primary day near, polls showed Alexander gaining. Overtaking Bob Dole, the favorite, suddenly seemed possible.
He fell 3 percentage points short, and that was it. A couple of weeks later he quit the race.
Politicians who seek the presidency are typically proven winners. They have a track record of success, either in national or state races, and are often strangers to failure on such a grand scale. Some take years to get over the loss.
In his new afterlife as a former presidential hopeful, Alexander says he's learned to cope with the disappointment. In appearances before audiences and in one-on-one interviews, he pokes gentle fun at himself. "I'm a recovering candidate," he says with an easy grin.
He has moved beyond the bitterness and what he says was the guilt at letting his thousands of supporters down. Now, he is working through the "what-if" stage. "About once a week," he says, "I have an attack of 'What could I have done differently in the last four days of the New Hampshire primary?' "
Other dazed also-rans from the Republican presidential contest of '96 have quietly resumed their pre-campaign existence. Sen. Phil Gramm is seeking re-election in Texas. Sens. Richard Lugar and Arlen Specter are back at their Capitol desks, and California Gov. Pete Wilson is at work in Sacramento.
Millionaire Steve Forbes has rejoined his magazine publishing empire, though he did do a turn as guest host of "Saturday Night Live" recently, stoking the fires of ego that were banked when he pulled out of the campaign.
Alexander, unlike the others, is a member of that peculiar late-20th century political subspecies: the out-of-office politician whose occupation seemed to be running for president. Jimmy Carter, a former Georgia governor, blazed the path two decades ago, and many others have followed.
Alexander claims that, not long ago, when he told his wife, Honey, that he was planning to take three weeks off in July, she replied, "Off from what? You haven't worked in two years."
Recently, he signed onto the lecture circuit, though he declines to reveal just how fat a fee a former presidential candidate commands.
When a correspondent for a Tennessee newspaper timorously asked him the other day ("I have a tacky question. . . .") if he ## would say how much he received for a luncheon speech to a business lobby group in Washington, Alexander bluntly told her: "I'll give you a tacky answer: No."
He says he intends to practice what he called for on the campaign trail -- a shift in emphasis to more local responsibility and private charity as an alternative to big centralized government -- so he's agreed to head a study on philanthropy for the Bradley Foundation and intends to become more involved in volunteer work back home in Nashville.
He's also resumed his place on the board of directors of a child care company he helped start in the 1980s.
But in a real sense, the 55-year-old Alexander is still running. He even has a new stump speech. Actually, it's mostly his old one, minus much of the Washington-bashing and with a healthy dose of lessons-I-learned-as-a-candidate thrown in.
He's made the requisite pilgrimage to Washington, offering his services to the party and its likely nominee. He'll be used as a surrogate speaker and fund-raiser around the country this summer and fall, he says.
Speeches, like one last week to the National Retail Federation, bring inevitable questions about the vice presidency. He replies that he's not seeking it and doesn't "really want it." Any speculation about whom Dole will pick is useless, he adds. "It's like trying to guess who your son will marry. You hope for the best, but you have no idea."
His message during the primaries was that Dole is too old to lead the country into the 21st century and that a more youthful leader, like Lamar Alexander, was needed. Today, he has nothing but positive things to say about Dole.
"I know he's a good campaigner. He beat the tar out of me," he says. "I was pretty careful not to say things that if they were brought back to me in September or October that I'd have a hard time trying to swallow."
Friends say Alexander is realistic enough to know that lightning, in the form of an offer to be Dole's running mate, is unlikely to strike, but he'll continue to keep his options open.
He's sent a long letter to his list of 22,000 contributors, a valuable asset in any future political endeavor. He plans to campaign for, and contribute to, other Republican candidates this year, using his Nashville political action committee (the Republican Fund for the Nineties) as a base. He's even distributing a new packet of press clippings.
It pushes the idea that Alexander was the candidate who came closest to taking the nomination away from Dole. Alexander says that Scott Reed, the Dole campaign manager, told him as much the other day.
His supporters, says Alexander, regard his defeat last winter as "a bump in the road, rather than an end. They're more ready than I am right now" for the next presidential campaign.
That race could begin as early as this summer's Republican convention in San Diego. But Alexander says he'll wait until November to assess his prospects.
"I'm going to row Dole's boat, not mine," he says, knowing that's also the best politics for now. He is well aware that the Republican presidential nomination has always gone, in the past 30 years, to a candidate with at least one national campaign under his belt, and that few of his '96 rivals are likely to try again.
Of course, another generation of hungry hopefuls is always waiting to chase the presidential dream. Indeed, some of the party's popular state governors already are gearing up.
One of these rising stars was asked, in the aftermath of Alexander's wipeout last winter, to predict what role Alexander would play in the next nomination race.
"Citizen," he replied.
Pub Date: 5/13/96