Kentucky at War
To say the least, it has not been an exemplary summer break for Mitch McConnell. The Larry Craig scandal was one thing. He's also taking flak from conservative Kentuckians for supporting Bush-style immigration reform. More disturbing has been the floundering campaign of Governor Fletcher, a former right-wing Congressman handpicked by McConnell to run for governor in 2003. Plagued by a criminal investigation into preferential hiring for state offices, Fletcher has been spectacularly unpopular throughout most of his term and now trails Democrat Steve Beshear--a leader of his party's newly ascendant, moderately progressive wing--by about twenty points in the polls. Populist Republican Larry Forgy, who narrowly lost the gubernatorial election in 1995, is making noise about challenging McConnell in next year's primary, exposing the widening chinks in the senator's Kentucky machine.
Worst of all, though, is this nagging band of peace protesters. Will they be a temporary phenomenon, drifting apart after the war finally sputters to a halt? Or could this strange confluence of urban liberals, independent-minded hillbillies and populist bloggers turn into the Republicans' worst nightmare: a left-leaning version of the silent majority that's propelled the likes of McConnell into office for the past few decades? Clearly feeling the pressure, McConnell has tried to dip a toe in the new reality while clinging to the tried-and-true. While he wildly claimed on CNN in July that Kentuckians "overwhelmingly" support his backing of Bush and the war, the senator has nuanced his rhetoric, making vague promises of "changes" in September after the much-ballyhooed Petraeus Report. Despite that halfhearted concession, he hasn't been allowed a moment's peace.
And sure enough, even on the blazing hot morning after Take a Stand (which also attracted hundreds to Lexington and Newport rallies), some sixty protesters and fans carrying I ❤ Mitch signs are waiting for McConnell's gunmetal SUV to pull up at Boone Tavern, a colonial inn that graces the tiny eastern Kentucky college town of Berea.
"I think the war is wrong," says Lisa Myers of Lexington. "We're spending all this money that we could be using for healthcare, for education--for positive things. This war is costing us $9 billion a month, and we have poor people, lots of them."
Meanwhile, Jim Pence is busy coaxing local protesters to speak their minds into his camera. "I'm Laura Mangus, from Berea, Kentucky," says a somber-faced woman holding a long rectangular sign reading, How Much More Misery and Death Per Gallon? "I'm here today on behalf of my son, who came back from Iraq very, very wounded. When you have a son that calls you at 2:30 in the morning wanting to blow his brains out because of what he saw and experienced in Iraq, you darn well better know I'm going to be here to let my senator know what I think about this."
"I had twenty-eight years of military service," an elderly fellow in a lawn chair, antiwar sign propped up in his lap, tells the Hillbilly. "I think this war is absolutely stupid." "Hi there," says a wise old face, peering into Pence's camera. "My name is Sister Nan and I oppose war in general, and this war in particular."
Around noon, the protesters cluster around the front of Boone Tavern, chanting, "Enjoy Your Lunch, End the War!" in the direction of the room where McConnell is holding forth. With an air of determined calm, McConnell's senior Kentucky staffer, Larry Cox, materializes. "Mitch knows your position," he says. "There's no way he can ignore the sentiment here. Things are changing now. There is very likely to be a change in direction." Why won't McConnell come out? various voices grumble. "Would the senator come out to address just one question?" "No," says Cox. "Would the senator come out if we promise not to ask any questions?" another protester suggests. "No."
After Cox escapes back into the fundraiser, accompanied by a stirring chant of "End the War!" the protesters trickle around to the back entrance, where McConnell's SUV sits idling. Martha Wilkie of Lexington, holding a sign with Thou Shall Not Kill on one side and Blessed Be the Peacemakers on the other, waits by the door alongside a gaggle of McConnell's admirers. She carries the scriptural sign, she says, because "people who support the war are all so into the Bible. But they disregard what's actually in the Bible." And speaking of disregarding, she says, "What in the world is McConnell scared of? Why won't he just come out and talk to people?"
The question lingers in the still, hot air for another half-hour. And then, in a flash, McConnell's ride goes ripping down the driveway and swerves around to a side door. Head down, the most powerful man in Kentucky skitters down a flight of steps and ducks inside the vehicle while his constituents come rushing around the corner, watching the back of their senator's SUV as it speeds him away, snug in the air-conditioned comfort of his increasingly fragile cocoon.