This is a sort-of open letter to Matt Bevin, who is running against Mitch McConnell in the 2014 GOP primary for US Senate in Kentucky. In a recent interview, Bevin, a staunch conservative and tea party supporter, was asked if he had any bitterness at Sen Rand Paul, Kentucky’s junior senator, for supporting Mitch, reminiscent of Rick Santorum’s 2004 support of Arlen Specter against fellow-conservative Pat Toomey. (Santorum had done so at Pres Bush’s request.)
Bevin’s answer was very classy and gracious, which should give us all some insight into the man, for he said he fully understood Paul’s stand, bore no ill will, and refused to take the questioner’s bait—- neither harming Sen Paul nor the Republican Party in Kentucky, but also coming off as a bigger candidate than many might have surmised.
Good show, it will fare Matt Bevin better, perhaps sooner than later.
That said, let me say that Mitch McConnell is a nice man whose time has come—-and gone.
In truth, his time went with the passing of Ronald Reagan, and has just lingered for 26 years. In laying this theme out, I’m trying to give the Bevin campaign a sense of the man and his time, rather than a bill of particulars of Mitch’s failings since rising to the top spot in the Republican senate leadership. I think the key, the lead theme, the tone, to defeating Mitch McConnell is found in the former, not the latter, and Kentucky voters will respond accordingly.
I’m just a bit younger than Mitch, and recall when he jumped into the Kentucky political spotlight by beating a fair-haired liberal Democrat named Todd Hollenbeck for the position of County Judge Executive of Jefferson County (that’s the Louisville area). I was practicing law in Arizona at the time. My first law-boss in Kentucky state government was a classmate of Mitch’s at UK Law School and I was four classes behind them.
By 1984 I was back in Kentucky, when Mitch ran against Sen Walter “Dee” Huddleston, a friend of my father-in-law. I was the only person in the county pulling for Mitch, although I sometimes played golf and cards with Dee’s brother, an attorney from a neighboring county.
Mitch ran a really novel campaign that gained national attention, centered around Dee’s frequent absence from the Senate floor and senate votes. It featured a hound dog and a flashlight searching through hill and dale, and the recurring voice-over of “Where’s Dee Huddleston, where’s Dee Huddleston?”
It worked, and Mitch won by a razor-thin margin during Reagan’s second straight sweep. It was quite an upset.
So Mitch came into the Senate on Reagan’s coattails, so was considered a conservative, though I doubt it, certainly not a movement conservative as say, Jack Kemp. But in fairness, conservatism was different then, for it was less articulated, having no bull horn, (there was no talk radio and Rush Limbaugh) and was more acted out on the real-life political stage, where Reagan performed beautifully and the Republicans in Congress, in the minority in both chambers, merely hummed harmony. We conservatives got our daily dose of juice just by watching the nightly news and real events unfold, watching liberals seethe and squirm in their stable of television shows and press clippings (which they monopolized, save Buckley at National Review, read twice monthly by less than 1/1000ths of those who hear Limbaugh daily.)
They so wanted to see Gorbachev come out on top, so their frustrations were palpable. And we cheered.
This is a merely a backdrop to Mitch’s entry into the Senate, for Reagan left office during his first term and Mitch slipped into the tub of an in-and-out minority of non-conviction about anything ideological in the Constitutional or moral sense, although, in the Clinton impeachment vote, he did show he still knew the difference between perjury and a fib. (That ALL Democrats did not, however, never seemed to leave a mark on Mitch, for they remained friends, still.)
To defeat Mitch, I think you have to try to understand who he was then, in the 1980s, because he never really changed. Mitch came to the Senate with an image of the Senate that was already fading when he got there. (If he had watched Mr Smith Goes to Washington, he should have paid more attention to Claude Raines than Jimmy Stewart, for Frank Capra laid that illusion bare in 1939.) Still, it is an illusion of a past that was dead and gone by the time Mitch got there, and I think he refused to ever accept it.
It’s sad, actually.
About that illusion, enter the daunting visage of John Sherman Cooper. Cooper was from my neck of the woods, east Kentucky, but was a Harvard man. My father knew him and admired him as no other Kentuckian or politician—-until he met Barry Goldwater. He was as distinguished a gentleman as you could hope to know, a silver-haired southerner, but without any of the racial baggage. The picture of gentility. Eisenhower admired him, as did Harry Truman. He was often thought of as a liberal, opposed to both LBJ and Nixon on the Vietnam War, but still not of the Left (at least that I recall). He personified the grand image of the United States Senate and public service; its wisdom, its solemnity, its gravitas.
This is what Mitch McConnell saw in being a part of the Senate, for he first went to work for Cooper in 1967, who sponsored his early career. I’m told he idolized the man. Getting a sense of Mitch McConnell all makes sense if you understand that while conservatives were trying hard to get a foot in the door of a rising new ideological reality in Washington under Reagan, Mitch was setting his feet in the cement of the generation behind him, in that dying illusory world Sen Cooper bequeathed, not the brave new angry world that lay ahead.
You see, Jimmy Carter, a Liberal of the Left, was the steward of a center-left Democrat Party, not the Left-Far Left Democrat party it is today. But Reagan beat him because he was feckless and inept, with policies that didn’t work, not because he was of the Left. Carter embarrassed America abroad, but not one in ten Americans associated Carter’s failings with an ideology. The rule then was, when in doubt, go with human failings, not ideological ones. At least that was the rule down at the barbershop, where every man felt superior to
Obama, Carter as a man.
On the other side, Reagan managed a center-right party, and while he governed where he could as a conservative, since the GOP at no time in his eight years controlled either chamber it was largely a center-right administration where Reagan won some (tax cuts) and lost some (amnesty). But he won the Cold War based entirely on an alliance made between himself directly with the American people, sidestepping Congress altogether. (This is the strategy Obama stole for his 2012 campaign.)
Mitch McConnell and the entire GOP had little to do with any of that.
This isn’t hard to understand, and is even easy to forgive, considering Ronald Reagan was smitten in a similar way. Who wouldn’t glory in a chamber where Henry Clay once stood, or Daniel Webster once orated? I’m close enough to Mitch in age to know that I sure would. Hallowed halls. Reagan felt the same way about the Oval Office, as did George W Bush. “Enter ye, with reverence.”
In those days America’s threats were all external, or so we thought. Domestically it was politics, not ideology; the Grand Game that drove events. Reagan knew what they said about him (well not entirely, especially in the later years, when much of the vitriol was kept from him), but believed it was all just gamesmanship, typical of those rascally Democrats.
I’ve often mentioned that Reagan at no time could ever have imagined, as he was delivering a State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress, or believed, that fully 20% of the members assembled there were communists with their primary mission to destroy the United States Constitution and our entire republican form of government. Neither could Mitch McConnell for that matter, no matter how many times that socialist hound dog has walked right up and bitten him right on the ass since Ronald Reagan left office.
Reagan, Bush, McConnell, and a host of others (all of good will) now over 70, could never allow themselves to believe that any Democrat was an enemy of their beloved country. America’s enemies always lay “out there,” not “in here.” And while I’ve spend a good deal of time damning them for that, I feel a great sadness that they weren’t right, and I’m the one who was wrong.
It’s a common enough ailment, so I can’t speak ill of Mitch McConnell about it, although I often speak that way about things he has done—-or, more often, not done or said, for politically, Mitch McConnell wrote the book on the three great sins of omission; coulda, woulda, shoulda. But that blind spot of America’s hallowed past has settled over far too many good men to simply damn them all because they simply could not bring themselves to think the unthinkable about people in an institution they revered since childhood. (I felt the same way my first visit to a real brothel, which was nothing like Pauline’s on Jimtown Road, renowned in story and song.)
It’s time to let Mitch go, Kentucky—-
—-unlike Harry Reid, who should be stripped of his pension, and maybe part of his hind shanks. Mitch should just be gently nudged out to pasture, an old gray mare who no longer lives in times that just ain’t what they used to be—or what he ever thought they were.
In losing to Matt Bevins, I don’t think Mitch will be like Richard Lugar (who surprised me) or Robert Bennett (who didn’t), both who turned their campaigns against the Republican who ousted them, but if he does, then he can burn in the same fires of hell to which we’ve condemned Bennett, Lugar and the entire Republican Party of Delaware. But I doubt it. If I’m right about Mitch McConnell, his sense of the Senate is the grace of John Sherman Copper, a trait I also just mentioned as possessed by Matt Bevin.
In my view, while it’s fair game to question Mitch’s not questioning hard enough his “good friend,” Harry Reid, or that whole gaggle of geese across the aisle affectionately referred to by me as “g-damned Democrats,” I think it would be a mistake to use that sort of incendiary rhetoric to justify his removal to the voters. The good people of Kentucky, especially those over 50, including most tea party members, would find it much easier on their own consciences to rise up and escort a gentle man to a retirement villa in Franklin County, thanking him for thirty years of service, instead of riding him out of the state backwards on a donkey.
Still, the fly in the buttermilk, the current situation analysis, is that America is now in an ideological war for its very survival, and that war is now almost entirely internal, not external, and Mitch simply refuses to see it. And I don’t believe anything can make him.
A good solid ad campaign saying that message would be best, I think. Just find a way to use a coon dog in it, Mr Bevin, and it will catch on.