Among the hilarious tunes in the songbook of comedian Steve Martin, who is often accused of being my twin, is a misleadingly pretty ditty that begins, “Oh, death and grief and sorrow and murder.” It epitomizes the dissonance between two of the United States’ supreme distinctions: violence and entertainment. It was a very good year for both enterprises. We’ve never had more cause to cry or laugh.
Sometimes we laugh to keep from crying.
In that vein, funny (or tragic) things happened on the way to the governor’s mansion. Former Lt. Gov. Crit Luallen, putative shoo-in to succeed Gov. Steve Beshear, took a powder. Goodness knows she earned her retirement after years of a superlative public service (notably as state auditor and Gov. Paul Patton’s chief of staff). But her protégé, Attorney General Jack Conway, emerged as the Democratic nominee with serious baggage — including consultant Mark Riddle, who led Conway’s tactically disastrous “Aqua Buddha” senatorial bid against Rand Paul.
Conway’s campaign would also battle the Bible Belt backlash against gay marriage. His refusal to appeal a permissive ruling by the late federal Judge John G. Heyburn III, which would have been a waste of tax dollars as it was eventually upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, nevertheless galvanized opposition — especially in rural churches. Conway had joined a lawsuit against President Barack Obama’s EPA, but that would offer him anemic protection against an environment toxic to Democrats seeking statewide office.
The GOP primary became a three-way melee among two frontrunners, Kentuckiana developer Hal Heiner, Agriculture Commissioner James Comer and tea party favorite Matt Bevin, who long polled in that order of popularity. Then came a game-changer as Comer’s ex-girlfriend from Western Kentucky University accused him of mental and physical abuse, prompting Comer to blame the C-J for buying a lie and Heiner for buying liars (which he denied). Many Kentuckians were conflicted on the issue, but it’s a fair bet that the Republican State Sen. Alice Forgy Kerr (R-Fayette Co.) of Lexington, a reliable source, cost Comer more than the 83 votes by which he lost to Bevin when she claimed personal knowledge validating the allegations.
The ensuing bloodbath between Comer and Heiner added to the perfect hurricane that allowed Bevin to squeeze up through the eye. Conway got the opponent he desired — seemingly too extreme and too temperamental. By polling, political pedigree, powerful endorsements and virtually every predictor of electoral success, it was Conway’s race to lose. Despite all his advantages, he lost big.
The carpet-bomb of negative ads against Bevin backfired — either by repelling Conway’s own supporters or infuriating and mobilizing the opposition (or both).
Voter turnout was lower than expected amid perfect weather — which raises another “be careful what you wish for” issue. There might have been a far different outcome if House Democrats had granted a wish among Senate Republicans. A constitutional amendment proposed by the GOP sought to eliminate the odd-year elections for governor and statewide constitutional officers. It would have extended their terms one year (to 2016) and forever aligned their races with even-year legislative and presidential contests.
It stalled in the Democratic-controlled House, but had it passed and been approved by the voters, turnout would have been much higher and Democrats probably would have fared better. As it was, Bevin swaggered to victory and Conway swaggered into political oblivion as he failed to rally Jefferson County.
To the extent the election was a referendum on verbal violence, the worst offenders generally failed. Physical violence, likewise, brought us to our knees in Louisville Metro, where there were, as of last weekend, 327 shootings and 81 homicides. School, school bus violence and related threats spun out of control, prompting students, parents and teachers to plead for relief.
There’s much cause for grief and sorrow. But let’s pause to celebrate the righteous swaggerers: John Stewart, who ended his Emmy-winning streak as host of “The Daily Show” by urging vigilance against bullshit: “So if you smell something, say something.” His protégé, Stephen Colbert, is redefining the outer limits of late-night hilarity. And Louisville’s own Jennifer Lawrence may have scored her best role yet in her best motion picture yet, a film titled “Joy.”
If you seek entertainment that educates, don’t miss “The Kennedy Center Honors” Dec. 29 on CBS. On that broadcast three years ago, Led Zeppelin purists convulsed in their seats as they heard “Ramble On” performed perfectly by Kid Rock, the hottest ticket in town New Year’s Eve at the YUM! Center.