We Know What to Do
By Lamar Alexander
202 pp., $23
'We Know What to Do" is GOP presidential hopeful Lamar Alexander's second book in the past six months. The first, "The New Promise of American Life," contained essays by academics on familiar Republican themes like cutting government and fighting crime. "We Know What to Do" presents a similar message through a different set of voices: local officials and private citizens whom Alexander met during an 8,800-mile trek around the country.
The "we" in the title, Alexander explains, refers to those "Americans who are living their lives in ways that suggest to the rest of us what we need to do." Misty and Aaron, a Missouri couple in their early 20s, work two jobs apiece to stay off welfare and save money for their first house. The Rev. Henry Delaney has revitalized a neighborhood of Savannah, Ga., by restoring dilapidated houses and evicting drug dealers. Police Chief Reuben Greenberg has slashed the daytime crime rate in Charleston, S.C., by sending truant officers to scour the city for students playing hooky. Father Jerry Hill runs a homeless shelter in Dallas that has avoided security problems by refusing to admit drug users; in Hill's words, "no one is 'entitled' to come into this shelter."
Two related messages permeate these stories. One is that the solutions for the nation's problems do not need to be found in Washington, because they already exist in local communities. The other is that we must focus less on individuals' rights and more on their responsibilities. Alexander links these messages with an example from his own life: "I carried a pocketknife to school every day when I was growing up.... Every boy did. But the reason we never even thought about using those knives on each other had nothing to do with the government - it was the families we came from, the nosy neighbors who were so involved in our lives that it was hard to get in trouble, the teachers who taught us right and wrong as well as algebra and English, the churches that were open to keep us busy and out of trouble."
This isn't the familiar Republican claim that government is restricting our freedom. It is instead the claim that we have too much freedom. We have the freedom to become drug addicts, to have children we cannot support, to not hold a job. We have these freedoms because the community no longer has the cohesion or moral force to make us behave. Such talk might appeal to voters, many of whom the chronic problems of poverty and lawlessness have frustrated to the point of fury. Yet by recasting social issues as essentially moral ones, Alexander prompts a difficult question: What could he, as president, do about them?
Alexander's answer is more ambitious than he may realize. "The next president," he writes, "must do much more than turn Washington off. The next president must find a way to turn all of America on - not only get Washington off our backs, but get us back into our families, neighborhoods, churches, and schools."
That is, the president must somehow rebuild the institutions whose decay has caused our present problems. This idea so completely contradicts the book's emphasis on local, nongovernmental solutions that it may have been meant only as a rhetorical flourish. If not, Alexander needs to explain what it does mean. For to claim, in effect, that a president could make us a more moral people is to place greater faith in government than would the most starry-eyed liberal.