Sen. Lamar Alexander has run for president twice, falling short in both 1996 and 2000. But at Monday's presidential inauguration, the senator will have the rare opportunity to address hundreds of thousands gathered on the National Mall and millions more watching around the globe.
As the ranking Republican senator on the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, Alexander has quietly been working behind the scenes, helping to lay the groundwork for the 57th Inauguration Day. On Monday at approximately noon, President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden will be ceremonially sworn into their second terms on the steps of the U.S Capitol.
Alexander's duties on Monday begin in the morning, when he and his wife, Honey, will visit the White House for morning coffee with Obama, Biden and their spouses. From there, they will accompany the Bidens in the presidential motorcade to the Capitol Building.
"I've been at the Capitol for the last two inaugural ceremonies, sitting near the president—but I've never been such an integral part of a tradition like this," Alexander said in an interview with Nooga.com Wednesday. "I'm taking the opportunity very seriously."
Upon their arrival to the Capitol, Alexander will escort Biden and his wife to the inaugural platform. He'll then deliver a two-minute speech before he introduces U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Sotomayor will then administer the oath of office to Biden.
"When you multiply the time by the amount of people who will be watching, it's probably the biggest speech I'll ever have the opportunity to make," the senator, two-term governor, former U.S. Secretary of Education and former president of the University of Tennessee, said. When asked what his remarks would focus on, Alexander said he was still in the drafting process.
"Two minutes for a speech is a lot harder to give than a 30-minute speech," he said, jokingly. "It will be a simple, short speech, in celebration of the peaceful transfer and reaffirmation of power."
Alexander, a lifelong Republican and at times outspoken critic of Obama, described the inauguration as an "enduring symbol of our democracy" in which tradition and meaning transcend political differences. In the months leading up to the ceremony, the statement has shown true, as the senator has stood beside some of his party's fiercest political opponents, such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, to mark occasions leading toward Monday.
"Regardless of how you vote, an inauguration is a special moment," he said. "It's a representation of the way we do things, which is different from most other countries. We have this immense power, and we transfer it peacefully, without any sort of mob or coup. It's one of the most remarkable things about our democracy."
The senator is not the first lawmaker from Tennessee to play such a prominent role in planning an inauguration. Former Sen. Bill Frist served on the committee planning President George W. Bush's second inauguration; and former Sen. Howard Baker chaired the committee overseeing President Ronald Reagan's second inauguration, according to a Knoxville News Sentinel report.
Alexander's role in planning the ceremony also includes his handpicking a of vocal ensemble from Lee University to sing from the risers near the president on the upper west terrace of the Capitol.
The 200-member festival choir has been practicing outdoors, polishing performances of songs such as "This Land Is Your Land," "God Bless America" and even "The Chattanooga Choo-Choo." On Thursday evening, they'll perform all of their available inaugural material at the Conn Center at Lee, beginning at 7 p.m.
"I'm especially looking forward to going with the Lee choir," Alexander said. "I'll be heading up to Washington on Sunday, a day early, to meet them and show them around … There will be a lot of pride from Tennesseans when they take the stage."
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., chairman of the JCCIC, will also be alongside Alexander throughout the day. Following the inaugural ceremony, the senators will host a luncheon inside the Capitol for the Obamas, Bidens and members of Congress.
"Many people would like to have this kind of event in their country," he said. "We're not perfect by a long shot, but when you think about how we have such a powerful military, how we generate 25 percent of the wealth in the world, and then we have an open competition, and on a single day in January we transfer or reaffirm that power peacefully, it really is a remarkable thing."