If you needed yet another reason to hate politics...
A political firestorm erupted in the tiny rural hamlet of Fancy Farm, Kentucky, last weekend when a scandalous speech delivered by Governor Steve Beshear received universal approbation from political insiders and the capital press corps.
One wag opined that the governor "may have stepped onto a political land mine."
Another mocked Beshear's "bizarre choice of oratory on the state's biggest political stage."
One of the governor's opponents termed it "the worst darn speech I ever heard anybody give.... I'm highly offended by it."
What in the world would provoke such hostility?
An avowal to raise taxes? An endorsement of Casey Anthony's innocence? A shout out for the despised Duke Blue Devils basketball team?
No, nothing quite that offensive.
Let's quote Beshear directly (Our readers with medical conditions should avoid the following paragraph):
I know in the great tradition of Fancy Farm, I know that there should be great fiery partisan political rhetoric, and quite honestly, a week ago, I was prepared to give one of those speeches... And I'll tell you something. Today, my heart and mind are not with partisan politics. My heart and mind are thousands of miles away with our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. And my friends, there are lots of things that are more important than partisan politics, and that is one of them.
Wow. Now that's some brutal stuff.
Breaking from political-discourse-as-usual -- in which it's become expected to denigrate, demean and debase one's partisan opponents -- Beshear reached for common, higher ground and embraced the young men and women who risk their lives every day for the benefit of all Americans, regardless of party.
Friends, politics is an ugly business.
Now to be fair to the governor's critics, his speech was quite the unusual fare at this particular forum. The Fancy Farm Picnic, hosted annually by St. Jerome's Catholic Church, emerged several decades ago as the inaugural event in the general election campaign season. (Kentucky elects its governors in odd years such as 2011.)
The first Saturday in August is permanently etched into the calendar of every aspiring state politician -- and most political junkies -- who make pilgrimage to far Western Kentucky to endure insufferable heat and humidity, feast upon some of the country's most savory barbecue (Try the mutton... seriously), and participate in a weekend's worth of small-town meet-and-greets, bean suppers and ham-and-egg breakfasts all over the Jackson Purchase.
Most of Fancy Farm weekend features some of the very best of politics, just the way the old-timers remember it: plenty of hand-shaking and baby-kissing and back-slapping and stump-speaking. For one weekend, the most remote area of the state (and one of the country's regions worst hit by the flight of manufacturing jobs overseas) gets the full respect and attention of the big city slickers and the state capital politicos. The beleaguered, budget-debilitated press corps also attends in full force, hyping effusive praise on one of the few events that their editors will still pay for them to attend. Big money media buys be damned: This is grassroots politics at its finest.
But unfortunately, for two hours on Saturday, Fancy Farm represents politics at its very worst. As political candidates take the stage at 2:00 PM to prepare for their five- to ten-minute speeches, angry, super-partisan crowds lurk right next to the stage, ready to unleash vocal abuse on their perceived enemies. Once the first speaker clears his throat, the acrimonious chanting, the blindly furious yelling, commences. To describe this as "heckling" would be absurd understatement. This is verbal warfare, and the language used and the insults hurled make a mockery of the tranquil church setting.
I speak from experience -- I was sent into the lion's den about a half dozen times during my political career. I'm no fiery orator, but this video of my 2003 appearance demonstrates how the boisterous crowd, yelling so loudly that you can't even hear yourself scream, can unnerve anyone -- watch how this soft-spoken, Jewish Harvard-grad transformed into Elmer Gantry:
The political dialogue obviously suffers. What could be an opportunity for good-natured humor and gentle satire generally devolves into mean-spirited slander. (The most over-used GOP tactic in recent years has been to imply that a Democratic opponent is gay.) And some speakers have stepped over the rhetorical line to their own self-detriment. One Senate candidate's arm-swinging rantings were scored to Wagner in an opponent's attack ad; another lost serious electoral momentum when he -- heaven forbid -- cursed from the Fancy Farm stage.
Al Cross, the dean of Kentucky political columnists and the Director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, offers the best defense of the atmosphere, arguing it is not only "a test of will and wits, but also one of conviction and of command of the subject matter."
But the qualities rewarded on the Fancy Farm stage do not reveal a quality public servant. Unlike a soldier or quarterback, a state elected official's most important decisions are not made extemporaneously, instantly, while under enemy pressure; but rather with sober reflection and the careful counsel of trusted advisers. Indeed, this prototypical treatment of politics as sport or even war only further exacerbates the intensifying partisan polarization that is tearing our country apart. And it makes Americans hate politics just a little bit more.
Apparently Governor Steve Beshear -- who'd been speaking at Fancy Farm since he ran for Attorney General in the 1970s -- had had enough. Not needing to impress anyone or score political points - he leads his nearest opponent in the polls by 24 points -- he dared to abandon tradition. Two weeks after the country was nearly brought to its knees by hyper-partisan paralysis in Washington, Beshear tried to make a statement of comity and civility.
The criticism of Beshear's gambit was predictable. His opponents lost an opportunity to capture a gubernatorial gaffe; the pundits missed the chance weigh in on the persuasive power of his oratory. (As if that matters anymore: Kentucky's most influential and successful modern politician, Mitch McConnell, is hardly the model of charisma on the stump.)
But in terms of his election chances, I would bet that not a single Kentuckian's vote will be withdrawn from the Governor for his decision to salute the troops. Indeed, I'm convinced that the angry criticism has only served to bring more real voters into his column.
I hope that our rising politicians will ignore the bad press, and take a cue from Steve Beshear. If next year's Fancy Farm includes a few more civil, bi-partisan speeches, then the system will be all the better for it.
And I'm offering my own tribute, in typical activist form: a week-long boycott of politics. Starting Monday at my Web site, The Recovering Politician (where a few dozen of us former elected officials offer our educated critiques of the policy landscape, now unburdened by political pressures), we are challenging the rest of the country to join us in a Politics-Free Week. For seven full days during the doldrums of August, we'll take on the latest controversies in sports, film, fashion, parenting -- anything but politics.
Maybe this brief of hiatus will recharge us for an ugly fall filled with supercommittees and presidential campaign bickering. Maybe it will provide us a slight window of sanity to remember what is truly important.
Or maybe, just maybe, we'll be like George Costanza, in that episode of Seinfeld in which he takes a temporary vow of abstinence, and his previously sex-obsessed brain opens up to deep social, cultural and scientific awareness.
Join us for a week of political abstinence. See how your politically-obsessed mind can open up to new possibilities. While we can't promise a Costanza-like transformation, at least you'll get some temporary relief. And maybe you won't hate politics so much when Labor Day rolls around.
Follow Jonathan Miller on Twitter: www.twitter.com/RecoveringPol