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Kentucky at War | The Nation

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Kentucky at War

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Senator Mitch McConnell has become the toast of YouTube with this spoof of his love affair with the Bush White House.

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Bob Moser
Bob Moser, a Nation contributing writer, is editor of The Texas Observer and author of Blue Dixie: Awakening the South'...

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Louisville

Carol Trainer could hardly process what was happening. To her, a 60-year-old grandmother and Vietnam veteran, of all people. On Memorial Day, of all times. Arrested for protesting the war at, of all places, Abbey Road on the River, an annual five-day Beatles tribute that had adopted a fortieth-anniversary Summer of Love theme for 2007.

Forty years ago, when the Louisville native married Air Force officer Harold Trainer, Carol wouldn't have gone near anything associated with the Summer of Love. "I wasn't an activist; just the opposite, in fact." But since 2002, when the Trainers--he retired from twenty-three years in the Force, she from eleven years as a Northwest Airlines flight attendant--found that they couldn't keep quiet about the catastrophe that was poised to unfold in Iraq, they've been unlikely stalwarts in one of the country's feistiest grassroots antiwar movements.

At Abbey Road, Carol had joined cohorts from the Louisville Peace Action Community (LPAC), passing out end-the-war pamphlets to incoming patrons--many of them young folks duded up for the occasion in flowers, beads and peace signs. Early that afternoon, she'd decided to join the fun inside, have a couple of beers and dance along to the music she'd missed in the '60s. After spotting a couple of youngsters holding up peace-symbol signs, she figured it would be OK to walk around with her bright blue End the War! sign. The festival's producer gave her explicit permission to do so. After all, it was perfectly in tune with the spirit of a festival whose grand finale would be a musical production called "Hell No, We Won't Go."

Trainer didn't make it that far. As she was dancing and singing along to the strains of psychedelic nostalgia, holding her sign off to the side of the main festival stage, an oversized sheriff's deputy came stalking toward her. "He comes up to me and says, 'Drop your sign,'" Trainer recalls. "I said, 'Why?' He said, 'I told you to drop your sign.' He grabbed it out of my hand when I didn't drop it. That kind of started me. I thought, What's going on here? I kept asking why and he wouldn't tell me." The only explanation Trainer received, after her arrest, was that offended patrons had complained that she was harassing them and ruining their fun. She says that while dozens of people thanked her for the message, she had been confronted by four patrons, including one veteran "who said, 'This is Memorial Day--we're here to enjoy ourselves.' I said, 'When do the people in Iraq get to enjoy themselves?'" Crying and struggling with the deputy, she tried appealing to Mayor Jerry Abramson, who was watching the show nearby, but he "just stared and glared at me and didn't say a word." The deputy and a Metro Police officer dragged her off forcefully in handcuffs. "I did not go quietly," Trainer acknowledges, and she ended up charged not only with disorderly conduct at the festival but also with resisting arrest and assaulting an officer. (Two of the charges were ultimately dropped; on the advice of LPAC's attorney, she agreed to do forty hours of community service for the resisting-arrest charge without admitting guilt.)

"You don't think that this could happen in the United States, you know," says Trainer. "One thing that irritates me is when some military people come up and say, 'I'm over there so you can do this. So you have the right.' And I'll say, now, after this, 'No, I don't have the right.'"

While protesting the war has alienated the Trainers from many of their old military buddies--"They tend to think we've left the reservation," says Harold--they've become fast friends with "peace people" they once despised. "They've really accepted us very well as partners in the peace effort," Harold says, "even though we're military." While LPAC, a spinoff of Louisville's large and active Fellowship of Reconciliation, includes its fair share of hard-core pacifists, the group--like so many other peace efforts around the country--has flung its tent wide open. "When Harold and Carol joined us," says longtime activist Judy Munro-Leighton, "it elevated our credibility about 1 million percent. When people came up to us at the state fair, or wherever we were demonstrating, and said, 'Yeah, what the hell do you know about it? You've never fought in a war,' we could point to Carol and Harold and say, 'They have.'"

Carol Trainer's twelve hours in jail kicked off the most raucous summer yet for Kentucky's antiwar movement--a vibrant microcosm of the coalition of peace activists, military veterans and families, blue-collar hard hats and college professors, old and young and (mostly) middle-aged, who've been spurred to action by the disaster in Iraq.

LPAC has been a force since the buildup to the war, bringing out hundreds to loudly protest George W. Bush's six speeches in Louisville in the past six years, holding regular street-corner demonstrations, marking every Iraq anniversary and landmark death count with in-your-face panache. They've chartered a plane to fly over the Kentucky Derby flashing an End the War banner. They've commemorated Iraq milestones with displays of empty shoes, empty shirts and--in 2007--4,000 white flags along the Ohio River. They've read the names of Iraqi and American dead from the county courthouse steps. And they've been particularly creative when it comes to getting under the skin of Kentucky's pro-war politicians.

When Louisville's Republican Congresswoman, stubborn Bush supporter Anne Northup, refused to meet with her antiwar constituents, LPAC posted "Missing" posters around the city with smiling images of Northup, labeling her a "lapdog" who "answers to Bush." They staked out her home for seventy-three straight Sundays with "a variety of signs you can't even imagine," says Munro-Leighton, until Northup finally agreed to a meeting. "We had a cardboard Bush with a bubble to show he was speaking, and we changed the message weekly to 'I Love Ann,' or 'My War's Going Great!' or 'I Sold the Country.' On the first anniversary of the war, we made her a cake out of black cardboard and put it on her car. 'Happy Anniversary!'"

Tarred by her unflagging support for Bush and the war, Northup lost her 2006 bid for a sixth term to Louisville's John Yarmuth, an unabashed liberal Democrat calling for withdrawal. With Northup dispatched, Kentucky's peace brigade laid plans to fry a far bigger fish in 2008: Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, Bush's powerful Iraq War ally, who will be running for a record fifth Senate term.

As summer--and McConnell's recess vacation--approached, two new sets of nontraditional allies materialized to help LPAC bird-dog the senator, who makes his home in Louisville with his wife, Labor Secretary Elaine Chao. Matt Gunterman, a 30-year-old rural Kentucky native and Yale University graduate student, launched the DitchMitch blog earlier in the year, bringing together a varied band of bloggers from around the state on a composite site with a common goal. And in June, two young native Kentuckians and a Navy veteran opened an Iraq Summer headquarters in Louisville, part of a national campaign by Americans Against Escalation in Iraq (AAEI) to target key members of Congress with a homegrown antiwar message before they returned to Washington to resume the war debate.

By mid-August McConnell was sending out fundraising letters complaining about being harassed by "the '60s antiwar movement on steroids." But as the Republican kingmaker well knew, the reality was something altogether different from that old stereotype--and considerably more formidable.

Jim Pence is a 68-year-old, Salem-smoking, pickup-driving, self-proclaimed hillbilly from economically devastated Hardin County, retired after thirty-five years in the factory at the American Synthetic Rubber Corporation. Politically inactive until 2004, when Bush's re-election and the war in Iraq spurred him to "vow to fight with every ounce of my strength from then on," Pence now makes some of the freshest, funniest antiwar and political videos anywhere--and as a result, he's become the unlikely heart and soul of Kentucky's DitchMitch campaign.

Linking from his own Hillbilly Report website to DitchMitch and YouTube, Pence puts up snappy vignettes on subjects ranging from Kentucky's annual bipartisan political hoedown at Fancy Farm--where McConnell made a hasty exit this year after being jeered by protesters carrying signs showing him as Bush's hand puppet--to a fanciful take on Bush and Condoleezza Rice's relationship, set to the tune of Frank Sinatra's "The Way You Look Tonight," to a hard-hitting series of exposés of liquor-industry fundraising by Ron Lewis, the holy-rolling Congressman from Pence's district. "I don't know, I just disappear into them," Pence says on a dog-day August morning, navigating Louisville traffic en route to the Iraq Summer office. "I stay up some nights till 4 and 5, editing these things."

DitchMitch creator Gunterman, whose postgraduate goal is to fire up an Internet-based "Ruralution," connecting grassroots progressives from rural America to spur political action, sees Pence as a prime example of the passion and wit that generally go untapped by Democrats and urban progressives. "There's no one like Jim in the entire United States," says Gunterman. "Not with his age and his ornery attitude. He is very much a hillbilly, and he's reinvigorated the term."

In his three years of crisscrossing Kentucky to publicize its antiwar and progressive insurgencies, Pence has also stirred up the state's traditionally timid left-wingers. "When I first went out with my camcorder, I'd go up to people at peace rallies and ask them, 'Would you like to say something to Mitch?' and they'd just go, 'Uhhh...' Or even if they would say anything, they'd say, 'But I don't want my picture taken.' I just kept saying, 'The newspaper's not even going to cover this, and if TV does, it'll be for ten seconds. Whereas this video's going up on YouTube tomorrow.'" As Pence kept filming and posting his increasingly popular videos, the activists opened up and embraced this new mechanism for showing that, yes, the military stronghold of Kentucky has a vigorous antiwar effort. "People are stepping out more than they would a few years ago," Pence says. "Now I can't get them to stop talking when they see that camera. People know me now, and for the most part they trust me--whether or not they should!"

While Pence and DitchMitch have inspirited Kentucky activists, they've also pushed the state's more established media to take notice of the progressive groundswell. "DitchMitch gives us the power to hold the media accountable in Kentucky for the first time," says 24-year-old Shawn Dixon, a native of rural western Kentucky who's just started his first year at NYU law school. In 2004, when Dixon was working as deputy policy and communications director for Democrat Daniel Mongiardo's uphill Senate challenge to Republican Jim Bunning, he spent much of the campaign in a state of frustration over Kentucky newspapers' assumption that the incumbent would cruise to victory. "There was no recognition that this would be a competitive election and that this guy was beatable until about a month before the election, when it became impossible to ignore." Bunning wobbled back to Washington with a slender 23,000-vote victory, but this time around, with LPAC continually raising eyebrows and DitchMitch helping to popularize the anti-McConnell movement, "the media don't have a choice," Dixon says. On the same day in late July that Louisville's Courier-Journal ran a column about McConnell's dip in popularity (below 50 percent approval), the Herald-Leader in Lexington ran a story, sixteen months before the election, titled "McConnell Vulnerable."

That's music to Pence's ears. "It's not just what he's done to perpetuate this war," says the high-tech hillbilly. "It's what he hasn't done for Kentuckians, with all his power, on healthcare and so many other issues that really matter to folks at their kitchen tables. We're trying to cut through the kind of moral-values crap that McConnell's been using for twenty-five years to get himself elected. We're doing what we can to show the emperors without their clothes. And show that the folks who don't like Mitch, and can't stand this war, are just regular people like me who finally woke up and spoke up."

The Friday before the "Take a Stand" town-hall meeting that would culminate Louisville's Iraq Summer, Desert Storm veteran Brian Smith spent the first day of his most unusual summer vacation yet, volunteering round-the-clock for the antiwar effort. Smith has been working with Iraq Summer since June, when its three paid staffers hit the ground in Louisville. "I've been in charge of making coffee, making smart-ass remarks and doing guerrilla ops," Smith says. The previous night, that meant joining Louisville natives and Iraq Summer organizers Aniello Alioto and Sara Choate in planting fifty bright red Support the Troops/End the War signs outside a fundraiser where McConnell was speaking on behalf of scandal-plagued Republican Governor Ernie Fletcher.

"We want to be where he is," Smith says. For two long, hot, parched months, that's where Iraq Summer, combining forces with LPAC and other peace groups around the state, has been. They've bird-dogged McConnell's fundraisers. They've organized a stream of rallies and vigils outside McConnell's home. And they've drawn in a new batch of blue-collar and military folks like Smith, who still pinches himself when he looks in the mirror and sees an antiwar protester looking back.

"Initially I supported the war," he says, "more because I felt it was a duty to support the troops because I knew what they were going to be going through. When I saw antiwar protesters here at first, they gave me a little bit of a rise, because I felt that they didn't really understand the issues and would be proven wrong." He laughs. "Now I'm spending all my spare time working with them." Abu Ghraib was a breaking point for Smith. "My only defense of the war to that point had been, 'Well, at least we're the good guys.' After that, I had nothing left. But what really activated me was the surge. I thought after the 2006 elections things would change, but they just steamrollered right over us. So I went from there to the peace rally in Washington in January." A group he met there, Veterans for Peace, later connected him with Iraq Summer. "I would never have believed, a year ago, that I'd be doing anything like this," Smith says.

Nor, for different reasons, did Alioto, who'd been teaching diplomacy and national security classes to youth leaders in Washington, DC, when AAEI's national field director, Kate Snyder, called to ask if he'd return to Kentucky to dog McConnell. "I said no. I didn't want to go work for some peacenik, 'Let's end the war and sing songs' kind of campaign. But she said, 'This is a pro-military, pro-veteran campaign. It's not antiwar; it's anti-reckless war.' Then my ears pricked up."

Alioto found even more grassroots anger back home than he'd imagined. When Iraq Summer canvassed McConnell's neighborhood, "87 percent of the people who answered their doors took an End the War yard sign. I like numbers," he says, chuckling. But Alioto has also found that "there's still a lot of organizations, and a lot of individuals, that are scared to get involved. We get a lot of backdoor help. The hardest part is letting people know that we're not the traditional antiwar movement."

The nontraditional nature of the movement is on vivid display August 28 at the Take a Stand rally. A crowd of nearly 800 packs a Bellarmine University auditorium to hear not only from the expected cast of politicians, including Congressman Yarmuth, but also grassroots warriors like Smith, who leads the Pledge of Allegiance wearing several days' worth of stubble along with his old Army infantry jacket. There's 85-year-old Jean Edwards, a legendary local peace-and-justice activist, and her 15-year-old granddaughter, who asks the question, What would Gandhi do? There's a liberal white Presbyterian minister who went to Mississippi in 1964, during Freedom Summer, followed by an African-American minister who surveys the room and declares, "We are the people that can end this war. It has always been and will always be us--the good people, the common people, the regular people. It will always be incumbent upon us, when we have had enough." There's Bill Londrigan, the state's AFL-CIO chief, echoing that theme: "This is a war of elites fought by the working people of this Commonwealth and this country." And there's Lieut. Col. Andrew Horne, who's pondering an antiwar challenge to McConnell in '08, pacing the stage talking about why he chose to lead his National Guard unit into Iraq--and why he subsequently turned into a national VoteVets spokesman against the war. Horne leads a refrain that will be echoed during the evening's culminating event, a candlelight march to the senator's home: "Hey Mitch, can you hear us? We are the people!"

The marchers are mostly solemn and orderly, sticking to the sidewalks under pink-streaked evening skies as they wind up busy Bardstown Road to the accompaniment of honking horns, then down through McConnell's leafy old neighborhood. Informed that "We're going to McConnell's," one neighbor, standing on his lawn to view the procession, urges the folks: "Blow him up!" A few doors down, a white-haired senior citizen in a blue scooped-neck T-shirt hangs over his side porch bellowing a different opinion: "Damned idiots--you're helping kill 'em!" His plump face is scarlet with fury.

On the sidewalk in front of McConnell's nondescript two-story brick condo waits a thin line of counterprotesters, most of them portly, scruffy, tattooed bikers who've parked their hogs in formation across the way. Some hold signs reading Peace Through Strength and Stand Strong Mitch, while others aim cameras at the protesters in a vain attempt at intimidation. It's impossible not to notice the irony: how much more "mainstream" the war protesters, a mostly middle-class khakis-and-polo-shirt crowd, look than the ragtag defenders of Corporate America's favorite member of Congress. Across the street, the only sign of possible life in the condo is a yellow light glowing through the upstairs windowshades. (McConnell's spokesperson will later say that the senator was in Lexington that night, helming another fundraiser for Fletcher.) When McConnell's defenders finally rumble off, Smith shakes his unruly head of black curls and grins. "They got no staying power," he snorts. "All huff, no tough."

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.

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