I asked Dorothy Barkley what she’d say if Sen. Mitch McConnell showed up at her door in Paducah.
“I’d tell him, ‘Granddaddy was a yellow dog Democrat, and I can see right through what you are doing by using his name,’” the feisty septuagenarian replied.
Her granddaddy was Alben W. Barkley of Paducah, Harry Truman’s vice president and the only Kentuckian to serve as senate majority leader. But McConnell, who often praises Barkley for his leadership, is almost certain to become the second one when the new GOP-majority senate convenes in a few weeks.
McConnell handily won another term, but not with Barkley's vote. She cast her ballot for “that nice young woman,” Alison Lundergan Grimes, Team Mitch's Democratic challenger.
Dubbed “The Veep,” Alben Barkley had been majority leader in the 1930s and 1940s under President Franklin D. Roosevelt and The Man from Missouri, who became president when FDR died in 1945.
Truman tapped Barkley as his running mate in 1948. Barkley was reelected to the Senate in 1954 but died in office in 1956. He was 78.
McConnell likes being compared to Barkley, who was a congressman before he was a senator.
No matter, a stint as majority leader would be the only thing McConnell would have in common with Barkley, according to The Veep's granddaughter. “I remember my granddaddy well. I was 13 when he died.”
Last summer, Barkley, 71, got so perturbed about McConnell gushing over her grandparent that she dashed off a letter to the editor of the Paducah Sun, her hometown newspaper. The Sun endorsed McConnell.
Barkley wrote that she appreciated “Sen. Mitch McConnell’s pleasant words about my grandfather.” But she cautioned that “Alben Barkley was a ‘yellow dog’ Democrat.”
“I don’t know how many people know what that means anymore,” she wondered. For the uninitiated, it translates as a Democrat so devout he would vote for a “yellow dog” if the pooch were on the Democratic ticket.
Anyway, Barkley said the Veep “would have seen right through” McConnell’s “kind words.” She urged Sun readers, “Let’s get a new face in Washington, D.C., a Democrat.”
Barkley’s record backs up what his descendant says about him.
McConnell is a conservative whose bane is “big government.” Barkley didn’t duck the liberal label. He ardently supported FDR’s Depression-fighting New Deal program of massive federal action to put people back to work and to boost the economy. Too, Barkley was on board with Truman's "Fair Deal," which the president hoped would continue New Deal liberalism.
McConnell is partial to filibusters but not to unions. Barkley disdained the former and championed the latter.
While their political perspectives are as different as chalk and cheese, so are their political styles.
McConnell is prone to bare-knucks politics. “His glower has usually been enough to dissuade those who consider crossing him,” Jason Zingerle wrote in Politico.
Barkley preferred winning hearts and minds through humor and charm. While McConnell routinely demonizes Democrats, Barkley didn't talk like Republicans were hell-bound heathens.
In addition, Barkley practiced the politics of give-and-take. He didn't think "compromise" was a dirty word.
“I have been a loyal, regular Democrat all during my career,” he wrote in That Reminds Me, his folksy 1954 autobiography. “….However, that has never precluded me from recognizing a lot of good things emanating from the opposition. In the period when I was in Congress and the Democrats were in the minority I supported measures I thought were beneficial for the people, regardless of which side of the aisle they came from.”
Also, McConnell is less than Barkley-like on the stump. The Veep was a master at homespun campaign oratory. His story bag was bottomless.
Though Barkley became a politician in Paducah, where “Angles,” his brick antebellum home, still stands, Dorothy Barkley credits her ancestor’s celebrated wit and bonhomie (probably not a word the down-to-earth Barkley frequently used) to his rural Graves County origins.
The Veep was born in 1877 in a long-since disappeared two-story log cabin in the long-gone farming community of Wheel, about 20 miles from Paducah. “Graves County is where he got his sense of humor and his savviness,” Barkley said.