In his introduction to “The Long Game,” Mitch McConnell’s memoir of a life in politics, the Kentucky senator proudly boasts that “until now … no one has ever tried to write the story as I see it, which is really my doing.”
The reason, he goes on to explain, is his reluctance to comply with some of the standard rules of behavior for elected officials.
“I only to talk the press if it’s to my advantage,” he notes.
Those of us who have followed his career for nearly 40 years can attest that this is true. Whether the people he represents are well served by his Garboesque inaccessibility is doubtful.
What has set Mitch McConnell apart from others in government throughout his career is simple: He is determined, he is smart and he doesn’t care what he has to do to get what he wants. Until he became majority leader a few years ago, he was largely unknown outside the Senate or among a small group of acquaintances in his home state.
Since then, one excellent book — “The Cynic” by former New Republic Reporter Alec McGinnis — and one fawning one — “Republican Leader” by local attorney and freelance journalist John David Dyche — have been published.
Now, McConnell has decided to have his say. In 278 pages, this breezy memoir is easy reading. As someone who knows McConnell and has closely followed his long career, it has its rewarding moments.
For instance, the story of his childhood in Alabama is deeply moving. Born in 1942, McConnell contracted polio in 1944, a decade before the Salk polio vaccine was widely available. McConnell’s father was away at war, and his mother doted upon her only child Mitch, but she also had a single-minded devotion to his cure. She took him regularly to Warm Springs, Georgia, where he received the best care available at the polio institute there. Regular therapy for his legs given by his mother enabled the youngster to walk.
One of the most endearing aspects of his autobiography is McConnell’s devotion to his parents, something that is rare in contemporary memoirs. His was a very normal American childhood of the postwar era. And like Theodore Roosevelt, another young man who had been weakened by childhood disease, young Mitch “made himself” through hard physical work, devotion to doing well at defending himself against bullies and to playing baseball.
He applied the same focus to making friends when his father was transferred from the South to Louisville in the early 1950s. Entering DuPont Manual High School as a freshman, McConnell sat in the back row in a dark corner during assembly. Years later, as the junior Republican member of the U.S. Senate, he would similarly sit far in the back.
In each case, he pushed his way forward, which couldn’t have been easy for someone with his introverted nature. His transformation became complete: an athlete, president of the class, a stellar student, especially in history and politics. And it occurred again at the University of Louisville.
McConnell’s career was built on goal-setting. Early on, he knew what he wanted to be in life: a U.S. Senator. He also knew that, unlike his forbears, who were Southern Democrats, he would be a Republican. His idols were progressive, pro-civil rights Republicans like President Dwight Eisenhower, and Sens. John Sherman Cooper and Thruston Morton.
In time, he would serve as an aide to Cooper, who was his role model. McConnell could not have chosen better.
“I would venture a guess that I was probably the only 14-year-old boy in America interested enough to watch both conventions (in 1956), gavel to gavel,” McConnell wrote.
Wrong, senator. This reviewer did the same thing, at age 13, in 1964. Still, it must have been a fairly rare achievement.
Under Cooper’s tutelage, he was able to observe civil rights history being made. He also served a stint as an intern for Louisville Congressman Gene Snyder, an ultra-right-wing ideologue who voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Young McConnell, who had seen Jim Crow up close in rural Alabama, recoiled at Snyder’s vote as well as that of Barry Goldwater, the GOP’s 1964 nominee. In a revealing moment, McConnell writes that he cast his first vote for president for Democrat Lyndon B. Johnson.
Whether Cooper would be as proud of the McConnell endorsement of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential race is another matter.
Voting for a Democrat, however, was not a mistake he would make again, he says. For even though he hated segregation, he also detested big government, bureaucracy and the welfare state.
After college and law school, McConnell went back to Washington as an aide to Sen. Marlow Cook, the progressive Republican from Louisville. Cook, who died earlier this year, was lazy, McConnell writes, and didn’t pay attention to his constituents — resulting in his defeat in 1974. Fact is, virtually any Republican in Kentucky would have lost in that year, only months after Richard Nixon’s ignominious resignation.
McConnell’s rise in politics was relatively swift, but he only tells part of the story. His 1977 race for Jefferson County Judge/Executive was an uphill battle against two-term Democrat Todd Hollenbach. But McConnell had several things going for him: broad support not just from Republicans but from reform elements, a young and energetic staff and volunteers, and — not insignificantly — the endorsement of The Courier-Journal, which broke with tradition to reject the Democrat and was, in the view of at least one key aide — future Judge John G. Heyburn — the deciding factor in McConnell’s narrow victory.
The newspaper endorsement is not mentioned in McConnell’s version of history. Nor is the bipartisan nature of his first administration, which included a number of Democrats and liberal Republicans. Quickly, McConnell became known as the reformer, something special in local politics. And it was a foundation for his future race for the Senate.
He won that race in 1984 against two-term incumbent Walter “Dee” Huddleston after waging an effective TV campaign that featured the famous hound dog ads, which emphasized Huddleston’s attendance record. He may have been helped a little bit by the fact that Ronald Reagan won that year in a landslide (even though McConnell discounts the Gipper’s impact on his success).
McConnell spends much of his book defending his conservative bona fides, yet for those of us who remember his record, these claims wear thin. But no one can doubt his ability to shift with the winds of change in the Republican Party. And as Reagan pushed the party rightward, his acolyte McConnell shifted with him.
There is, however, a glaring problem with McConnell’s book.
Recalling the media’s bombardment of former Republican leader Trent Lott after he praised arch-segregationist Strom Thurmond, McConnell remembers an occasion when Sen. Robert Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia,” used the n-word. And “in 1995, Democratic Senator Wendell Ford from Kentucky, then minority whip, used the same term during a radio interview, and the Courier-Journal defended (my emphasis) him.”
I was the Courier-Journal’s editor of opinion pages in 1995, and this was untrue. The newspaper reported Ford’s comments but never defended them. I consulted the newspaper’s online archive to verify what happened and asked McConnell for documentation.
“Where was the editorial condemning it is the point. Not one defending it, but the one condemning it is the point. I think they just ignored it. That’s what I should have written but my point remains accurate unless they spoke up.”
Yes, that’s what he should have written. But he didn’t. Let us hope his publisher, Random House, will correct the mistake if the book goes beyond its first edition.
Finally, it was stunning to read his comment (p. 96) in which he defended his vote against a constitutional amendment that would have banned flag-burning. His staff objected, saying that an election was looming. “An election is always coming up, and it should never dictate votes,” he declares.
How can he square that with his refusal to permit any consideration of President Obama’s nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court?
Fact is he can’t. And those errors and inconsistencies cannot prevent an engagingly written memoir from ultimately being little more than a self-serving document. But the bigger question — one ignored in this memoir — is how a man with so much promise, ambition and intelligence has achieved a record of such obstruction, pettiness and legislative inconsequence.
Keith Runyon is a longtime Louisville journalist and former editorial page editor of The Courier-Journal.