This column appeared in the June 7, 2016 edition of the Louisville Courier-Journal.
By: Scott Jennings
Success in politics flows from four virtues: goal setting, planning, patience and teamwork, according to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s just-released memoir The Long Game, which details the perseverance required of Kentucky’s longest-serving Senator to beat polio, overcome the Kentucky Democratic machine, and outmaneuver Washington’s sharp-elbowed elite.
David Williams, a McConnell ally and former Kentucky Senate president, used to say, “Instant coffee ruined the world. You need to let things percolate.” Williams dealt with his share of impatient politicians desirous of fame and glory after walking the halls of government for five minutes. In a world brimming with Keurig-style politicos, McConnell has deliberately brewed his success over time.
The Long Game finds McConnell humbly treading through his upbringing in the Deep South, his family’s move to Kentucky, and the decisions that ultimately led to successful runs for public office, first in 1977 for Jefferson County Judge-Executive and then for U.S. Senate in 1984.
Overcoming polio at four years old shaped McConnell’s life. Born 12 years before Salk’s vaccine, McConnell recalls his struggle to understand his beloved mother’s grueling treatment program. For two years, Julia McConnell kept her young son off his feet as she administered therapies to rescue him from potential paralysis. She explained to him that he could and would walk, but just not at that time.
It’s interesting to think of McConnell—just a toddler—enduring that brutal two-year cycle, overcoming long odds to beat an opponent that seemed insurmountable. Little did he know that his future would also be defined by similarly confounding and exasperating two-year campaign cycles with uncertain outcomes.
A theme for McConnell—from beating up schoolyard bully Dicky McGrew to winning Senate leadership elections before his opponents even knew they had started—is that his adversaries rarely see him coming. Often underestimated (we are going to “kick your ass…all over Kentucky,” a consultant to McConnell victim Dee Huddleston boasted in 1984), McConnell hammers the point that overconfidence can quickly undo any politician. Huddleston, for instance, failed to see McConnell’s famous bloodhounds coming until he was plum up the tree on election night.
McConnell’s deeply personal recollections remind us that the politicians we see vilified in campaign ads or skewered in the press are just people, with the same problems, anxieties, happiness, and grief felt by most of us during the course of a lifetime. This memoir, given its candor about McConnell’s toughest times personally, reminds us that the mere act of seeking public office doesn’t make one immune from the stress of courtships, parenting, caring for and eventually burying aging parents, and managing tough situations at work.
One shocking anecdote involves McConnell’s deep reflection in 2013 about whether to seek reelection the following year, fearing he could lose and cost the Republican Party a majority in the Senate. The thought of McConnell calling it quits on the eve of winning in a landslide and becoming Senate Majority Leader seems unfathomable today.
The book succeeds in revealing the very human emotions swirling inside of McConnell, including self-doubt. All of us have lain awake at night fretting over the risks and possible rewards of decisions to be made at work the following day. Am I doomed to fail and just don’t know it? If my job decision goes south, how will I provide for my family? McConnell had these thoughts in 1984 when he came home from a grueling day of campaign travel to find a tree in his yard split by lightning, his goldfish dead, and his fed up girlfriend gone forever (in a message delivered via answering machine, no less).
McConnell was the first member of his family to finish college. He loved his parents deeply and grieved mightily when they died. He witnessed segregation and has demonstrated a lifelong commitment to civil rights, even voting for Lyndon Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964. He did not attend an Ivy League college, opting instead for the Universities of Louisville and Kentucky. He fathered three daughters and endured a divorce. When forced to take jobs for which he lacked passion, he became a restless soul.
His story is very human, very humble, and very Kentucky.
He started with a dream, few advantages, and plenty of obstacles, just like most of his constituents. And he reacts with the bemusement you’d expect from any up-from-his-bootstraps Kentuckian to becoming a national political figure, one whose every utterance now attracts attention: “Only in America could a bespectacled polio survivor who started out in this business with no contacts, no credentials, and no money wake up one day at the age of seventy-two to find himself treated like a celebrity.”
For years, journalists have struggled to understand the winning ways of McConnell, someone they inaccurately portray as a cold, emotionless political operative lacking connectivity to average voters. The Long Game serves as an education about McConnell the human being, whose life experiences form the fabric of his connection to the people of his old Kentucky home.
Scott Jennings previously served as an advisor to President George W. Bush and U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell. He is a partner at RunSwitch Public Relations, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ScottJenningsKY. The online version of this article contains hyperlinked citations.