‘He surrendered himself to the current, rather than fighting against it.’
I don’t know if two big photos hanging on Sen. Mitch McConnell’s office wall reflect cynicism or no sense of the ironic.
Maybe it’s both.
Anyway, a staffer for Alison Lundergan Grimes, the Democrat who wants McConnell’s job, emailed a press release the other day that caught my attention more for what it showed than what it said.
The communique came with photos, one of them showing the senate majority leader wannabe grinning and standing in front of his desk. Black and white images of Sen. John Sherman Cooper and Vice President Alben Barkley peer over his shoulders.
Cooper, from Somerset, was a liberal Republican who voted for landmark federal civil rights laws in the 1960s. He supported Medicare and was generally friendly toward unions.
A World War II veteran, Cooper became an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War.
Barkley, whose hometown was Paducah, was senate majority leader under President Franklin D. Roosevelt before he was elected President Harry Truman’s vice president in 1948. He was a pro-union, New Deal-Fair Deal Democrat who didn’t duck the liberal label.
Both Cooper and Barkley believed that the federal government should play an active role in promoting economic, racial and social justice.
Neither Cooper nor Barkley were given to demonizing the other party. They didn’t believe that compromise necessarily meant craven surrender.
Young Addison Mitchell McConnell was a Cooper intern.
“John Sherman Cooper would be appalled at Mitch McConnell,” said Dr. Duane Bolin, a Murray State University historian and author.
Cooper wouldn’t have dreamed of bragging that his top political priority was making John F. Kennedy a one-term president. Bolin recalled seeing a photo of Cooper that mirrored the senator’s politics.
It shows John Sherman and Lorraine Cooper happily dining at the White House with JFK and Jackie Kennedy. “They were close friends,” said Bolin.
At least politics is simpler with Cooper’s young protégé all grown up and leading the senate Republicans. With few exceptions, whatever President Obama is for, McConnell and his side are against, and vice versa.
That’s ditto for the John Boehner-bossed house of representatives.
On his first two roll call votes, Cooper sided with the Democrats, angering veteran Sen. Robert Taft of Ohio, a leader of the GOP’s conservative wing.
"Are you a Republican or a Democrat?” Taft grilled Cooper. "When are you going to start voting with us?"
Unshaken, the freshman lawmaker responded, "If you'll pardon me, I was sent here to represent my constituents, and I intend to vote as I think best."
Grimes and a lot of Democrats call Cooper’s ex-intern “Senator No.” “If the doctors told Sen. McConnell he had a kidney stone, he’d refuse to pass it,” Grimes quipped early in the campaign.
McConnell is fond of blocking legislation through filibusters. Cooper and Barkley weren’t.
“I believe in full debate of every problem that comes before any legislative body,” Barkley wrote in That Reminds Me, his folksy autobiography. “But to deny by artifice or extraneous argumentation the right of the people’s representative to vote on any given problem is equal to denying the people themselves by majority rule to pass upon questions involving their welfare and their destiny.”
In the 1960s, the GOP seemed destined to lop off its moderate and liberal wings. Cooper tried to stop the amputations, ultimately to no avail.
He urged the party not to nominate Sen. Barry Goldwater for president in 1964. President Lyndon Johnson drubbed the Republican.
At the same time, Cooper implored the Republicans to spurn the extreme right-wing John Birch Society, an ancestor of the tea party.
Fifty years later, Cooper’s party has shifted rightward far beyond AuH2O. McConnell’s GOP would be a reactionary fringe party in every other industrial democracy.
Oh, McConnell had a tea party challenger, Matt Bevin, in the May GOP primary. The incumbent ran not as the anti-tea party candidate, but as the real McCoy conservative.
McConnell shifted his well-oiled pander machine into high gear to win over the tea party-tilting Republican white folks of the Obama-is-a-Kenyan-born-Sharia-law-loving-Islamo-Socialist persuasion. He got many of them and drubbed Bevin.
Team Mitch keeps on tooting the dog whistle: Obama and Grimes favor “amnesty” for “illegal immigrants” – of course, meaning Mexicans; the president is waging a “jihad” against coal.
“Jihad” is an Arabic word that literally means “struggle.” McConnell knows most people believe it means “holy war.” Based on polls, a lot of tea party types think the Christian Obama is really a Muslim.
McConnell is all for Kentuckians equating “jihad” and “Muslim” with the president.
The tea party faithful and like-minded Bluegrass State citizens hear Team Mitch’s dog whistle loud and clear.
Anyway, The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell is the title of journalist Alec MacGillis’ new ebook about the Bluegrass State’s longest-serving senator. Make that self-serving senator, the author says.
He compares McConnell with his supposed mentor. “Where Cooper took positions on weighty issues that put him at odds with many in his party and many of his constituents – on civil rights, Vietnam, and much else – McConnell has, by his own admission, been forever attuned to his self-preservation within his party and his state….In moving rightward with his party, he surrendered himself to the current, rather than fighting against it.”
The Louisville Courier-Journal, Kentucky’s largest newspaper, said self-promotion was the theme of McConnell’s speech at this year’s Fancy Farm political picnic, the largest event of its kind the state, and maybe the country:
“Mr. McConnell…listed as his top priority...himself.
“‘There's only one way to begin to go in a different direction,’ he thundered in the closing line to a speech that lasted under six minutes. ‘That's to change the Senate and make me the leader of the new majority and take America in a different direction.’
“While identifying his personal advancement to Senate majority leader as an overriding goal, Mr. McConnell gave scant attention to the more than 4 million Kentuckians he represents in Washington….So it appears that after five terms and 30 years in the U.S. Senate, for Mr. McConnell, it's all about me.”
Bolin agreed. “McConnell’s bottom line is simply to stay in office and enrich himself and the billionaires who support him. I don’t think he believes in anything.”
I don’t know if McConnell is merely a self-serving cynic or a sincere convert to reactionary politics. Maybe it’s some of both.
“At some point along the way, Mitch McConnell decided that his own longevity in Washington trumped all - that he would even be willing to feed the public’s disillusionment with its elected leaders if it would increase his and his party’s odds of success at the polls,” MacGillis writes. “In the contest of cynical striving versus earnest service, Mitch McConnell already won.”
Whatever their shortcomings, Cooper and Barkley were earnest servants of all Kentuckians, not just the well-heeled and well-connected folks whose dollars McConnell happily takes and whose bidding he gladly does.
Demagoguery and pandering to bigotry were not Cooper and Barkley’s stock in trade. Nor did they practice dog whistle politics.