FANCY FARM, Ky. — There aren’t many places in America — outside of a meeting of the Westboro Baptist Church — where an eight-minute tribute to troops fighting overseas is panned as rude, offensive, cowardly and inappropriate. But Saturday afternoon at the 131st Fancy Farm picnic was one of them.
This uniquely Kentucky tradition applies three requirements to candidates who give their stump speeches to the tightly packed, vocal crowd. The official ones are to stay under your allotted time — or else get played off the stage by “Rocky Top” — and don’t curse.
The third requirement is unofficial and was put to the test this year by Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear: You must unleash a withering barrage of criticism and ridicule toward your political opponents, or else you’re ripping off the crowd.
Despite the festive atmosphere at the picnic — with kids playing games, old folks playing Bingo, and everyone in between chowing down on pork and mutton — the cramped area inside the shelter where the speeches are given is a mean, cruel place.
But that’s what the people want. Mostly packed with Republican and Democratic activists, they’ve come to witness a political blood sport, where both sides roast and heckle one another into submission. It is a verbal cockfight, where basic rules of human decency are seen as a sign of weakness.
As news broke Saturday about Standard & Poor’s downgrading American debt and the tragedy of 31 soldiers killed in a downed helicopter in Afghanistan — and at a time when Americans’ faith in politicians is perhaps at an all-time low — Beshear would try something different.
Mitch McConnell led off the picnic Saturday with the sobering news from Afghanistan and a moment of silence, but he quickly shifted gears into the typical Fancy Farm rhetoric. Referring to recent allegations that members of the Beshear administration were browbeating state workers into donating to his campaign, McConnell laid into Beshear.
“Governor, it sounds like you or someone in your administration might need a get out of jail free card. You really need to talk to the Conways about that,” he said, implying that Attorney General Jack Conway intervened to get his brother out of a drug charge last year.
His brief attack was withering and personal, but even Democrats afterward admitted it was a fantastic piece of Fancy Farm theater.
After Republican Sen. Rand Paul did a four-minute endzone dance in front of Conway, his freshly vanquished opponent from last year, it was time for the headlining act of the day: the gubernatorial candidates.
Beshear was selected to go first, and predictably he recounted his visit with Kentucky troops in the Middle East and Afghanistan, a trip he had returned from just the night before. But unlike McConnell, he didn’t pivot to politics.
“I know the great tradition of Fancy Farm. I know that there should be great fiery partisan political rhetoric here. You’ve already heard a little bit of it. And quite honestly, a week ago, I was prepared to give just one of those speeches. And I’ll tell you something: Today, my heart and mind are thousands of miles away with our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
Beshear pointed out a soldier’s grandparents in the audience and elicited a cheer. Then he challenged the crowd — both sides — to cheer so loudly for the troops “that they’ll hear it, all the way over in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
A truly surreal scene then occurred, as the Republican side — eager to heckle and drown out Beshear — was forced to sit and politely clap as Beshear instructed them to, all while their faces scowled.
How dare he ruin their fun with such a dirty trick.
After eight minutes of yellow-ribboned star-spangled flag waving, it was time to switch gears with Republican David Williams.
A forum like Fancy Farm is almost made for a politician like David Williams. With a knack for soaring rhetoric that belittles his opponent, this should have been a slam-dunk.
But then there’s the fact that the state Senate president is badly trailing Beshear — by 24 percent in the poll released one week earlier — which most observers attribute in large part to the public’s perception of him as a bully. Now faced with following a red, white and blue, sugar and sunshine speech, Williams came out of the gate rattled, as if fully aware of the position Beshear had put him in.
Williams took a shot at Beshear’s speech — accusing him of avoiding his own record — then went into the regularly scheduled program, slamming Beshear’s management of the economy and state, trying his best to tie him to Obama.
But he didn’t quite seem himself, as he uncomfortably read prepared zingers off the paper in front of him. It wasn’t until a member of the Teamsters interrupted his speech with a bullhorn that he snapped out of it. He gave the heckler an improvised put down, and he was back.
The rest of the speech was vintage Williams, red-faced and angry, waving his arms and screaming about abortion, to the delight of Republicans in the crowd who came to see just that.
The contrast between Beshear and Williams was obvious, and the Beshear campaign must have thought at that point that everything had worked out perfectly. That is, until Gatewood Galbraith came to the mic.
Perennial political candidate Gatewood Galbraith, on the gubernatorial ticket as an Independent this year, had already been a thorn in the side of the Kentucky Democratic Party the night before.
At the annual Marshall County Bean Supper, where Democratic candidates traditionally test out their one-liners for the next day, Galbraith showed up to press the flesh. He positioned himself at the table where people were scooping out their soup beans, shaking hands and asking for their vote.
This didn’t sit well with KDP Chairman Daniel Logsdon, who asked Galbraith to leave. When Galbraith indicated he had bought a ticket, Logsdon pulled out his wallet, handed him a few bills, and said, “There, now you can go.”
As this scene was unfolding, two Democrats approached to shake Galbraith’s hand. “Gatewood, I’m so glad that you’re here tonight, and I’m glad you’re on the ticket,” one woman said.
Galbraith turned to Logsdon and gave him a shit-eating grin: “I guess they can’t stand the heat, because I’m scoring too many body blows on Beshear.”
From behind the podium on Saturday, Galbraith landed a haymaker — or a sucker punch, depending on whom you ask.
“Gov. Beshear, that was the worst darned speech I ever heard anybody give,” he said. “For you to go over there and try to hide behind the bodies of our young men and women in the military … I’ve got an honorable discharge from the U.S. Marines, and I was highly offended by it … You should have used that time to come up here and talk about solutions to Kentucky’s problems, not what your false patriotism is.”
The place erupted with cheers and “oooohs,” while a visibly disturbed Beshear stared straight ahead.
Galbraith then proceeded to do exactly what he said Beshear should have done, talking about his policy prescriptions for Kentucky, which include a tuition freeze, tax reform, a $5,000 voucher for high school graduates to use toward further education, and an end to mountaintop-removal mining for coal.
While a good portion of his speech ripped the policies of Beshear, he had some sobering news for the Republicans who were enjoying the skewering.
“But folks, I’ve got to tell you, Mr. Williams can’t win this election,” he said. “I’m sorry to say, but only I can beat Steve Beshear.”
And this seemed to be the conclusion most at Fancy Farm had come to, including Republicans — that Williams is unlikely to win this November. As a result, Republicans directed most of their hope and energy on Saturday to the attorney general race and their nominee, Todd P’Pool.
Todd P’Pool fired up the crowd like no one else at Fancy Farm, laying into incumbent Jack Conway with a wave of red meat thrown out to the Republican faithful.
After Rand Paul’s stinging defeat of Conway last year, many Republicans in Kentucky smell blood in the water, sensing Conway is vulnerable and perhaps the best chance they have at winning a race this November. Almost every Republican took shots at Conway, and P’Pool piled on, doing his best to tie Conway to Barack Obama — who he name-dropped seven times in four minutes. He further called out Conway for not fighting the dreaded “Obamacare” and the Environmental Protection Agency.
In turn, Conway showed enthusiasm that hasn’t been seen from him in a while, sticking to his record and promises kept — touting his cybercrime unit busting child pornography and progress on stopping prescription drug trafficking. But sensing his weak spot — which was used against him in last year’s race — Conway joined in his governor’s call for the president’s federal minions to “get off our back.”
“I’ve filed a lawsuit against the EPA, and I will continue to stand up to them when they try to hurt Kentucky’s coal economy.”
But no matter how wounded Conway is, or how much enthusiasm and money is behind the P’Pool campaign, the fact remains that if Williams has a large margin of defeat on Election Day, it might ruin the chances of all Republicans running statewide in the other races down the ballot.
The Democrats running for secretary of state (Alison Lundergan Grimes) and state auditor (Adam Edelen) are widely assumed to be frontrunners over their Republican tea party opponents (Bill Johnson and John Kemper), who face a serious disadvantage in campaign funds.
Johnson, who is using the specter of voter fraud as his main issue in the race for secretary of state, hammered home his “no address, no vote” talking point, though he omitted his previous bizarre theory about ACORN plotting with Grimes to swing Kentucky for Obama using homeless voters.
Grimes — who spent the week campaigning in western Kentucky and brought perhaps the largest following to Fancy Farm — said Johnson was “betting against the intelligence of each one of you here” by “using scare tactics based on half-truths.”
While Kemper repeated his often-used line that he wants a “debt-free Kentucky,” Edelen — who possibly gave the strongest and most well-received speech among Democrats — pointed out that his opponent might not be the most credible candidate when it comes to overseeing the state’s books, as he is currently in bankruptcy.
After David Williams spent much of his speech talking about the fact that Beshear is a bankruptcy lawyer, Edelen quipped, “With all of that bankruptcy talk, I gather that you’ve made some members of your ticket a little uncomfortable.”
Kemper continued to stress that Edelen, as Beshear’s former chief of staff, was not capable of being an independent auditor. Intended or not, this talking point tends to reinforce an idea most Republicans are trying not to think about — the fact that Beshear will most likely serve a second term.
After Fancy Farm, all the buzz was about Beshear punting on the traditional games in his speech. Williams said Galbraith expressed what everyone in the crowd was thinking, and his campaign chairman accused Beshear of using the troops as a “political prop.” The general consensus in the media tended to agree.
Beshear’s campaign responded with an email to supporters, decrying his opponents and the media for daring to criticize the governor for dedicating his speech to the men and women who risk their lives for us.
And while the thought of Beshear’s speech being in no way politically calculated is naïve, perhaps they’re on to something. Most who go to Fancy Farm — the activists on both sides, the media, myself included — come to see the insults and uncivilized behavior of those involved. Whether that says something disturbing about us is up for debate. But is the average voter — economically distressed and disgusted by the behavior of politicians — who could not care any less about Fancy Farm, really going to be upset by a governor saying nice things about the military?
The Beshear campaign is betting they’re not.