A pair to spare: Fletcher and McConnell appear together in public...

or Another meaningless stop on the road to gubernatorial doom

I wonder why I came here. I am sitting on a bus with three local TV news cameramen, a photographer, a radio guy and a couple print journalists, waiting for Gov. Ernie Fletcher and Sen. Mitch McConnell to arrive on the governor’s private plane for some meet-and-greet that is NOT A CAMPAIGN EVENT but, really, it is, because a sitting governor can use his office for photo-ops with real people when he’s down in the polls, even for a lost cause like this.

Our bus is on the tarmac at UPS Worldport, a vast facility that processes more than 400,000 packages an hour, a number that’s about to jump a few thousand more, once the latest expansion is finished about a year from now. Right, that’s why we’re here: The Federal Aviation Administration has just given its green light to finish the project, so what the hell, why not spend a few minutes together in public and make it look like McConnell thinks Fletcher has some kind of shot. You know, instill confidence in the voters and stuff.

When they get out among a group of workers, they can hardly ignore each other more; I half expect one of them to start pissing on a hardhat or two, just to mark the territory. They don’t appear to speak to each other, and instead pass about 10 minutes impressing the hayseeds with their suits and wondering aloud how long this important Kentucky project will take to wrap up.

I immediately regret coming here, although the forward momentum of UPS impressed me. Fletcher and McConnell, who’ve had beef in the recent past, spent a lot of Friday together, making another appearance in Danville, which had me thinking that maybe, just maybe, they’d get on each other’s nerves enough to let something slip.

About the only thing I got was a glimpse at a creepy mannerism of the governor’s, the way Fletcher tends to embrace strangers when he’s obligated to. He’ll flash that wan, creepy smile for a second or two and clasp his hand in a firm grip with a guy’s paw, then swoop his left around for a pat on the elbow or some other body part in the general vicinity. That’s where it gets weird: Fletcher does not immediately retract the patting hand; instead, he gives a quick rub of the area, the way you’d add a flourish when you’re writing cursive.
Ah, the ways we pass boredom.

There is no reason to even speculate about the governor’s race at this point, despite both Fletcher and McConnell giving surprisingly dour premonitions of victory today. If Fletcher wins a second term, we may as well all move to Indiana. Somehow, if he extricates himself from the hole he’s dug and high-jumps over the low bar he’s set for his successor, he will not only be governor another four years, but he will smolder with vindication and righteous Baptist anger for the bitch-slap most of us are expecting.

Rest assured, we will not have to worry about this. The Democrats’ grand effort at winning the milquetoast middle, Steve Beshear, will carry Nov. 6; the only rational question now is by how many votes.
But the charade continues unimpeded. Fletcher and his supporters are still humping the dream of Four More Years, and why shouldn’t they? When you’re in the twilight of your career, you may as well kick back, enjoy a few nips off the dusty brown bottle in your office and try to convince the first lady you aren’t the feckless, diseased pack mule everybody says you are.

At the press conference after the UPS tour, I’d intended to ask McConnell one question: Why would the office of the Senate Minority Leader propagate a smear campaign against a 12-year-old boy suffering permanent injuries from a terrible car accident?

The day before, the progressive Web site ThinkProgress.org revealed that Don Stewart, McConnell’s communications director, sent an e-mail to media repeating a number of exaggerations and lies about Graeme Frost and his family (Stewart has since stumbled through a vague justification, saying days later that he actually followed his initial smear-mail with one recanting the smear, and adding that the senator didn’t know about any of this until Stewart told him). The e-mail came amid an attempt by Republicans to broaden what had been a high-order swift-boating orchestrated by the lunatic-fringe likes of Michelle Malkin and Rush Limbaugh, perhaps the last two people on earth you would trust with your child’s health.

Republicans were indignant that Democrats had made Frost the poster child for their initiative to expand the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which enjoys bipartisan Congressional support — except among the more stringent of the right wing, including McConnell and President Bush, who vetoed the bill last week.

Graeme Frost was the beneficiary of S-CHIP after he was badly injured in a car accident in 2004 and his family couldn’t afford his care. Three weeks ago, Graeme delivered the Dems’ response to President Bush’s weekly radio address, and that burned the fringe Republicans who’d still been arguing that the children of America’s working poor have no right to government-assisted healthcare. So the right wing hate chorus chimed in to allege, wrongfully, that the Frost family was better off than they’d let on, and thus undeserving of government healthcare dollars.

Turned out to be a lie. Turned out the right-wingers ate it. Turned out McConnell’s office was in on the whole thing, trying to turn the mainstream media onto the idea that the Dems had blown the PR by recruiting a rich kid to speak for the poor. After all, who needs the truth when the highest Republican office in Congress will write the storyline for you?

I never got the chance to ask McConnell the natural “how could you?” question. A colleague of mine unintentionally gave Fletcher an opening to roll out about 10 minutes of his campaign platform, and by the time he finished, a fresh-faced aide announced that it was time to leave. Both men whisked out a back door, and I was left standing there like an idiot, notebook open and pen in my mouth, wondering again why I’d wasted my Friday afternoon messing with these two.

I asked WHAS-11’s Mark Hebert, the only reporter for a local mainstream news outlet to have reported the McConnell-swift-boats-the-kid story by then, whether he’d been able to ask the senator about it. He said he had, earlier in the day in Danville. The senator denied it up and down, just like his unnamed aide had a day before in a story that ran in The New York Times.

Sometimes you just have to laugh at this ridiculousness. Maybe it was some romantic notion I have about the relationship between press and politicians that made me think this little dalliance would be worth dropping by. But it was just as worthless as they always are. You could be waving a red shirt in front these guys and they’d both deny it was red if they needed to, right there in front of a roomful of smart people who know the difference between red and bullshit.
I wonder why I came here.

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