At Kentucky’s annual political cockfight known as the Fancy Farm Picnic this past summer, then-candidate Matt Bevin chastised participants and the crowd for “celebrating our divisions … in a childish way that frankly does not resolve any of the issues that we face.”
He then led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, which sports-talk-show-host-turned-Democratic-moderator Matt Jones somehow excluded from an event that idea-thin liberals claim is a premier political staple.
The boos and hisses from media elites following Bevin’s smackdown were nearly as raucous as the crowd at the literal – and political – barbecue held on the grounds of St. Jerome’s Catholic Church ever since a notice appeared in the Mayfield Monitor on July 31, 1880, indicating “there will be a barn dance, picnic and ‘gander pulling’ at Fancy Farm next Thursday.”
Courier-Journal columnist Al Cross predicted that Bevin’s unwillingness to engage in the traditional manner in the political tussle that occurs each August would harm his bid to win the election.
“I think Bevin’s chances dipped a bit over the weekend,” Cross wrote after this year’s picnic.
Jones claimed that Bevin criticizing the Fancy Farm exchange of oratorical hot air that fits the temperatures of that season in western Kentucky was like “going into Rupp Arena saying Rick Pitino is a better coach than (John) Calipari.”
In a column likening Bevin to brash GOP presidential hopeful Donald Trump, Louisville lawyer and syndicated columnist John David Dyche labeled the gubernatorial nominee “sanctimonious” for questioning a hallowed tradition which Bevin said he views as endorsing “the very worst elements of the political process.”
The businessman-turned-candidate also drew the political establishment’s ire, including that of then-Gov. Steve Beshear, who twanged at Fancy Farm this year that “this other guy – Matt Bevin – he wants to take our state back to the 19th century.”
This was a confusing charge considering Bevin was at the same time being roundly criticized for obviously breaking with the traditional practices of an event which had its beginnings in that 19th century.
Of course, it hasn’t been unusual for Beshear to suffer from fits of confusion – such as when the outgoing caretaker-governor desperately tried to bolster his legacy during his final hours in office with fantastical claims of having adequately addressed the commonwealth’s public-pension crisis even though funding for the state workers’ retirement plan dipped from 52 percent between his first year in office to the current 17-percent level.
I wondered how Kentuckians would respond to Bevin’s approach.
We’re big on tradition – especially when it comes to horses, bourbon, basketball championships and even politics.
But to borrow from John Greenleaf Whittier’s analogy, more than enough voters in November show they were ready to exchange the “snowy beard” of impotent tradition in recognition that “romance is always young.”
Bevin’s convincing election victory indicates that many citizens long for a political romance that sprouts new and different traditions: of developing innovative and productive policies, of embracing rather than evading our commonwealth’s mounting challenges, of learning from other states’ successes and failures and of showing respect through listening to those with opposing – especially new – ideas.
Signs that such a political romance is germinating are encouraging as Bevin gets high marks from across the ideological spectrum for a serious and deliberative approach toward building a new administration.
So far, the incoming administration has put principle above partisanship and emphasized filling important cabinet spots with capable, skilled public servants more committed to making a difference than being satisfied with simply making a point.
Bevin’s nine-point win on the first Tuesday in November indicates that a growing number of Kentuckians – this columnist included – care much more about what state policymakers do when they return to Frankfort the first week of January than about what’s spewed during the first weekend in August.