Carl Brown, his life enriched many others

[Editor’s note: Former LEO columnist Carl Brown died recently. Below, LEO founder John Yarmuth remembers his life, and below that is a Brown column on his favorite target, U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell.]

When I heard of Carl Brown’s death, one of my first thoughts was that I hoped his brain had been donated for scientific research. Why not? There haven’t been many like his. A tormented genius, an insightful political philosopher, a warm-hearted, judo black belt, possibly a non-bigoted white supremacist, Carl was a walking oxymoron, whose brain could occupy 1,000 conflicting ideas and make them coherent.

I met Carl in 1981, when he was a sitting Jefferson County Commissioner, a rising Republican star who had been elected in a heavily Democratic district. As I wrote last week, he also suffered from manic depression, which manifested itself publicly when he assaulted a police officer and was forever branded as mentally unfit.

Our paths crossed again a few years after I had founded LEO, when Carl offered his writing talents to our young publication. Naturally, the Louisville Eccentric Observer needed eccentric writers and Carl fit the bill. As Joe Gerth noted in his Courier Journal column last weekend, Carl’s columns ranged from the brilliant to the nonsensical. But The Plain Brown Rapper, as he was known to LEO readers, became a must read for many.

He was a pain in the butt for those who edited him, and particularly for me when he didn’t get his way. He was constantly pushing for more space and more frequency, partially because he always needed money, but also because he justifiably thought he had so much to say.

When he was in a manic phase, Carl would dash off six or seven columns in a matter of hours, as if he had stored them up in his brain during his dark days and had to spit them out when he emerged. Whether by coincidence or purpose, this guaranteed that The Plain Brown Rapper would rarely be absent from his LEO space.

He once sent me the manuscript of a book he had written and wanted us to serialize it. He would occasionally demand that we publish a 5,000-word article when he knew we only budgeted him for 750. Despite the many phone calls and visits from Carl pestering me and the editors, I always felt he was worth the hassle, and he rarely made our negotiations stressful.

At his memorial service last Sunday, every speaker, including LEO alums Michael L. Jones and Rev. Joe Phelps, mentioned Carl’s kindheartedness. He was always bringing people, usually needy people, into his world, whether to offer them shelter, advice or other sustenance. I suspect he was always trying to establish the family he never really had, since he had lost his parents at an early age. The bottom line is that Carl Brown loved many people and they returned his affection.

Carl could be mischievous. He heard that a white supremacist group called American Renaissance was planning to hold its national convention in Louisville. The group’s leader was Jarod Taylor (whose name surfaced this year in connection with the Charlottesville, Virginia, incident). He suggested to Taylor that he invite me to address the group and tell them why I thought they were wrong.

Carl urged me to accept and offered to go with me to provide my security, which was funny because there were going to be 500 white supremacists at the session. Apparently, Carl had a high degree of confidence in his martial arts abilities. The event went smoothly, the group was respectful if not sympathetic, and Carl did not have to break a sweat.

Carl was extremely proud that he was a member of Mensa, a society for high-intelligence individuals, who achieved a score in the 98th percentile or higher on IQ tests. He talked about that all the time, perhaps out of insecurity, perhaps out of pride. I always thought it was silly of him to boast about his Mensa membership, because he was in a more highly selective group of intellects.

At the memorial service, Joe Phelps observed that there were always questions about whether his manic depression made Carl the creative intellectual force he was. Joe observed that the question could not be answered. I agree, but the probable answer is that you can never establish a cause and effect for intellectual activity. Carl’s manic depression was an inseparable part of him; and whether his mental health issue made him more creative, or his intellect contributed to his manic depression, the result was a man who lived a tortured but rich and productive life that enriched many others’, including mine. I want him to be at peace, but I’m sure there are many scientists who would have loved to get hold of that special brain. •

U.S. Rep. John Yarmuth, founder of LEO, has represented Kentucky’s 3rd Congressional District since 2007 and is the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee.

The politics of deceit

by Carl Brown

July 17, 1996

Submerged with the raging hiking-the-minimum-wage debate was a drama within a drama.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, master of deceit, deep in his heart (such as it is, a withered, little, impotent muscle) hates the thought of raising the minimum wage. The little senator from Kentucky, a week before his vote, said on Lexington’s WKYT, “The case for a minimum wage is pretty weak.”

And that typifies Mitch’s opinion throughout the debate on this issue. According to Steve Beshear, Mitch’s opponent, “McConnell voted against the minimum wage four different times this Congress alone … Mitch McConnell was dragged kicking and screaming to do what was right.”

Two days before the final vote, Addison Mitchell McConnell Jr. voted to exempt small business from the minimum wage hike, which means half the Kentuckians otherwise so entitled would not get that whopping $5.50 guarantee. I guess when you’re rich, Mitch, the minimum wage is just an economic theory, sterile and antiseptic. You make me ashamed to be a Republican. But, of course, you always did.

You know, I accept that Rich Mitch hates the minimum wage, and while I believe he’s wrong about this and most things, it’s his own damn opinion and own damn vote for the next few months in the United States Senate before the People retire him. Fine.

What raises my ire and invites my rage is his effort to put a spin on his vote, make it look like he thought it was a great idea all along and hope us unwashed Kentuckians “back home” will miss or ignore what led up to the vote. In a poor state like Kentucky, a minimum wage you can live on is pretty fundamental, Senator. Have you lived in D.C. too long?

Mitch had the gall to say the minimum wage increase he fought against right up to the vote was “a victory for Kentucky’s working families.” As Courier Journal political writer Al Cross pointed out, this mirrors a line from President Bill Clinton, who called the hike “a great day for working families.”

And politicians wonder why voters stay away from the polls.

But the height of cynicism came from McConnell minion and re-election campaign manager Kyle Simmons. Referring to Beshear’s bringing to the public attention McConnell’s real record on the minimum wage, Simmons said, probably chewing on a cigar at the time: “It won’t matter to the Kentucky workers who will benefit from the increase in the minimum wage that Senator McConnell voted for.”

In other words, the masses got what they wanted and maybe even deserved, and therefore, like the ignorant swine they are, voters won’t really hold this against McConnell at the polls.

Mr. Simmons, did you know that while your boss fought against the minimum wage, he pushed continuation of the special tax breaks for the filthy rich who buy horses for business purposes? It allows them an expense deduction of up to $17,500 the first year. What do you think those making minimum wage will think of that back home?

Oh, one other thing, stop ending your sentences in prepositions. You could lose your job for a mistake like that. And I doubt you could get by on minimum wage — even at the whopping $5.50-an-hour rate.

But anyway, that’s just my own damn opinion. If you don’t like it, sue me. Just make it before the election. There’s a lot I’d like to do on cross-examination.