Mitch McConnell gets barbecued: Politics at its weirdest, Kentucky-style

Behind the scenes at Fancy Farm, the Kentucky picnic that might be the oddest day in American politics

By Brian Weinberg

Published August 6, 2013 11:44AM (EDT)

U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY, greets supporters during the 133rd Annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013.     (AP/Stephen Lance Dennee)
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-KY, greets supporters during the 133rd Annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Fancy Farm, Ky., Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013. (AP/Stephen Lance Dennee)

FANCY FARM, Ky. — Let’s start with records, and not the political kind.  The sheer tonnage of pulled sinew at the annual Fancy Farm barbecue picnic is cited in the Guinness Book of World Records — this year, 8,500 pounds of mutton and 9,500 pounds of pork, or nine tons of meat, every last shred smoked onsite in a battery of cement pits the size of a football field.

If Sen. Mitch McConnell loses his reelection bid in 2014, his downfall officially began here, in the far western Purchase region of Kentucky, where for the last 133 years political adversaries have traded barbs on a small stage in the country hamlet of Fancy Farm.  The picnic kicks off and frames every major political race in the Commonwealth, a throwback to the long-gone days of unscripted hot-around-the-collar partisan rallies, a sweaty, boisterous, old-fashioned political speaking slugfest and barbecue pig-out.

As a native Kentuckian, I always had Fancy Farm on my radar as potentially interesting to attend, on a lark.  My interest perked in ‘08, when it was rumored Barack Obama might schedule an appearance during his campaign; it’s clear to me now that it wouldn’t have been wise strategy for a presidential candidate, assuming it was ever under serious consideration. The level of decorum required of speakers at Fancy Farm is so low that it’s considered only marginally tacky for Ed Marksberry, an Owensboro contractor running in the Democratic primary and the least of McConnell’s threats from the left, to state the cruel but undeniable truth about the 71-year-old minority leader's appearance (“People say he looks like a turtle!”) and make a political joke at the expense of his wattle (“After years of kissing the butts of corporate elites, he rubbed his chin right off!”).  People cheer and jeer, journalists scribble in their notebooks.  This year, I was curious to hear Alison Lundergan Grimes, the 34-year-old secretary of state who, having painted only the broadest of policy brushstrokes in the primary, has the full backing of the Democratic National Committee and endorsements from the likes of Bill Clinton and actress/activist Ashley Judd.

Grimes has nicknamed her campaign “Team Switch,” a wry response to “Team Mitch,” and her strategy out of the gate, unsurprisingly in this red state, is to distance herself from Obama. Her staffers wear “I ♥ Coal” stickers; in her only public appearance prior to Fancy Farm, aside from her candidacy announcement, she said that she “disagrees” with Obama on coal, without elaborating further. The sad truth is, it might be impossible to win in Kentucky without being at least lukewarm toward coal (not that I’m giving her an excuse, except that I kinda am). Her campaign sells stylish V-neck T-shirts and handsome lapel pins that should appeal well to women, a demographic she intends to clean up on, and her supporters have already shortened her seven-syllable name to “ALG.”  For barnstorming the Commonwealth while General Gridlock is back in Washington, she’s got a newish-looking campaign bus with a huge image of her pearly white smile.  Onstage, while the male politicians and candidates appear sweaty and stressed out in open-neck button-downs (the exception is McConnell, who looks bored), ALG exudes composure seated between her husband and grandma in a sleeveless red dress, smiling down beatifically upon her flock.

Organizers from St. Jerome Catholic Church say 10,000 to 12,000 people attend Fancy Farm every year.  The racial demographic is overwhelmingly white — I counted only eight black people on the day, there to support ALG. Had Obama showed in ‘08, the scene might have been more diverse, if only for the year.  The event raises a whopping $250,000 for St. Jerome, a buttermilk-colored church on a hill overlooking the town, which is pocked with political signs for the weekend, or perhaps they’ll be there until the election 15 months hence.  To get to Fancy Farm from Louisville, where I’m from, you take I-24 West and pass the conjoined 184-mile Kentucky Lake and 118-mile Lake Barkley, on which pleasure-craft (pontoons and houseboats) and sport-craft (speedboats, jet skis and a sort of hybrid jet-ski-boat called Sea-Doo’s) tie together in inlets to form floating party enclaves, aka redneck yacht clubs.  No, I didn’t make that up, the rednecks themselves did.  Some of the vessels fly black flags that say “Friends of Coal,” and because the lakes are used by inland barges to access the Tennessee River and the Ohio, you may see a jet-ski buzzing around a mile-long barge piled high with black gold.

You also drive past the pluming stacks of the Shawnee Fossil Plant on the banks of the Ohio, a coal-fired steam plant that provides electricity to the Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant, a uranium enrichment facility with technology dating back to the ‘50s.  Over his 28 years in office, McConnell has found ways to divert federal dollars to keep the facility open despite it being a major polluter and a sharp decline in demand for enriched uranium since the Cold War ended.  Now that the behemoth anachronism is finally scheduled to shutter — it sucks down 12 percent of the state’s electricity, or more than the whole city of Louisville — approximately 1,100 employees will lose their jobs, and Democrats are accusing McConnell of neglect.  Attorney General Jack Conway, a Democrat with gubernatorial aspirations, is threatening to file suit against the federal government if the cleanup isn’t done right.

The earliest arriving picnickers grab a coveted seat beneath the shelter, which provides a good view of the stage, and of course it’s far nicer to sit in the shade, though life under the shelter is neither relaxing nor comfortable.  Folks under the shelter are obliged to chant and heckle not only prior to, but during the political speeches, meaning the P.A. system is turned up loud enough for the audience to hear over itself, the speakers blaring at close range into the roped-off media area in front of the stage.  The seating configuration entails risers around the perimeter and rows of chairs on the floor, and the crowd is split down the middle between conservatives/Tea-Partyers and liberals, so there’s shouting both across the shelter and up toward the stage.  The vast majority of conservatives wear red T-shirts that say “Team Mitch.”

Team Mitchers hold signs on long sticks that on one side show an unflattering picture of ALG and on the other, Obama — they “twizzle” the images back and forth. Liberal ALG supporters have signs that say “Ditch Mitch” (a slogan dating back to the ‘80s) and “I Don’t Scare Easy” (in reference to Mitch’s well-earned reputation for mudslinging and his $10 million war chest). There’s a woman for ALG who holds up a Lambchop-like sock puppet, and I’m fairly certain she’s saying “bah bah bah” during speeches by conservatives, or else it’s “blah blah blah.”

In brazen violation of a Fancy Farm rule outlawing noisemakers, Tea Partyers ring bells in support of Tea Party-ish/Republican candidate Matt Bevin, a Louisville businessman whose family owns a bell manufacturing business in East Hampton.  An authentic Tea Partyer, dressed in Revolutionary War garb, leads chants through a megaphone prior to the speaking — this is Paul Johnson of Walton, Ky., and he bears a striking resemblance to Gen. George Washington, no joke.  He has people on Team Mitch chanting, “Hey, hey, hi ho, the IRS must go!”  This segues rather seamlessly into “Go, Mitch, go!”  Some of the more cynical Team Mitchers tell Johnson to get off his sinking ship.  From the liberal side comes, “I don’t know what you’ve been told, Mitch McConnell has got to go!”  And then, next you thing you know, everyone under the shelter is singing “God Bless America.”

Also onstage is Rep. Ed. Whitefield, R-Hopkinsville, and state agriculture commissioner James Comer (a Republican with gubernatorial aspirations), and state auditor Adam Edelen (another Democrat with gubernatorial aspirations), and assorted other elected officials who won’t get a chance to speak.  Every speaker gets cheered and jeered, regardless, if for no other reason than for the sheer fun of it.  Because Fancy Farm is in Graves County, which is a dry county in what they like to call God’s Country, the picnic makes not a dime on alcohol sales, meaning everyone there is sober.  Most drink $1 soda bottles of Sun Drop, “The Newest Player in Citrus,” as signs say all around the picnic grounds.  St. Jerome’s $250,000 in revenue, as best I could tell, comes from the sale of $3 barbecue sandwiches, $5 raffle tickets for a Dodge pickup, $10 Fancy Farm T-shirts featuring smiley pigs, an all-day bingo marathon, a 5K race the evening before, and a modest collection of carnival games, including a child-size dunking booth.  There’s also a $15 ticket to an all-you-can-eat air-conditioned buffet sponsored by the Knights of Columbus.

It’s said that Fancy Farm won’t necessarily make a politician, but it can certainly help break one.  Notable no-shows are lampooned onstage and reported in newspapers across the Commonwealth.  Rand Paul took it on the chin from ALG for “spending the weekend with his loved ones: the Tea Party members in Iowa.”  And if a politician does show, he or she runs the risk of things getting out of hand.  In ‘09, Conway, running for the U.S. Senate seat of retiring Republican Jim Bunning, had a profanity laced meltdown.   In ‘98, McConnell delivered a vitriolic speech criticizing Democrat Scotty Baesler, who was running for Senate against Bunning.  McConnell’s speech was so vicious that it impelled the normally cool and collected Baesler to blow a gasket during his own speech.  His gesticulations and facial contortions didn’t translate well on videotape, especially not in slow motion set to classical music by Wagner — Adolf Hitler’s favorite composer.  Such was the advertisement Bunning ran, on the recommendation of McConnell.

Prior to the speeches, St. Jerome’s chief picnic organizer and press liaison, Mark Wilson, gives a brief primer on Fancy Farm’s history.  Past speakers include George Wallace (when a flashbulb went off with a crack, he supposedly flinched and told the photographer, “I’m a little gun shy”) and Al Gore (we all know how that ended).  I could hear the love in Wilson’s voice for both his church and the event itself — he tells everyone there’s a museum being planned “on these hallowed grounds.”  He also signs mass emails to the press corps, “God Bless all of you and Happy Politics!”  Before singing “My Old Kentucky Home,” a gentleman from St. Jerome’s tells the crowd that if we don’t know the words to just hum along, and jokes that he’ll do the same, except that he’s not joking, he’s actually previewing what’s going to happen.  He not only forgets the words, he takes his own advice, humming along into the mic.  The National Anthem is sung by a girl who looks about 11 — she gets through it flawlessly.  The moderator for the event, Ferrell Wellman, hosts a talk show about state politics on PBS.  A bear of a man, he bellows out intros to each speaker like a ring announcer before a prizefight.  He also goes over the ground rules, telling the crowd, “This isn’t the World Cup,” meaning no noise makers such as vuvuzelas, the brightly colored plastic horns that sound like a swarm of killer bees.  Speaking order is determined by seniority for elected officials and coin flip for candidates, and the speeches (time allotments of five and six minutes) are clocked by state Rep. Gerald Watkins, who wears a track-and-field-grade stopwatch around his neck.

Most speakers begin with a few scripted zingers to satisfy their supporters, and then quickly outline a bit of policy while reacting to hecklers in a good-natured but firm way.  For instance, McConnell tells the liberal side, “Y’all came down here just to push me around,” and it sounds both accusatory and playful.  The senior senator is the first speaker, and he opens with a zinger intended to cast ALG as a privileged daddy’s girl, the only time he’ll deign to mention her in his speech: “I want to say how nice it is to see [former Kentucky Democratic chairman]  Jerry Lundergan back in the game.  Like the loyal Democrat he is, he’s taking orders from the Obama campaign about how to run his daughter’s campaign.”  And then punch line: “They told him to make a pitch on the Internet for the women’s vote and he sent a check to Anthony Weiner.”

The Team Mitchers laugh and shout approval, and then the Senate minority leader goes into his boilerplate criticisms of Obama, making sure to mention all the ways he’s prevented the president from ending the world as we know it.  Most of his speech is about the ways he has “stopped” Obama from legislating disaster for the American people — a depressing trip down memory lane, and remarkable to hear just how perverted the man has become regarding his legacy.  His supporters boo when ALG supporters accuse him of being an obstructionist. “We’re not just deciding who runs Kentucky,” he warbles down to the crowd.  “We’re going to be deciding who runs the Senate.”

Bevin mounts a furious attack on McConnell, ticking off zinger after zinger and telling his supporters that their bells are tolling for McConnell: “… ask not for whom the bells toll, Senator.  They toll for you!”  McConnell has been quick to dismiss Bevin as nothing more than a dilettante nuisance, but onstage at Fancy Farm, he has the look and tenor of a real candidate. At the very least he could weaken Team Mitch in the primary, and burn up a lot of their cash.

ALG did her part too, by far and away the most compelling presence at the dais.  “There is a disease of dysfunction in Washington ... Sen. McConnell is at the center of it,” she told the crowd.  “If doctors told Sen. McConnell he had a kidney stone, he’d refuse to pass it.”  She went on to outline an agenda for protecting Medicare and Social Security.  She wants to give equal pay to women and pass the Violence Against Women Act — a bill McConnell voted “no” on, claiming he wants tougher legislation.  As ALG spoke, he wore a tight-lipped smile, as if he were trying to pass a kidney stone in front of everyone.  A pretty blond girl tapped my shoulder, wearing a pink dress fit for a debutante ball, and said that the crowd turnout for ALG was record-setting for a Democratic candidate at Fancy Farm.  She also made sure to ask which media outlet I worked for.  No, she couldn’t give a head count for ALG supporters, nor could she explain the rationale by which she’d come to her conclusion.  Instead, she insisted that McConnell’s five busloads of supporters had been paid $10 a head to show up and be supportive.  I promised that I’d try to find a way to use her purely unsubstantiated rumors.

The stakes at Fancy Farm 2014 will be sky high — I highly recommend it, even if you hate politics.  The theatrics are spellbinding, and you get to see them sweat.  ALG actually handed Conway a Kleenex to wipe his forehead — it was unclear if she’d been using it herself.  McConnell had already been whisked away in a dark SUV when Ed Marksbury made the remarks about his turtle appearance, and most of Team Mitch had departed also.  The old battleax wasn’t going to sit there and take shit from no challengers, save for ALG, who got to speak second as an elected official.  Not that McConnell isn’t taking Bevin and ALG seriously — his chief of staff is leaving D.C. to concentrate entirely on the campaign back home.  Do the bells toll for the least popular senator in the country among both conservatives and liberals alike?  If you believe in signs, McConnell's empty chair was draped in an American flag, military coffin-style.

Brian Weinberg

Brian Weinberg’s essays and short stories have appeared in n+1, Men’s Vogue, New Letters, Bellevue Review and other publications

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