There’s really not much to compare beyond the fact that both men were born elsewhere and became politicians in Kentucky, the state where I was born and reared and which I still call home .
A Virginia native, Clay was a house speaker, senator, secretary of state and three-time presidential candidate. Admirers dubbed him “the Great Pacificator” for brokering three major compromises to save the Union and stave off Civil War.
McConnell, the longest serving senator in Bluegrass State history, came into the world in Alabama. His critics nicknamed him “Darth Vader,” a handle he evidently likes, for his hard-edged, uber-conservative, compromise-equals-surrender politics.
Gerald Watkins, Clay’s “proud seventh cousin,” wishes McConnell were more like his ancestor.
Said Watkins, a newly-elected Kentucky state representative: “To borrow a famous line from Sen. Lloyd Bentsen in his 1988 vice presidential debate with Sen. Dan Quayle, ‘Sen. McConnell, you’re no Henry Clay.’”
Watkins is a Paducah Democrat. Clay (1777-1852) was a Lexington Whig. “My great-great-great-great-grandfather, State Rep. John Watkins of Versailles, was first cousin to the Rev. John Clay, Henry’s father.”
Clay’s ever-readiness to compromise proved that when the chips were down, “he put what he believed to be the good of the country above partisan politics,” added Watkins. “I am sorry to say that Sen. McConnell seems to put the good of the Republican Party first. I hate to say it, but Sen. McConnell acts like compromise is a dirty word.”
In his election night victory speech, President Barack Obama renewed his pledge to work with Republicans to avoid the “fiscal cliff,” help shrink the deficit and boost the economy.
So far, McConnell’s comments on Obama’s reelection have been less than conciliatory.
First, he said voters merely “gave President Obama a second chance to fix the problems that even he admits he failed to solve during his first four years in office, and they preserved Republican control of the House of Representatives.”
Later, McConnell issued a statement in which he said GOP senators would meet the president “halfway” if he moves “to the political center.” But he also claimed “the voters have not endorsed the failures or excesses of the President’s first term, they have simply given him more time to finish the job they asked him to do together with a Congress that restored balance to Washington after two years of one-party control.”
On the other hand, Clay sincerely sought Democratic support for his compromises. His chief partner in the Compromise of 1850, his last and greatest compromise, was Democratic Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois , the guy who famously debated Abraham Lincoln in 1858 and ran against “the Great Emancipator” for president in 1860.
McConnell is given to demonizing Democrats. In 2010, he told the far-right-wing, Republican-friendly Heritage Foundation that “our top political priority over the next two years should be to deny President Obama a second term.”
That perhaps-too-candid comment, plus McConnell’s rejection of Obama’s obvious olive branch, doesn’t remind historian John Hennen of Clay.
“I was disappointed but not surprised to hear Sen. McConnell’s reaction to the election,” said Hennen, a professor at Morehead , Ky. , State University . “He is being held hostage by the lunatic fringe that his party has courted for the last 30 years. Much of the nation sees him as an obstructionist. McConnell has turned away from any pretense of rational governing in favor of raw political power.”
As soon as he was elected to the senate in 1984, McConnell set out to make politics in Kentucky a holy war . He steered the GOP sharply rightward. Long gone from the Bluegrass State GOP are moderates like McConnell’s mentor, the late Sen. John Sherman Cooper of Somerset.
Cooper, whose forebears opposed slavery and rallied to the Union in the Civil War, sided with Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson on landmark civil rights legislation and Medicare in the 1960s. Cooper came to be an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War.
“Cooper represents a great tradition in Kentucky of political moderation and rational, loyal opposition,” Hennen said.
Cooper briefly served in the Senate with Bentsen, a Texan who was Michael Dukakis’ running mate in 1988. “I met Sen. Bentsen at our Fancy Farm political picnic that year,” Watkins said. (The picnic, held every August in the tiny town of Fancy Farm , not far from Paducah, is the largest political gathering of its kind in Kentucky .)
In the Bentsen-Quayle debate, a question arose about Quayle’s experience. Quayle, who ran with George Bush, replied that had as much experience as John Kennedy had when he sought the presidency in 1960.
“Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy,” Bentsen said. “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.”
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