Meet the Senate's strange new GOP superstar: “With all due respect, I am against dumb”

Is highly quotable Louisiana Sen. John N. Kennedy (no relation!) a clown or a media mastermind? Maybe it's both!

Published March 19, 2018 4:58AM (EDT)

John Neely Kennedy (Getty/Jonathan Bachman)
John Neely Kennedy (Getty/Jonathan Bachman)

This feature is part of Salon's Young Americans initiative, showcasing emerging journalists reporting from America's red states. Read more Young Americans stories.

ya-embed-logoSince Sen. John Neely Kennedy was elected in 2016 -- no relation to John Fitzgerald Kennedy, let us assure you -- journalists have had a field day with the Louisiana Republican’s uniquely colorful rhetoric. The folksy-yet-quippish member of the upper chamber has sometimes baffled his spectators, who debate whether he is simply loose-tongued or, more enticingly, a 4D-chess-playing, mastermind media manipulator. As a result, a divergence has formed between local constituents and national onlookers about Kennedy’s public identity. Louisiana still sees him as its ambitious, educated ex-treasurer, while the national audience takes delight in Washington’s new boyish wisecracker.

But his method of communication has also vexed his state’s governor’s office, which has repeatedly issued tense clapbacks to the senator’s rhetorical hits. It’s also irked his political rivals, such as Louisiana Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, a Democrat who ran against Kennedy for the U.S. Senate seat in 2016. Campbell calls the senator’s rhetoric “cute” but “absolutely phony.” 

“He probably didn’t talk like that when he was in England,” Campbell said about the Oxford University-graduated Trump supporter. “Trump has made a lot of that [rhetoric] fashionable. But the second Trump starts sliding, you won’t be able to find John Kennedy with a flashlight. He will be the first one who hits the deck.”

Regardless, Kennedy seems to have fun making national headlines with the one-liners he whips out on C-SPAN or broadcast cable interviews, including the recent NPR story on his spurring a Meat Loaf quote-battle on Capitol Hill. The senator has even prompted actress Lindsay Lohan’s parents to threaten lawsuit over a stray comment about their daughter’s alleged history of drug addiction. And whether one agrees or disagrees with his style, Kennedy is expected to be a formidable opponent against incumbent Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards in the Louisiana governor’s race next year. (Both Kennedy’s office and Edwards' office declined to give comment for this story).

Here are some quotes, in no particular order, from the 66 year-old Vanderbilt and Oxford alumnus, LSU adjunct-professor, former five-term state treasurer and now-federal lawmaker since his 2016 Senate campaign last year:

"I don't even know when they have time to make movies in Hollywood because it looks like they're all busy molesting each other." — in the Baton Rouge Advocate "You realize, to many Americans right now, that looks like we're giving Lindsay Lohan the keys to the minibar." — to former Equifax CEO Richard Smith, regarding the company's multi-million-dollar contract with the IRS, despite its data breach affecting more than 145 million people “With all due respect, I am against dumb.” — to Wells Fargo CEO Timothy Sloan, regarding unauthorized deposit accounts and credit applications “I mean, I don’t pay extra in a restaurant to prevent the waiter from spitting in my food.” — on Equifax's data monitoring costs “If you believe that tax policy has nothing to do with the economy, then you're pretty much like a rock, only dumber."on C-SPAN "I don’t care if we have to vote on #Thanksgiving day. You can heat turkey up. You don’t have to eat it right out the oven." — on tax reform “If you hate cops just because they're cops, then the next time you get in trouble, call a crackhead.” — on the NFL anthem protests “Our roads are axle-breaking insults to the 21st century.” — in a Senate floor speech “Look, the American people are smart. They don't read Aristotle every day, but they get it.” on CNN “It was lighthearted. It was a very positive meeting. Nobody called anybody an ignorant slut or anything.” — on a recent GOP lunch, via POLITICO reporter Seung Min Kim’s Twitter “They don’t want to watch us acting like a bunch of kids in the back of a minivan.” on voters’ perception of Congress “Except for beating [University of Alabama], I'm focused on policy.” — in the Advocate "My advice repeatedly to the governor … has been to tell his people to get up off their ass.” — in the Advocate “I may have to get drunk to vote for the bill.” — on a provision that would trigger automatic tax hikes "I have no idea. I just work here." — on the timeline of the confirmation process of Kyle Duncan via the Senate Judiciary Committee, on which he is a sitting member, in the Advocate “I wouldn't hire these people to run a food truck.” — on the Louisiana Department of Corrections, in the Associated Press “I don’t like traffic cameras. In fact, I hate them. But that doesn’t mean I can break the speed limit and run red lights to get to a New Orleans Saints game.” — suggesting New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu was ignoring immigration laws “I'd rather drink weed killer than answer that.”in response to his Democratic opponent Foster Campbell asking whether Kennedy was joking about suicide in his own campaign ad

By Sarah Gamard

Sarah Gamard has always needed writing and storytelling more than food. The undergraduate reports from Louisiana, a state that prides itself on being unlike any other in the U.S. The below-sea-level cities and laissez-faire politics make Louisiana magical, but also crown it with unique problems. Underfunded flood protection, an increasing budget shortfall and the world's highest incarceration are just a few factors that play into the state's famously dubbed "jungle politics." When Gamard is not in class at Louisiana State University, she's covering committee meetings and chamber debates at the state capitol in Baton Rouge.

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