Kentucky’s Drive By Candidate

henry clay

Henry Clay

Rand Paul and Henry Clay

Any list of U.S. senate giants would include Kentucky ’s Henry Clay, whose bronze likeness stands tall in Statuary Hall in the Capitol in Washington.

Clay was Kentucky ’s most important political figure. I wonder if he is spinning in his tomb in Lexington , his hometown, at the prospect of a Sen. Rand Paul.

Clay, a Whig, was the epitome of a statesman. Paul is a Tea-Party-tilting Republican extremist.

“Paul has spent the summer and early fall revealing himself to be quite the ideologue who’s long on simplistic slogans but short on understanding the drastic consequences of adhering to those slogans,” said the Lexington Herald-Leader editorial that endorsed Jack Conway, Paul’s Democratic opponent.

Clay was a great orator, but he was not given to empty sloganeering. He backed up his words with deeds. An ardent unionist, he was famous for compromises that, at the time, staved off disunion and civil war. He went down in history as the “Great Pacificator.”

Clay’s nationalism was reflected in his proposed “American System,” a program in which he wanted the federal government to play a major role in helping create a self-sufficient economy.

“Compromise” doesn’t seem to be part of Paul’s vocabulary. He is a far-right-wing libertarian of the Ayn Rand greed-is-a-virtue persuasion. Paul has a knee-jerk disdain for almost anything Washington does. “The sole focus of his campaign involves his antipathy for federal government,” the Herald-Leader editorialist added.

Clay died in 1852 following more than 40 years of public service to his state and to his nation, but not just as a senator. He was speaker of the Kentucky and U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. secretary of state and a three-time presidential candidate.

Paul has never held office or even run for office. But he and his supporters act like inexperience is somehow a virtue.

Clay, though he was born in Virginia , was a Kentuckian through and through. The Pittsburgh-born, Texas-reared Paul isn’t, according to the Herald-Leader editorial: “As far as Kentucky is concerned, he is a drive-by candidate — a transplant who, despite living here for the better part of two decades, never stopped to smell the bluegrass and learn about his adopted state’s history, culture, problems or needs….If he mentions Kentucky at all, it is almost as an afterthought.”

While Clay loved Kentucky, he always put the federal union first. His nationalist spirit was reflected in the founders of the Bluegrass State Republican Party. Clay was a hero to pioneer Republicans in Kentucky (and to President Abraham Lincoln).

Paul is more proof that the party of “Lincoln and Liberty” has strayed far from its roots in Kentucky. (Other Tea Party candidates prove the same thing in other states.)

Bluegrass State Republicans of the 1860s did not share Paul’s “antipathy for federal government.” Quite the opposite, they firmly supported the use of federal military and political might to whip the Confederates and restore the Union .

They also supported the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the constitution, which ended the last vestiges of slavery, made African Americans citizens and put the ballot in the hands of African American men.

For years, the GOP included several African Americans. (Clay owned slaves but hoped slavery would gradually die out.) Today’s Kentucky GOP and Tea Party are nearly all white. The same is true everywhere else.

Anyway, as late as the 1960s, Kentucky Republicans like Sen. John Sherman Cooper, a nationalist in the Clay mold, were joining other liberal and moderate Republicans and liberal and moderate Democrats in championing historic federal action on behalf of racial equality.

Cooper, whose Kentucky forebears were anti-slavery Republicans, helped defeat a filibuster by segregationist conservative Southern Democrats against the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Paul publicly criticized part of the landmark legislation. But he backed off after his remarks brewed a storm of controversy.

Cooper also co-sponsored the Medicare bill. He believed in Social Security.

Paul is an eye doctor who has Medicare patients. But he has trashed Medicare as “socialized medicine” and Social Security as “a Ponzi scheme.”

Paul has more than Medicare and Social Security in his crosshairs. “As a senator, his mission would be a chain-saw massacre of federal government that lays waste to farm subsidies, education spending, mine-safety regulations, federal aid in fighting the scourge of drugs and numerous other programs of significant benefit to Kentuckians,” the Herald-Leader editorial predicted.

Berry CraigClay and Cooper would be aghast at all that.

The Herald-Leader editorial concluded: “So, the stark choice for Kentucky voters is this: a moderate Democrat who understands Kentucky’s problems and needs and has a plan for creating jobs versus an ideologue Republican/Tea Partier with no record, no understanding of the state and a chain saw for a plan.”

Come to think of it, Cooper is probably spinning in his grave in Arlington National Cemetery, too.

Berry Craig

Published by the LA Progressive on October 25, 2010
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About Berry Craig

Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at the West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, the recording secretary for the Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, and the author of True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bombast, Bourbon and Burgoo, Hidden History of Kentucky in the Civil War, Hidden History of Kentucky Soldiers and Hidden History of Western Kentucky. He is a native of Mayfield, Ky., where he lives with his wife of 33 years and their 20-year-old son.

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