Fancy Farm: unfiltered politics and spicy barbecue worth the trip

August 2, 2014

140802FancyFarm-TE0027 Jim Weise, a retired Army lawyer from Elizabethtown, campaigns for U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell at the Fancy Farm Picnic. Photo by Tom Eblen

 

 

FANCY FARM — This time each year, I am often asked why I drive four hours to a tiny town and sit in sweltering heat to hear politicians make wisecracks and partisan crowds scream at them. It can’t just be for the barbecue.

No, I tell them, it isn’t just for the barbecue. But my share of the nine tons of spicy pork and mutton, home-grown vegetables and homemade pies prepared by the good folks of St. Jerome Parish is always worth the drive.

I go to the Fancy Farm Picnic because, in this age of big-money lobbyists and TV attack ads, it is the only place where Kentucky’s most powerful politicians must face voters from both sides, the press and each other in a setting they can’t control.

The 134th annual picnic Saturday did not disappoint. And the stars of the show — Sen. Mitch McConnell and his Democratic challenger, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes — performed well under pressure.

Partisan activists come in from all over the region to crowd under a metal roof — Democratics on one side, Republicans on the other — wave signs, cheer their candidates and boo their opponents. This year’s crowd was reportedly the biggest in history, but it did a better job than usual of heeding organizers’ pleas for civility.

The main attraction was the Senate race, because it is the first time in decades that Democrats have a shot at beating the longest-serving senator in Kentucky history.

Polls show McConnell and Grimes essentially tied with an undecided electorate of less than 10 percent.

McConnell is an old pro on the Fancy Farm stump, and he focused his remarks on trying to paint Grimes as an inexperienced novice and puppet of liberals and President Barack Obama. He likened her lack of experience for high office to Obama, who ran for the presidency while in his first term as a senator from Illinois.

“He was only two years into his first job when he started campaigning for the next one. Sound familiar?” McConnell said of Obama. “He really didn’t have any qualifications at all. Sound familiar?”

I had to wonder if McConnell’s comments made his Republican colleague, Sen. Rand Paul, squirm in his seat on the stage. Paul, an eye surgeon, was elected in 2010 with no previous government experience, and he is now actively pursuing presidential ambitions.

Grimes, 35, was 6 years old when McConnell, 72, first took office in 1985. But she showed no respect for her elder. She accused him of being a Washington obstructionist who is out of touch with working Kentuckians and their needs. She said creating jobs, raising the minimum wage and legislation requiring equal pay for women would be her priorities.

Will Fancy Farm change the Senate race? Probably not, because neither candidate made any serious missteps. As the old saying goes, a good Fancy Farm performance doesn’t really help a candidate, but a bad performance can ruin a campaign.

The picnic gave an early preview of next year’s governor’s race, with Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway promoting his candidacy and Republican Agriculture Commissioner Jamie Comer making his bid official.

State Auditor Adam Edelen, who decided against running for governor next year, is still one of the Democrats’ best stump speakers and clearly sees a future for himself in politics. Appearances by Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and former Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo made people wonder if they are eyeing bigger ambitions.

Sure, Fancy Farm might be nothing more than a lot of political theater packaged with great food. But it sure beats TV attack ads.


‘7 Habits’ work in life, business — why not politics?

August 11, 2010

Before I left for the Fancy Farm Picnic on Saturday, I stopped by the public library to borrow some audio books for the five-hour drive to Graves County and the five-hour drive back.

One was leadership consultant Stephen Covey lecturing on his best-selling book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey has sold millions of copies of his book, and some of America’s most successful executives have said those “habits” transformed their lives and companies.

As I drove down the Western Kentucky Parkway listening to Covey, I was struck by two thoughts: The first was that the success habits he recommends for people and organizations are just common sense. The second was that American politics violates every one of them.

I would soon hear ample evidence of that, both from the politicians who spoke at the annual church picnic that kicks off Kentucky’s fall campaign season and from the thousands of partisans who cheered and jeered them.

This could help explain why, rather than being “highly effective,” government has become increasingly dysfunctional. Take, for example, the U.S. Senate, where the main warriors at this year’s Fancy Farm Picnic — Democrat Jack Conway and Republican Rand Paul — hope to serve.

Last week’s issue of The New Yorker magazine had a fascinating piece about the Senate by journalist George Packer. The article, “The Empty Chamber,” described how the legislative body that the Founding Fathers intended as a place for reasoned debate has become hobbled by the destructive behavior of Republicans and Democrats alike. Many senators seem more concerned with money, power and petty politics than with governing.

Consider Covey’s seven recommended habits in the context of today’s political environment:

■ Be proactive. Don’t wait for a crisis to react, Covey says. Politicians are the most reactive people on the planet, afraid to take a stand or make a tough decision unless public opinion, often in response to a crisis, forces them to. As a result, many complex problems just keep getting bigger.

■ Begin with the end in mind. Covey asks his audience to imagine what they would like others to say about them when they die. Given the large egos of many politicians, you would think they would want something better than “he/she was a money-grubbing tool of corporate interests.”

■ Put first things first. Peace, prosperity and justice, anyone?

■ Think “win-win.” This is a big one. In today’s political environment, even an honest change of mind is labeled “flip- flopping” or “waffling.” Compromise is called weakness. America is pretty evenly split between red and blue — in the case of the 2000 presidential election, remarkably so. Yet politics is increasingly a zero-sum game. In the Senate, whichever party is out of power wages a war of obstruction against the party in power. They simply fight to regain control, at which point the other party will do the same to them.

■ Seek to understand, then to be understood. What politician today seeks to understand the other party’s concerns? After all, that might change a mind, lead to compromise or accidently create a “win-win.”

■ Synergize. “To put it simply, synergy means ‘two heads are better than one,'” Covey says. Again, this is an alien concept in politics. Many would rather walk barefoot over broken glass than admit that someone in the other party has a good idea.

■ Sharpen the saw. This is not the same as sharpening the knife so you can stick it in your opponent’s back. Covey is talking about expanding your mind through reading, study and social interaction. In The New Yorker, Packer pointed out that bitter partisanship in the Senate has increased as social interaction between Democrats and Republicans has decreased. It is easier to call the person across the aisle Satan’s henchman if you never play golf together or share a meal.

But we can’t just blame the politicians. They often are responding to voters who marinate their minds in segments of the media that have discovered there are big profits to be made by dishing up distortion, propaganda and extremism.

America would be more successful if politicians — and the voters who elect them — applied Covey’s seven habits, which have been so successful in business and personal development, to politics and governance.

“We already know,” Covey says as I roll down the highway toward Fancy Farm, “that what is common sense is not common practice.”


Hear the speeches from 129th Fancy Farm Picnic

August 1, 2009

Listen to the Fancy Farm Picnic speeches of the three Democrats and three Republicans running for their parties’ nominations to the U.S. Senate in 2010. They’re listed here in the order they spoke to the crowd in Graves County on Saturday. (Click on the link to hear each candidate’s speech.)

Lt. Gov. Daniel Mongiardo (Democrat)

Attorney Gen. Jack Conway (Democrat)

Secretary of State Trey Grayson (Republican)

Darlene Fitzgerald Price (Democrat)

Bill Johnson (Republican)

Maurice Sweeney (Democrat)

Rand Paul (Republican)

In addition to the 2010 Senate candidates, here are remarks from State Auditor Crit Luallen (Democrat)

Attorney Gen. Jack Conway, left, and Secretary of State Trey Grayson chat on the stage before the speaking began Saturday at the 129th annual Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County. Conway, a Democrat, and Grayson, a Republican, are seeking their parties' nominations for the U.S. Senate in 2010. Photo by Tom Eblen