The Recovering Politician
I’ve come to praise Mitch, not to bury him.
KSR readers, I have not lost my mind…nor my compass. I’m still the tree-hugging, LGBT-embracing, immigrant-welcoming, campaign finance-reforming, pro-choice feminist that you are used to. I still strongly disagree with the Senate Majority Leader on any number of critical policy issues, from Kavanaugh to climate change, from pre-existing conditions to budget-busting tax cuts.
But when it comes to hemp, I’ve seen another side of Mitch McConnell. And it makes me feel just a little bit more bullish about our otherwise broken political system.
This week, the 2018 Farm Bill became law. Buried within its hundreds of pages is a monumental development: The era of hemp prohibition is now over. Hemp is now permanently removed from the Controlled Substances Act. Non-psychoactive hemp is forever deemed an agricultural commodity, no longer mistaken as a controlled substance, like its crazier cousin, marijuana. By redefining hemp to include its “extracts, cannabinoids and derivatives,” Congress explicitly removed popular hemp products — such as hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) — from the purview of the Drug Enforcement Administration.
No one is more responsible for this development than Mitch McConnell. He wrote the provision, inserted it within the Farm Bill, fought back an attempt to weaken it in the Senate, and took the unprecedented step of placing himself on the House/Senate conference committee to ensure it remained in the final version. He used all of his power and wile and influence – qualities that I normally lament — to achieve victory for the industry I represent. Congressman Jamie Comer deserves considerable credit for setting the legalization process in motion as Kentucky’s Agriculture Commissioner and then bringing McConnell to the table. Current Commissioner Ryan Quarles deserves due notice for running a successful state pilot program, demonstrating to McConnell the modern value proposition of the crop that ran Kentucky’s agricultural engine in our early history. Senator Rand Paul and Congressmen Thomas Massie and Jon Yarmuth supported legalized hemp long before it was cool.
But in the immutable swamp that is Washington, the relatively lightning speed of passage of this complex, nuanced and controversial subject could never have happened without the leadership of the Majority Leader.
What’s instructive about the Senator’s laser-like focus on this issue is that it’s in stark contrast to the way many of us Democrats usually think about him — as a political animal solely focused on advancing Republican interests. Perhaps McConnell polled the issue before he began advocating for legalization. But there are no elections to be won by his support, and scant political contributions to be raised. As his staff and former colleagues have insisted to me, McConnell has a sincere desire to assist Kentucky farmers, struggling in the post-tobacco economy, and potentially to build a vibrant new industry back home. Sure, there may be political value, but earning support by doing what’s right for one’s constituents is what politics should be about.
I’ve also been deeply impressed – and as a recovering politician, a bit jealous – about the staff he’s assembled. McConnell seems to pick off some of the smartest, most capable and most diligent folks on Capitol Hill and state politics. And they seem to all love their boss. Not in an Obama-2008 dreamy fan-boy kind of way; but rather as a friend, mentor, even sort of a surrogate father — deeply admiring his loyalty, self-discipline and commitment to public service.
I won’t be joining the fan club. We are too far apart on too many issues, and I cringe every time McConnell enables the bully in the White House pulpit. But the hemp example proves my stubborn idealistic belief that there’s so much more that Americans agree about than disagree. And the way to start fixing our polarized and paralyzed body politic is to identify that common ground and work toward it together.
I was asked a few weeks ago, on KET’s Kentucky Tonight, whether I thought that the federal judiciary would be McConnell’s legacy. I said I hope not. (Long live Justices Ginsburg and Breyer!) I’m very hopeful instead that a century from now, when the hemp industry has helped transform Kentucky’s economy for the better, we will remember the essential, bi-partisan role played by Mitch McConnell.
Last October, when the NCAA announced that the University of North Carolina would receive no penalties for an academic scandal that modeled the most morally offensive institutional misconduct in the history of college sports, I penned a tongue-in-cheek obituary for the idea of the “student-athlete.” I simply couldn’t imagine that the college athletics could sink any lower when it came to protecting student-athletes.
I was wrong.
This week, Auburn University football team cut a recruit for using a substance banned by the NCAA. C.J. Harris, a promising high school strong safety, had been taking hemp-derived cannabidiol (CBD) that he had found effective for treating and preventing debilitating seizures caused by epilepsy.
I wrote about CBD a few months ago at this site. Obviously, NCAA and Auburn officials count themselves among the vast majority of KSR readers who skip over my policy columns to get the scoop on basketball recruiting. But had they read it, they would have learned some critical points:
- Hemp is NOT marijuana. Contrary to most popular coverage of the Harris incident, hemp-derived CBD is NOT medical marijuana.
- Hemp-derived CBD cannot get you high. By legal and scientific definition, hemp-derived CBD contains less than 0.3% tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the intoxicating chemical compound found in much, much more concentrated dosages in your typical joint or bong.
- Hemp-derived CBD is safe. So says an October report issued by the World Health Organization’s Expert Committee on Drug Dependence which opined that CBD is safe, well-tolerated, not addictive and not linked with any negative public health concerns.
- Hemp-derived CBD is federally legal, as long as it is produced under a congressionally-authorized state pilot program, such as the product used by C.J. Harris.
According to press reports, the NCAA has banned CBD because they argue any amount of THC is too much. That’s absurd. That’s like banning cough syrup because there may be a trace amount of alcohol. Or banning poppy seed bagels because of the remote connection to heroin.
There’s much anecdotal evidence that many patients suffering from debilitating diseases such as intractable epilepsy have found relief taking CBD. Until CBD medicines secure the appropriate federal approvals, marketing them for disease remediation is inappropriate. But these products which are sold in health food stores across the country — experts predict a multi-billion dollar industry within a few years — must be made available for families like the Harrises. And no athlete should be punished for taking a natural food supplement that does not intoxicate nor provide any performance-enhancing advantage. (Note that the World Anti-Doping Agency recently dropped CBD from its list of prohibited substances.)
Unfortunately, CBD has been caught up unfairly in the high-profile debate over legalizing medical marijuana. Confusion between the two has led to misguided law enforcement actions and public statements. But just in the past few months, thanks to hemp industry education efforts, officials in Tennessee, Indiana and Wisconsin have overturned prohibitory actions and declared hemp-derived CBD legal for retail sale. (Kentucky’s law is clear — hemp-derived CBD is legal — thanks to a 2017 statute championed by Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles.)
Best yet, there’s a very promising effort in Washington, D.C. to resolve the confusion once and for all. The Hemp Farming Act of 2018 would permanently remove hemp and hemp-derived products such as CBD from the purview of the Controlled Substances Act — moving beyond the current pilot program regime. The effort’s top champion is Congress’ most influential and effective legislative strategist: Kentucky’s own Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. McConnell is seeking to attach the Hemp Farming Act to the 2018 Farm Bill, a critical agriculture act which must pass before the previous version expires on September 30. (Not coincidentally — given the Commonwealth’s enduring hemp history — the companion bill in the U.S. House is sponsored by another Kentuckian, Congressman James Comer, who led the state’s efforts to legalize hemp when he served as our Agriculture Commissioner.)
Too often, when we read news of NCAA fails like this, the most we can do is fire off an angry tweet.
Not this time. If you care about athletes like C.J. Harris — or are among the millions of Americans who value access to hemp-derived CBD for its various health and wellness benefits — you too can help secure passage of the Hemp Farming Act.
The hemp industry’s trade association — the U.S. Hemp Roundtable — has developed an online portal to empower citizens to lobby their Members of Congress. It really just takes a few minutes — click here — and even if you don’t know who represents you in Washington, the portal will help you prepare a personalized message and send it directly to your U.S. Senators and Representative.
We might never be able to convince the NCAA to act in the best interests of student-athletes. But by permanently legalizing hemp, we can take this arrow out of their quiver, and allow the C.J. Harrises of the world to live healthy lives…and not be punished for it.
There was no joy in Vegas this week…nor in the Bada Bing back rooms of the American underworld. An unholy monopoly shared by Nevada and organized crime was blown to smithereens Monday, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that all states could now legalize and regulate sports gambling.
The ruling also provides an unprecedented — and extremely timely — opportunity for the Commonwealth of Kentucky to help fix its urgent financial mess.
If we don’t blow it, of course… like we usually do.
Although my personal poison is poker, sports gambling is deeply ingrained into my genetic makeup. As I elaborated here, my great-grandfather, A. Morgan Frumberg, served as counsel to several of the gamblers charged in the infamous Black Sox Scandal, where mobsters paid Chicago White Sox players to fix the 1919 World Series. This was early pro sport’s nadir, with baseball saved only by Babe Ruth’s cult of personality and a new anti-gambling regime imposed by the sport’s first Commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis.
In the succeeding decades, athletic leagues, policymakers, and law enforcement targeted sports wagering with special contempt and zero tolerance — with the axe usually falling on the athletes themselves. The iconic Adolph Rupp UK teams of the 1940s were rocked by a point-shaving scandal that shattered the careers of the young players involved. In the late 1970s, another point-shaving conspiracy — this one orchestrated by Goodfellas‘ Henry Hill — destroyed the lives of Boston College cagers caught up in the controversy. And, of course, Pete Rose became illegal betting’s poster boy when he was banned for life from baseball for betting on his own team.
In the meantime, wagering on athletics has exploded into one of the nation’s leading economic engines. On top of the legitimate sports books in Nevada, illegal sports gaming exceeds an estimated $400 billion a year. More recently, fantasy sports — which Congress exempted from legislative bans on online wagering — have proliferated: What began as a collection of friend and family affairs has become professionalized and exceedingly monetized via same-day and one-week online leagues.
Reflecting the spirit of the times, many leading Big Sport figures have seen the light (and the Benjamins). In 2014, newly-minted NBA Commissioner Adam Silver published an op-ed in the New York Times calling for the legalization of sports gambling, writing that “Congress should adopt a federal framework that allows states to authorize betting on professional sports, subject to strict regulatory requirements and technological safeguards.” More telling, the modern successor to Mountain Landis, MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred, has been bullish lately on the idea of forever forgiving the game’s Original Sin, arguing that gambling could re-inject life into the fading sport: “There is this buzz out there in terms of people feeling that there may be an opportunity here for additional legalized sports betting.”
The truth is that there’s little downside to legalization. As my great-grandpa’s contemporaries can attest, prohibition not only doesn’t work; it backfires. It doesn’t take more than a couple episodes of The Sopranos to understand how gambling’s illegality forces it into the shadows, denying proper public protection, and empowering and enriching the underworld, as thugs administer “justice” through usurious loans and violent collections. As those of us who played on-line poker in the early days can testify, cheating is rampant when the game is unlawful; and there’s little resource for gamblers who find themselves the victim of fraudulent arrangements. Just as our policymakers often treat sex with a public farce of Victorian morality that shields a private culture of consensual, sometimes flawed, human behavior, the hypocritical treatment of gambling creates a serious public policy problem where none would otherwise exist.
Oh, yeah, and there’s a whole lot of money that can be directed from the pockets of mobsters to essential public needs, like education, infrastructure, and health care.
Boy, could Kentucky use the cash! This past session of the General Assembly serves as Exhibit A. Legislators arrived with a bi-partisan consensus that our broken pension systems and antiquated tax structures needed serious overhauls. But intra-party squabbling and historically passionate protests resulted in only cosmetic changes, while proposals that could provide desperately needed infusions of revenue — marijuana legalization, casino gaming — received only token consideration. It’s no wonder that just this past Friday, Standard and Poors downgraded Kentucky’s issuer credit rating, due in part to “increased budgetary strain from rising costs associated with pension obligations.” A lower credit rating means that the state must borrow money at higher interest rates, meaning larger debt payments…meaning the vicious cycle accelerates.
Sports gaming is no panacea, but the many millions, if not billions, of tax dollars it could generate could provide the Bluegrass State a significant economic shot in the arm.
The good news is that there appears to be a political path. Most of the arguments against casino gaming — increased crime pockets, preying on the poor and elderly — don’t apply to merely taking sports wagering away from the mob and regulating it. It’s thus no wonder that the Commonwealth’s most powerful casino opponent, Governor Matt Bevin, has expressed openness to sports gaming proposals.
Further, there’s growing bi-partisan support in Frankfort. State Rep. Jason Nemes, a rising young GOP star, plans to introduce legislation soon. “Government should not be in the business of telling people how to spend their entertainment dollars,” Nemes argues. “We have a need for revenues in Kentucky to fund critical needs for our citizens, like education.” Nemes’ bill would include wagering on pro sports, and exclude youth and high school sports. Before any bill is introduced, he’s consulting with constituents and stakeholders about whether to involve college athletics as well.
Unlike casinos, legalization won’t require legislative supermajorities or a ballot initiative. Kentucky’s foremost constitutional law expert (and my law partner), Sheryl Snyder, believes that the issue can be resolved by a simple law, not a constitutional amendment: “The Kentucky Constitution does not prohibit gambling; it prohibits lotteries, with the exception of course of the Kentucky Lottery,” explains Snyder. “A lottery is a game of pure chance, while sports gambling, or gambling on horse races, requires some skill. So while you need to pass a constitutional amendment for pure games of chance like roulette or craps, a simple law could legalize sports gaming or poker.”
As Rep. Nemes argues, “It’s time to seize the moment.” Indeed, Kentucky must act quickly, instead of falling behind its neighbors as we’ve seen with casinos, watching our gambling dollars pay for Ohio schools, Indiana roads and West Virginia health care. By acting conscientiously, we can also develop a national model by helping build in protections that have been proposed by thoughtful proponents:
- The use of new geo-blocking and age-verification technology to ensure that sports wagering is conducted only in places where it is legal, and not by minors;
- The development of strict licensing procedures and the monitoring of especially big and unusual betting practices in order to protect the integrity of gambling operations and crack down on cheating;
- Meaningful educational programs that foster responsible gambling, complimented by protocol that can identify problem gamblers and prevent them from incurring further debt; and
- Working with professional and college sports leagues to develop rules that shield athletes and referees from improper involvement.
I readily admit that thousands of lives every year are ruined by compulsive gambling and its collateral damage. But that’s precisely why sports gambling should be legalized and regulated. Sunlight is always the best disinfectant; only when we take it out of the shadows and monitor it closely can we protect those who are at risk.
The time is now. The states that are the first movers will reap the biggest rewards. Urge your legislators to support sports gaming today.
As #MeToo takes on the “religious right” in Frankfort, the smart money is on two dynamic women: GOP state Senator Julie Raque Adams and Donna Pollard, a child marriage survivor who won’t take “no” for an answer.
During a week when the world lost Billy Graham, the modern era’s most powerful evangelical voice, the religious/political right continues to struggle through an identity crisis. On the one hand, we’ve never seen a President so thoroughly embrace the “moral majority’s” policy agenda. On the other, we never seen a President so thoroughly embattled by charges of, at best, hedonism, and at worst, predatory behavior toward women. While the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins spoke for many in the movement by declaring that the First Golfer deserved a “mulligan” for his alleged adulterous affairs with porn stars, other evangelicals have found themselves deeply conflicted by a President whose maxim appears to be “do as I say, and not as I did.”
Here in the Bluegrass, Perkins’ counterparts at the Family Foundation of Kentucky have opened themselves up to a similar charge of hypocrisy. For decades, the loudest voice for so-called “traditional” values — leading the fight against expanded gaming and marriage equality — the Family Foundation has now drawn their line in the sand on child marriage: Against a bill that would restrict the practice.
It’s hard to believe that child marriage is still an issue in 2018. But just in the past two decades, more than 200,000 minors were married in the U.S. Kentucky has the third-highest rate in the country: On average, 250 Kentucky minors marry each year, more than 11,000 since 2000. Over 90 percent of the time, it’s a minor marrying an adult, the youngest being a pregnant 13-year-old girl who wed a man two decades her senior. Based on the parties’ ages alone, it’s a common case to witness a pregnant girl marrying her rapist.
It’s not surprising to learn that marrying young is often calamitous to a girl’s health, safety and wellness. Studies demonstrate that girls who marry as minors drop out of school at higher rates, suffer from increased mental health issues, are more vulnerable to sexual and domestic violence, and are at more significant risk of a lifetime of poverty.
Donna Pollard is a living, surviving example. At 14, she was seduced by a 29-year-old man who worked at the juvenile mental health facility that was supposed to be treating her. Two years later, Donna’s mother dragged her to the county clerk’s office to wed her predator. Soon after, Donna’s husband was choking her in front of their infant daughter. But as a minor, Donna had no legal authority over her own self-protection; the police repeatedly came to her home, but accepted the much older husband’s assurances that everything was fine.
Kentucky laws still provide no minimum age for marriage. 16 year olds can marry with parental consent; although, as in Donna’s case, this sometimes can mean parental coercion. A district court judge could allow even younger girls to marry if they are pregnant. Consider the incentive: Pedophiles can avoid prosecution for statutory rape by impregnating and marrying their child victims.
Donna Pollard has had enough. Teaming with the Tahirih Justice Center, a national non-profit that seeks justice for girls and women, Donna is fighting to change the status quo in her home state. She’s found a most worthy advocate in State Senator Julie Raque Adams (R-Louisville), who in this General Assembly session introduced SB 48, a bill that would ban marriage under 17. Under Adams’ legislation, 17-year-olds would be required to secure the approval of a judge who would assess the minor’s maturity and self-sufficiency, and would have the discretion to “emancipate” the bride to ensure that she can protect herself in cases of abuse. These common sense protections of minor girls have won the support of the influential Kentucky Youth Advocates, the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence, the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs and the Kentucky chapter of the National Association of Social Workers.
And yet, one organization that’s led the decades-long fight for the “sanctity” of “traditional” marriage has registered opposition, stalling the bill’s progress. The Family Foundation of Kentucky’s spokesman told Insider Louisville that the organization disapproves of the judicial process for 17-year-olds, claiming that “it takes away parental rights.” Supportive online commentary poses this as an issue of big government overreach, an unnecessary new law that interferes with family autonomy.
But if the government has any role, it’s to protect our children from pedophiles. And as Donna Pollard’s case illustrates, too often the predatory relationship is driven by an abusive parent who doesn’t have the child’s best interests at heart. SB 48 would provide a neutral judge’s oversight to either delay nuptials until the girl is old enough to consent, or empower the girl with the kinds of legal protections that were out of young Donna’s grasp.
Former Secretary of State Trey Grayson (R), who serves as Tahirih’s pro bono lobbyist in Frankfort, is bullish on SB 48’s passage: “What has been striking to me is how this bill captured so much attention from the beginning. Social media has exploded with people, including Ashley Judd, sharing, liking, retweeting at a feverish pace. Donna is a rock star, a real inspiration, and Julie Raque Adams is such a talented legislator. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Whitney Westerfield wants this to pass and is working diligently to craft a solution. Kentucky is on the cusp of fixing this law.”
Of course, in our polarized and paralyzed political system, even the best pieces of legislation face obstacles, especially when there’s organized opposition. But there’s never been a time where activism — particularly on behalf of girls and women — has been more effective. Click here to contact your legislators: I can assure you that your voice matters.
(Full disclosure: Trey Grayson is my law partner, and my older daughter interned for Tahirih. Full disclosure x2: I’m proud of them both.)
As the Winter Olympics soar to their conclusion, it’s clear that the Russian doping scandal did little to diminish the majesty of the spectacle. But the controversy did highlight the critical work of an organization whose mission is to best ensure that athletes are playing clean of performance-enhancing drugs: the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA). While WADA’s enforcement ability sometimes seems quite wan — the International Olympic Committee’s “punishment” of Russia was in name only — the agency has taken a hard line in its pronouncements to hold athletics to the highest moral standard.
That’s why the world took notice last fall when WADA dropped from its list of prohibited substances a substance called cannabidiol, better known as CBD. The exemption was soon followed by the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Expert Committee on Drug Dependence issuance of a report, opining that naturally occurring CBD is safe and well-tolerated in humans (and animals), and is not linked with any negative public health concerns. WHO concluded that CBD does not induce physical dependence and is not associated with abuse potential: “To date, there is no evidence of recreational use of CBD or any public health related problems with the use of pure CBD.”
And yet…fast forward to February. Just a few weeks ago, 23 retail stores in Murfreesboro, Tennessee were raided, padlocked, and their owners arrested and locked behind bars, for the crime of…selling CBD products. Termed “Operation Candy Crush,” a multi-agency law enforcement operation charged store owners for targeting kids with marijuana-laced candies.
The retailers were released on bail, a judge quickly re-opened the stores, and a hearing set for March 19 should clarify what really happened. But the incident already shines a huge spotlight on a large and growing national controversy:
What the H is CBD?
In 2013, CNN’s Sanjay Gupta brought to the world’s attention a fascinating chemical compound that a growing number of parents swore was helping provide desperately needed relief to their severely ill children. CBD is naturally occurring, and even before the WHO report, was viewed by most of the medical profession as safe to consume. However, its most common source was quite controversial — the cannabis plant. CBD began to be held up as a piñata in the increasingly intense national debate over legalizing medical marijuana.
It turns out, however, that marijuana is not the only variety of cannabis. Marijuana is distinctive by its significant content of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive compound that gets people high. A typical joint today will contain upwards of 5-20% THC.
But there’s another variety of cannabis that contains no THC, or only a tiny trace. It’s called industrial hemp. Hemp is defined by federal law as cannabis sativa L, and all parts of that plant, containing 0.3% THC or less. It’s like the natural food version of decaffeinated coffee or non-alcoholic beer. Except of course, hemp foods are high in nutritional value, with plenty of protein and all nine essential amino acids.
Hemp was a leading U.S. cash crop in the 18th and 19th centuries, grown by many of our nation’s founders — Lexington’s Henry Clay was a hemp farmer, too — and was critical to U.S. efforts in both world wars. But in the early 20th century, as “reefer madness” enraptured the nation, hemp farming was banned in the U.S.
That all changed just a few years ago when political leaders like Kentucky’s U.S. Rep. James Comer and Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell helped develop new federal and state legal permissions for hemp. The 2014 U.S. Farm Bill created a pilot program regime that allows states to regulate hemp growth and cultivation, and permits commerce in hemp and hemp products. The 2016 Omnibus Law subsequently prohibited federal agencies from interfering with hemp pilot programs. It also specifically banned federal dollars from being spent to hinder the interstate sale or transport of hemp products. (More details on legality can be found here.)
As part of this grand experiment, a new sub-industry has developed: CBD products derived from hemp. Unlike products marketed for medicinal value, hemp-derived CBD is sold over the counter at health food and natural food stores across the country, next to other natural supplements such as fish oil and Vitamin D. Like those nutrients, consumers take CBD oil, foods and capsules for general health and wellness, without promise of disease remediation. I’m a satisfied customer.
Best yet, even in this pilot program phase, hemp-derived CBD is already creating new economic opportunities for farmers and small businesses. Kentucky’s hemp program, led by Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, serves as the model for the nation: Hundreds of jobs have been created, and millions of dollars of revenue have been earned in the Bluegrass State alone. Economists predict a multi-billion dollar U.S. industry in the short term. And think about this: Farmers who have struggled because of the decline of tobacco — a product that kills people — are now finding new opportunity in hemp, a plant that’s not only good for health and wellness, but also is sustainable and healthy for the planet.
Hemp is not marijuana. Hemp-derived CBD is not medical marijuana.
Of course, that hasn’t stopped the media from lumping them all into the same rhetorical basket. It hasn’t stopped unscrupulous sham artists from inappropriately marketing CBD as a wonder drug that solves all ailments. And worse, it hasn’t stopped scoundrels from targeting children with products that contain high levels of THC, under the guise of CBD’s emerging celebrity.
But these bad apples should not be used as a pretext to undermine the re-emerging U.S. hemp industry. Legislation is currently pending in Congress that would clarify hemp as an agricultural commodity and permanently remove it from the purview of Controlled Substances Act. Its prospects look bright because it has the support of liberals like Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR); Tea Party icons like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Rep. Thomas Massie (R-KY); and mainstream, pro-law enforcement conservatives like Rep. Comer, Leader McConnell and House Judiciary Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA). Critically, the legislation has also won the endorsement of influential national agriculture organizations such as the American Farm Bureau Federation and the National Farmers Union.
While it’s impossible to quantify what qualifies as real leadership, Christopher Hitchens came damn near close when he highlighted two preeminent virtues: intellectual honesty and moral courage.
Today it seems laughable to expect our leaders to meet these ideals. Moral courage appears limited to those who won’t again stand for reelection (Hello, Senators Corker and Flake!) True intellectual honesty appears the refuge of naÃ¯ve scoundrels who haven’t yet figured out that their gullible bases will accept whatever version of the facts their tribal leaders present them. While the Trump Era has magnified both our national cowardice and factual disconnect, they’ve been around a while; I’m the first to admit that my own long-deceased political career fell far short of Hitchens’ model.
That’s why I was particularly intrigued in 2014 when the actress, humanitarian and Big Blue Nation superfan Ashley Judd expressed an interest in running for the U.S. Senate. Judd undoubtedly faced long odds in a red state against the formidable Mitch McConnell; but I believed that Judd’s candidacy would have served as a unique opportunity to genuinely debate meaningful issues. Because of Judd’s celebrity, the local and national media would have to cover her — this would have been the Ã¼ber-rare confluence of good ratings and earnest policy deliberation.
More significantly, having made her acquaintance in pro-environmental activism, I had come to admire how Judd’s public life modeled Hitchens’ paradigmatic virtues. Judd had never been shy about tackling third-rail issues, be they the controversial practice of mountaintop removal mining, or her own childhood trauma with sexual abuse.
Alas, much of the rest of the state Democratic establishment disagreed. Perhaps too much intellectual honesty and too much moral courage could be a detriment in politics, especially for a liberal in a red state. I guess Dear Leader was wrong: When you’re a star, you can’t get away with everything. Or maybe that only applies to male stars.
Should I say “applied”?
Over the past few weeks, there’s been a tectonic shift in our national discussion of gender politics. Entertainment moguls, media stars, literary lions, even a beloved elderly former President, have come under scrutiny for their alleged mistreatment of women, ranging from crude conversation to sexual assault. All of the dominoes have yet to fall, but it seems that we’ve reached a new tipping point on the issue of sexual harassment. Certain behaviors will no longer be tolerated. Our daughters hopefully will feel safer in the workplace and the community; our sons hopefully will understand how much pain their actions can generate.
There are many courageous women who have stepped forward in the past few weeks to help bring about this potential revolution. But none have been more significant than Ashley Judd.
The Fort Sumter of our Uncivil War was an October 5 article in the New York Times that began as follows:
Two decades ago, the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein invited Ashley Judd to the Peninsula Beverly Hills hotel for what the young actress expected to be a business breakfast meeting. Instead, he had her sent up to his room, where he appeared in a bathrobe and asked if he could give her a massage or she could watch him shower, she recalled in an interview. “How do I get out of the room as fast as possible without alienating Harvey Weinstein?” Ms. Judd said she remembers thinking.
The editorial choice was not surprising. Of all of the incredibly brave women who stepped forward, on-the-record, to share their stories, Ashley Judd was the only A-lister, the only marquee name. Soon many incredibly brave women followed, many with famous names, some with the same ugly details of hotel room invitations and bathrobes and massage offers and showers.
But Ashley Judd opened the floodgates. Judd took an extraordinary career risk, subjecting herself to potentially intense personal scrutiny and retribution. In so doing, she made it much easier for others to follow her example and say #MeToo.
Intellectual honesty comes easy to the actress. But that kind of moral courage can be excruciating to summon. As Judd admitted this week to fellow Kentuckian Diane Sawyer, she’d struggled with the notion of speaking out about Weinstein for years, even feeling ashamed for not stepping forward earlier.
But in the end, Ashley Judd became the living embodiment of Hitchens’ virtues. And our society is all the better because of her example.
I hope the next time Ashley Judd comes to Rupp Arena to cheer for her beloved Cats, BBN will stand up to cheer for her…for standing up for her principles…and for all of the women in our lives.
INDIANAPOLIS — The “Student/Athlete” died on Friday, October 13, 2017, after decades on life support, at the age of 53. The cause of death was asphyxiation, brutally smothered by one of its parents, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (“NCAA”). An autopsy revealed the murder weapon: an NCAA press release announcing that the University of North Carolina athletic program would receive no penalties for an academic scandal that one impertinent recovering politician termed “the most morally offensive institutional misconduct in the history of college sports.” Minutes after the Student/Athlete’s passing, another lifeless body was discovered: the NCAA’s Credibility, whose death had been rumored for years.
The lineage of the deceased charts back to ancient Greece, where the concept of the Athenian Ideal of Amateurism was born. The term “Student/Athlete” was conceived in 1964, coined by the NCAA’s first executive director, Walter Byers. Byers gave birth to the nomenclature as a shield against reformers’ efforts to compensate college athletes under workers’ compensation principles. Byers named the baby “Student/Athlete” because “Student” comes first: The NCAA and its member schools, of course, have always placed primary priority on the educational training of their athletes, with sporting activities simply an incidental sideline to their personal development.
From the moment of its birth, however, the Student/Athlete suffered from a variety of debilitating ailments. Coaches, boosters, and agent-wannabes regularly infected the concept through their efforts to grab for their pieces of the financial riches accumulated by the volunteer activities of athletes.
Occasionally, over the years, the NCAA tried to inject health and wellness back into the Student/Athlete by imposing sanctions on players and programs (outside of the Tarheel State, of course) when the amateur ideal was undermined. These included severe violations of the principle…where the academic virtue of college sports suffered mortal threats…suspensions were levied, for example, on students accepting slices of pizza and used mattresses, assistant coaches butt-dialing recruits, and athletes posing for free in a charity calendar. Most recently, the NCAA exposed and excised a metastasizing cancerous growth on the paradigm, through a months-long investigation in which they identified and commenced punishing coaches and agents involved in a landmark shoe company pay-for-play conspiracy.
Oh wait, that was the FBI.
Still, the NCAA was handed an historic opportunity to breathe new life into the Student/Athlete when it was presented with a scandal that subverted the very moral bargain universities cut with their students. For nearly two full decades, in order to keep athletes eligible to play (and earn money for their institution), University of North Carolina officials steered more than 1500 players toward fake courses, in which they received no education; in fact, many had no contact with instructors. The vast supermajority who didn’t go pro were subsequently cast adrift on the job market with fewer tangible skills and less training. This was a clear example of a complete loss of institutional control in a way that directly harmed the very young people whom the university was entrusted to protect. This was the textbook case of undermining the very concept of a “Student/Athlete.” Indeed, as Walter Byers’ modern day counterpart, NCAA President Mark Emmert, stated: “This is a case that potentially strikes at the heart of what higher education is about.”
But, apparently, since only about half of the students that attended these sham classes were athletes — since over 1000 non-athlete students suffered simultaneously from this sports-inspired ruse with a devalued diploma — the NCAA did not consider this enforcement action within their jurisdiction. That’s some logic. In the words of today’s most esteemed political philosopher:
If only Andre McGee had invited some regular students to the stripper parties, UofL would've kept its banner.
— Not Jerry Tipton (@NotJerryTipton) October 13, 2017
(h/t anonymous embarrassed UNC alum)
The Student/Athlete is survived by Rank Hypocrisy, Utter Disbelief, Wealthy Shady Shoe Middlemen, a Devalued Sport, and a Pissed Off BBN. Funeral services were held this weekend in the Dean Dome under the banner of a third championship that should have been vacated. In lieu of flowers, please consider the impossible: suppressing all of your basest instincts and rooting for Duke when they take on the Tarheels.
In this polarized and paralyzed body politic, it’s all too rare to witness opposite tribes finding common cause in controversial policy battles. But when Kentucky GOP standard bearer Governor Matt Bevin called earlier this week for the compensation of college athletes, your favorite liberal recovering politician stood up to cheer.
In case you missed it, this past Tuesday, Bevin told a Paducah radio station that the sham paradigm of amateur athletics is due for an overhaul:
I think we should pay college athletes. I really do. This idea that they’re not professionals is nonsense…The coaches are making millions of dollars a year. Shoe contracts are dictating what happens on our college campuses. Athletics directors and others associated with it that are making exorbitant fees. I don’t begrudge people making a high living. Good for them, and I mean that sincerely. But if that comes at the expense of those that are delivering the athletic prowess on the field, then maybe we should rethink the fact that this is really like the minor leagues for the professional sports associations, and they should be compensated and treated accordingly.
When pressed on the details, the Governor’s response was enigmatic: “I think we should maybe defer that comp – fair enough, they can defer it — but they and their families should be able to benefit from the sacrifices they make.” But to be fair, the Governor has a plate full of many other contentious issues to allow for too deep a dive into the nuances of an equitable and just compensation system.
- Pay the players a living wage. It would be too abrupt a shock on the system to throw out the amateur model and replace it with a purely free market professional system. But there’s no excuse for denying the disproportionately economically-disadvantaged athletic employee base all of the fruits of their labor. Surrounded mostly by students of higher means, lower-income athletes would naturally be tempted by gift offers from boosters and shoe company shysters. Accordingly, an hourly living wage – the same for each player on scholarship; adjusted slightly among universities by local standards of living – would provide athletes with walking around money for the occasional restaurant jaunt or shopping spree, as well as the exceptional luxury of flying their parents in for special games. And it won’t break the bank of our higher education system.
- It’s gotta be the shoes. Of course, as colleges in Kentucky and across the country face budgetary belt-tightening, supplemental funding sources would be welcome. And in identifying new sources of revenue, where better to begin than with the folks that have created the latest credibility gap for college sports — the shoe companies? Let’s re-allocate the already existing moneys now pocketed by wealthy coaches and shady middlemen to the individuals that need and deserve it the most, and stop forcing players to serve as unpaid jumping billboards for their product. A fair percentage of any and all shoe endorsement deals could help underwrite an athlete compensation pool, which could potentially sweep in athletes beyond just the two major revenue-generating sports.
- Don’t forget about the girls. Gender equity in college athletics is one of the great successes of the modern civil rights era. And even though on only rare occasions will a women’s team generate meaningful revenue, the spirit, if not the letter, of the Title IX laws may require colleges to pay women cagers the same as the boys. Since big-time college football is for the boys only, NCAA policymakers should choose to compensate at least one other women’s sport to provide gender balance.
- Say yes to agents. As any college hoops fan knows intimately, the demarcation line for college eligibility has often been the signature page of a sports agent contract. Coach John Calipari has a better, albeit controversial idea: Let college players sign with agents now, without penalty. This seems counterintuitive, but as Andy Staples persuasively elaborates here, instead of the current black market system where athletes develop subterranean relationships with questionable characters, the most promising players could legally and publicly sign up with agents who are regulated and monitored by the NCAA. Conceivably, through a carefully designed registration system, players could take out significant loans from their agents, as long as it was executed in a fair and transparent manner. Money is already pouring in the system; legalizing and regulating agents could provide that funds go to those that truly earn them.
- It’s the education, stupid. Finally, and most importantly, remember that the primary mission of the university is to educate and prepare its student body for the postgraduate job market. The core flaw of today’s NCAA is the ludicrous and pernicious assumption that every “scholar-athlete” has the preparation, the aptitude – or even the need – to earn a four-year, liberal arts bachelor’s degree. For decades, outside of sport, policymakers (including Governor Bevin!) have been encouraging youth from lower income environments and underachieving high schools to enroll in two-year vocational and technical colleges, where they can be empowered with the skills they need for the modern job market. That’s why it is incumbent on the NCAA and its member schools to direct athletes, when appropriate, to focus their academic attention on job skills and technical programs that interest them, prepare them for postgraduate life, and enable them to earn associates degrees at the university, or through an affiliated community college or vo-tech program. Accordingly, the NBA and its players’ union should effectuate a new “two and done” system, which will enable each player to earn sufficient credit to graduate with at least an associates’ degree. And those that stay on past their two-year degrees can be enrolled in apprenticeship programs with local businesses, or compensated job training in the workplace.
“I’m a First Amendment absolutist. I believe in only two things completely. The First Amendment, and boobs.”
It was an iconic, Churchillian moment, an epigram of soaring rhetoric, the kind that lifts nations and propels societies forward. It was reminiscent of former DC Mayor Marion Barry’s epic “B**** set me up.” Or, natch, Donald Trump’s “Grab them by the p****.”
In the President’s defense (yes, I wrote those words), Fox Sports analyst Clay Travis’ comments last week cannot be dismissed as “locker room banter,” the type of crude and sometimes cruel language men use when we think no one’s listening except our immediate co-conspirators. Rather, Travis’ words were a deliberate provocation, a studied pronouncement made on live national television, with the very intent of delivering viral content to a global digital audience.
The Big Blue Nation is all too familiar with Clay Travis’ m.o. Over the past several years, Travis has emerged as John Calipari’s most dedicated and prominent troll. As recently as last year, he claimed that Cal pays his players, a comment that our Matt Jones rightly called out as “irresponsible,” “shameful,” and indicative of a longer pattern of misbehavior: “He says things solely, solely to get attention, and it worked….He’s like, in my opinion, the Donald Trump of sports radio; just say something, throw it out there, act like people have to listen to it, then deal with it.”
Unfortunately in this Age of Rage, Travis’ game plan — and indeed his career — have been gaining traction. From his perch at the website Outkick the Coverage, Travis has tapped into today’s tribal political zeitgeist, emerging as a cultural warrior on behalf of a mostly rural, white, conservative audience that often coincides with the President’s base. Travis’ primary troll target has been ESPN, the sports network he constantly derides as “MSESPN” for its purported lack of attention to actual sports, in favor of the liberal political causes that selected athletes have championed. Travis has reveled in ESPN’s declining ratings and recent layoffs, blaming them on the network’s focus on anti-racism protests, and gestures such as bestowing the Arthur Ashe Courage Award on the transgendered Caitlyn Jenner.
Travis’ shtick is emblematic of a growing cause cÃ©lÃ¨bre among some fans (and notably many commenters on this web site): that athletes and commentators should “stick to sports.” It wasn’t that long ago when I was chastising my fellow progressives for carping about stars such as Tim Tebow who loudly proclaimed their faith and support for conservative causes. But now in our polarized body politic, it’s largely those on the right who have been critical of players, mostly African-American, who publicly register their discontent with society’s status quo.
Into this maelstrom leapt ESPN host Jemele Hill, who last Monday tweeted that “Donald Trump is a white supremacist who has largely surrounded himself w/other white supremacists.” I personally disagree with Hill: I believe that our President is a Trump supremacist, who puts his own personal interests above all others, black or white. But I strongly support her right to share her strongly-held personal beliefs. As I argued in my defense of Tebow, the notion that political speech should be limited to politicians is antithetical to our very democracy and our Bill of Rights protections. And the idea that sports networks and web sites should be “safe spaces” from social commentary is as absurd and as dangerous as the recent acceleration of efforts, mostly from the left, to ban controversial speech from college campuses.
Ultimately, the idea that Jamele Hill should be fired for a tweet she typed on her own time is outrageous. Do recall that NBC never considered dismissing a certain reality TV host who waged a multi-year, racially-tinged campaign, falsely alleging that our previous president was not born in this country.
On a recent CNN broadcast, Clay Travis actually agreed with me. Until he didn’t. Travis stated that Hill should not be fired because he’s a First Amendment absolutist. But in his next sentence, he argued that Hill should be fired because ESPN had previously fired Curt Schilling for a Facebook post that ridiculed the transgendered.
Confused? Watch it for yourself:
Of course, Travis agilely deflected from his breathtakingly breakneck self-contradiction with an out-of-nowhere proclamation of his patriotic admiration for bosoms. His comments weren’t particularly vulgar, nor have any of us been immune to making crude comments in private company. But in a serious policy discussion about a prominent woman, moderated by a professional woman, and broadcast before a national news audience, Travis was acutely disrespectful and way out of line — trying to attract attention to himself by intentionally and unnecessarily offending millions of women (and their husbands and fathers) who take umbrage in being rhetorically reduced to their body parts.
Many have called for Fox Sports to fire Clay Travis. I disagree. Such an action would only enlarge him as a martyr, broadcasting Travis’ trolling to even wider audiences. And I believe completely in the First Amendment. Even when (or especially when) it is exercised by boobs like Clay Travis.
This can, however, be a teaching moment for the sports world. You don’t like it when athletes or commentators don’t #SticktoSports? Change the channel, or click on another Web site. But a better approach is what I do when I see Clay Travis’ kind on TV: Turn up the volume. Listen. You might find common ground. Or strengthen your own convictions.
That’s the beauty of the First Amendment. We all live in our self-constructed political cocoons, watching the cable news shows or reading the social media feeds of those with whom we already agree. We will only resolve our deep political divide if we listen to each other. And let everyone have their say. Even sports figures.
The 50th anniversary of the Summer of Love has cruelly descended into the Summer of our Disrepair: our security challenged by a madman in North Korea; our infrastructure by an angry storm in the Gulf of Mexico; our psyche by hate-steeped terrorists in Charlottesville.
Football fortunately has returned to distract us; but until play resumed this week, many have fled the screaming heads on cable news for the comforts of fantasy. It’s no wonder that the penultimate seventh season of HBO’s Game of Thrones captured record ratings: When we turn off the TV, we can rest easy that the Westeros world of mad kings and child tyrants and murderous palace intrigue is truly “fake news.”
Ironically, one voice from this Ã¼ber-fictional forum has emerged as a clarion call for today’s real-life politics. Sure, he would face some significant electoral challenges: The faux-bastard, resurrected-from-the-dead, dragon-mother-lovin’ pretty boy has a complicated leadership history and a controversial love life. But Aegon Targaryen, aka Jon Snow, just delivered the kind of inspirational oratory (akin to Reagan in 1964 and Obama in 2004) that deserves to capture the national imagination.
Let me set the scene without any too-substantive spoilers: It’s the season finale, and for the first time, most of the series’ remaining principals — stalwart heroes, murderous villains, colorful aides-de-camp — gather together for the Dragon Pit Summit, an effort to broker a temporary cold peace so that a more vicious common enemy can first be vanquished. An agreement is reached, with one caveat: King of the North Jon Snow is asked to remain neutral in any future dispute among two combatant queens. Snow shockingly refuses, revealing that he had just secretly pledged fealty to one of the female rivals to the Iron Throne.
The dÃ©tente collapses, and Snow’s allies pounce on his political naivetÃ©: The fate of un-undead humanity was undermined by an easily concealable truth, in a diplomatic climate where everyone expects mendacity. The show’s conscience and world-weary voice of reason, Tyrion Lannister, barks “Have you ever considered learning how to lie every now and then…just a bit?”
But Snow doubles down:
“I’m not going to swear an oath I can’t uphold. Talk about my father if you want. Tell me that’s the attitude that got him killed. But when enough people make false promises, words stop meaning anything. Then there are no more answers, only better and better lies. And lies won’t help us win this fight.”
Since the scene’s airing, HBO showrunners have revealed the ironic date of its filming: November 9, 2016, just a few hours after Donald J. Trump was declared President-Elect.
Rest easy fair reader: This irony will not inform yet another screed against the current White House occupant. Indeed, Snow’s moral example is not a direct rebuke of the blatant, easily-fact-checkable untruths that constantly ooze from the lips and tweets of our chief executive.
Rather, it is a bipartisan indictment of our entire system, a climate in which hyperbole, word parsing and out-of-context rhetorical manipulations are accepted norms of political engagement. Candidates and electeds are lauded for their dexterity in ignoring and parrying penetrating media queries; campaigns are praised for negative ads that devastate opponents with just enough of the truth to escape the grasp of a libel action.
Today’s successful politicians are all expected to lie every now and then…just a bit.
Jon Snow’s analysis of this reality is spot on. Exaggeration and evasion lead to small deceptions, which result only in better and better lies. In such a climate, truth becomes illusory, and the groundwork is laid for the body politic to cleave into tribes, each side only trusting its fellow partisans, and only the media and social media outlets that serve as echo chambers for the home team.
Words stop meaning anything. As a result, demagogues are empowered to stop even trying to ground their claims in rationality, logic, or facts, instead attacking the media and political enemies when their untruths are challenged.
We need a Jon Snow. Or at least a political leader capable of a Jon Snow Moment.
One of my greatest regrets in my mildly successful political career was failing to seize my own Jon Snow Moment. I was being interviewed by an editorial board during my gubernatorial run. I had been secretly a strong and passionate proponent of marriage equality since I first was made aware of the concept; but with my constituents overwhelmingly opposed, I had carefully concocted evasive answers on the subject to maintain both my moral integrity and my electoral viability. But when asked a yes or no question — had I voted for the state constitutional amendment to ban the practice? — I couldn’t dodge. My whimpering, dissembling “yes” answer, while politically correct, was no profile in moral courage.
I’m confident, however, that there are others braver than I was. But let’s not underestimate the challenge. Upending the political status quo is often as self-sacrificing a venture as Jon Snow’s recent forays north of the Wall. While Never Trumper Republicans lambaste their leaders for failing to decry the nudity of the emperor, they may underrate the risk of offending the base these officials need to win election, or at least withstand a primary challenge. When Democrats denounce their leaders for failing to reject the identity politics orthodoxies that have rendered us a minority party, they underestimate the difficulty of reassembling the Roosevelt or Clinton or Obama coalitions in today’s polarized culture.
I am cautiously optimistic, however, that our next President, of either party, will determine that the risk is worth it, that the best contrast to Trump’s inauthentic authenticity is speaking true truth to the powerful and the powerless.
American politics needs a Jon Snow. Or else a long, cold political winter is coming.
In his seminal Vanity Fair essay on George Orwell, the late Christopher Hitchens encapsulated the essence of principled leadership: Orwell “showed how much can be accomplished by an individual who unites the qualities of intellectual honesty and moral courage.”
Today, an elected leader who unites these two qualities can be nearly impossible to find, especially amidst our polarized and paralyzed politics, where tribalism is ascendant, compromise is shunned, hyperbole is rewarded, and nuance is endangered.
Applying the moniker of “intellectual honesty” to the current occupant of the White House would be a challenging digression. In the wake of yesterday’s terrorism in the streets of Charlottesville, “moral courage” would seem quite elusive as well.
While prominent Republicans such as Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Cory Gardner…even Ivanka Trump…called out the racists, Klanners and Nazis responsible for the violence, Donald Trump pointed his finger to “many sides,” a case of false equivalency that was cheered on by the alt-right media. The same Trump who in recent weeks lambasted Mitch McConnell, James Comey, and Jeff Sessions, cannot find the same rage for domestic terrorists. The same Trump who repeatedly chided Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama for refusing to identify by name “radical Islamic terrorism,” cannot seem to locate the words “white supremacists” in his vocabulary.
But the same day President Trump failed his test of moral leadership, Lexington Mayor Jim Gray aced his own.
After months of study and deliberation, Gray announced that he intends to take action to remove two Confederate statutes from the grounds of the city’s historic old courthouse. One statue memorializes John Hunt Morgan, a Confederate soldier whose notorious raids were responsible for “pillaging” Lexington, and who was dismissed from command after disobeying his superiors and declining to punish atrocities committed by his troops. The other commemorates a more complicated figure, former U.S. Vice President John Breckinridge, who ultimately served as Secretary of War for the Confederacy. While critics will undoubtedly label this an attempt to “whitewash” history, the mayor suggested a more appropriate location, the suburban Veterans’ Park.
It’s the right call. The statues currently reside in the center of downtown, in front of what will become the city’s visitors’ center, precisely where we show off Lexington to the world. The message their presence sends — celebrating the worst, most painful moment in our city’s history — not only engenders pause from tourists and employers who may want to relocate here, but it’s also completely inconsistent with what Lexington has become since their erection: a progressive, diverse, tolerant, and forward-looking community that shuns the abhorrent racism and divisiveness of the Civil War era and beyond.
It’s additionally a case study of moral courage. Gray, who is considered one of the Democratic party’s leading candidates for Governor in the future, will be pilloried in many quarters of the Bluegrass State by individuals who either cling on to our antebellum past, or deride these efforts as manifestations of ever-spreading “political correctness.” As he proceeds, he might encounter entrenched opposition from the bureaucracies that must weigh in on the process. And if gets to ultimate removal, he could be faced with the kind of specter seen in another college town this weekend, as the white supremacy movement metastasizes across the country.
Jim Gray, indeed, has set himself on a risky path, one that could undermine his political ambitions, and certainly will subject him to angry, painful denunciations and challenges.
That’s moral courage.
I’m hopeful that Gray’s fever spreads a few dozen miles down I-64. In the summer of 2015, in the wake of an even more monstrous act of domestic terrorism in Charleston, Kentucky leaders, including Senator Mitch McConnell and now-Governor Matt Bevin, demonstrated their own moral leadership. In the middle of a tightly contested gubernatorial campaign, McConnell, Bevin and most state legislative leaders joined a controversial call to remove the statue of Confederate President Jefferson Davis from the Capitol Rotunda.
Unfortunately, Davis still remains in place, and even weak-tea efforts to dress up the statue with “historical context” have encountered continual delays.
I have spilled enough virtual ink over the past few years at this site explaining why Davis needs to go. But for those of you who don’t trust the credibility of a liberal recovering politician, check out this column from Jordan Harris of Kentucky’s new conservative-leaning think tank, the Pegasus Institute. Harris counsels that
Conservatism values individual liberty, personal responsibility, human decency, free markets and works to defend Western ideals. All stand in contrast to Jefferson Davis’ political life. Some have been blinded to this, failing to see that the Confederacy was a revolt built on subjugation, not on the defense of liberty or the rejection of tyranny.
(Harris also wisely suggests that Davis should be replaced in Kentucky’s version of Statutory Hall by the likeness of Muhammad Ali. That’s a discussion for another day. But if you agree with him, sign this petition.)
If that’s not enough, how about some partisan red meat? The Jefferson Davis statue was commissioned by a Democratic Governor, authorized by a Democratic legislature, and kept in place by more than a half century of Democratic politicians. Oh, and don’t forget: unlike Abraham Lincoln and Henry Clay, his marble neighbors in the Rotunda, Jefferson Davis was a Democrat! Republicans looking for a clean sweep of the vestiges of Democratic influence in Frankfort should not ignore ridding the Capitol of the worst example of my party’s history.
I won’t soft-sell the political risk: Even at the height of national fury toward the Confederate flag-waving murderer Dylann Roof, a Bluegrass Poll revealed 73 percent of Kentuckians preferred Davis to stay where he is. But it’s the right thing to do despite the political downside. And that’s what moral leadership looks like.
One of the most transcendent joys of my life after politics has been shedding the language of compromised rhetoric and timid talking points. Within a few months of leaving public office, I jumped at the chance to publish pieces with full throated defenses of marriage equality and legalized hemp, both at the time exceedingly unpopular in our Bible Belt Commonwealth.
But none of my post-politics essays have generated so much attention, and provoked so much controversy, than a 2014 Kentucky Sports Radio column in which I called for the removal of Jefferson Davis’ statue from the Capitol Rotunda, and its replacement with a likeness of Muhammad Ali.
To me, it was a no-brainer. Jefferson Davis, the Todd County native who served as President of the Confederate States of America, was a traitor who deserves opprobrium, not exaltation in marble. Davis was a stalwart defender of slavery and the empire-building aspirations of slaveholders; but worse, he has emerged as the very symbol of the most shameful, most disgraceful era in American history. Indeed, that’s precisely why Jim Crow-era politicians enshrined Davis in our state’s version of Statutory Hall. And now, every day, strolling through our Commonwealth’s cathedral, our most important citizens – the officials who set our policies and the schoolchildren who visit – pass by the white statue that continually pours salt into our nation’s deepest wound.
There’s no more appropriate Rotunda replacement for the worst of the 19th century than the Greatest of All Time. Muhammad Ali was a proud product of Louisville. Like all of us, the Champ was a flawed man: In his early career, a time of acrimony and assassination, Ali was a polarizing figure, refusing to serve in Vietnam and blurting ugly, regrettable statements. But the boxer came to represent something much greater than himself, and his long-term positive political and societal impact on the state and the nation is irrefutable. The Supreme Court decision that his draft-dodging prompted served as a milestone affirmation of our nation’s freedoms of religion and speech. By preaching loudly and courageously about the segregation-infected political infrastructure, Ali’s inspiration of young African-Americans, struggling to find a voice in their communities, was unparalleled. As civil rights icon Julian Bond remarked, “It’s hard to imagine that a sports figure could have so much political influence on so many people.”
When my idea was first published, a bilious eruption of online commentary ensued, with hatred directed at me, Ali, and the forces of “political correctness” that dared to bleach out Civil War history. On the positive side, the local media noticed, and hundreds signed a petition directed to state leaders. But it wasn’t until six months later, when tragedy intervened, that the mission gained new energy. In the wake of the Charlestown massacre, in which a Confederate flag-waving murderer united the nation against racism and its emblems, nearly all of Kentucky’s most powerful policymakers – including U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, Governor Matt Bevin, Senate President Robert Stivers and House Speaker Greg Stumbo – called for the removal of the Davis statue from the Rotunda. A year later, the Champ’s passing prompted another round of honorific speculation (although we learned that Ali’s Muslim faith prohibits his representation in three-dimensional form, so the tribute must come in the firm of a portrait, picture or mural, in lieu of a statue.)
But to date, sadly, there’s been no action. On the question of the Davis removal, the state’s Historic Properties Advisory Commission — which has the legal authority to make these decisions — has refused to budge, and even the Commission’s promises to produce new educational materials to accompany the statute have gone unfulfilled. The loud political clamor post-Charleston has gone radio silent, perhaps in response to a 2015 Bluegrass Poll that revealed 73 percent of Kentuckians preferred Davis to stay where he is.
The intervening two years, however, seem like a political lifetime. Since Election 2016 particularly, a new wave of activism has empowered movements to prod their elected officials to help bend the moral arc of the universe toward justice. Just recently, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu emerged as a national hero, and even prompted 2020 presidential speculation, for his courageous leadership (and powerful oratory) concomitant with the removal of a Jefferson Davis statue in the heart of Dixie.
So in the end, it’s up to you. Sign this petition. Call your state legislator. Lead a march on the Rotunda. Make your voice heard.
This is much greater than mere symbols in stone. The messages our Capitol sends to the world are a reflection of our public morality. Help our leaders remove a painful embarrassment and replace it with a joyful source of pride.
By Jonathan Miller on ©June 18th, 2017 @ 8:00pm
One of my most awkward moments in my political career came near its end.
Perched in the front row of the balcony in the chambers of the Kentucky House of Representatives, I was participating in an annual rite of passage for Frankfort: the 2011 State of the Commonwealth Address. The man at the microphone, Governor Steve Beshear, had appointed me to his Cabinet several months after I had abandoned my own 2007 bid for the Mansion and threw my support to him. Leaving the race was agony, but the endorsement was easy: He was a good and decent man; and we shared similar values and positions on most issues. One exception: After cutting my political teeth as a young aide to Al Gore, climate change remediation was a personal passion; and Beshear’s campaign rhetoric hewed closer to the traditional pro-coal boosterism of our black gold-rich state.
Midway through the speech, the Governor turned to my sore spot. Jabbing his forefinger in the air, he twice yelled four words aimed squarely at the Obama Administration’s clean air regulators: “Get off our backs!”
The crowd erupted in a rare bipartisan display usually reserved only for military heroes. Like the rest of those in attendance, my fellow Cabinet members stood to their feet and clapped uproariously.
Realizing I could be captured by the TV cameras airing to a statewide audience, I panicked: If I didn’t stand, I would be seen as disloyal and perhaps even justify a few unsavory press tweets. If I cheered, I’d not only be intellectually dishonest; I might upset some friends watching from home. So this future crisis manager came up with an awkward solution: I stood up, and pretended to look at my phone.
And, of course, like much of my political career, no one was paying attention.
One of the more fascinating revelations in Steve Beshear’s just-released new autobiography, People Over Politics, was that the Governor also was internally contradicted at that moment, and came to regret it:
Because it was too simplistic a message. Because it reduced a complex issue into a four-word, black-and-white sound bite. Because it settled on a singular explanation for coal’s decline at the expense of all others. And because it helped further the deceptive message to the Eastern and Western Kentucky coalfields that the best way to build a vibrant future was to simply cling to the past.
People Over Politics contains all of the usual traits of standard political autobiography: Litanies of policy accomplishments to craft the first draft of history. Shout-outs to mentors, staffers, and family that propelled him on his path. Shade thrown at rivals and adversaries (the nectar of press attention and book sales.)
But what’s most remarkable about People Over Politics is what’s atypical of the genre…and frankly, what’s atypical of politics circa 2017: Self-criticism. Nuance. Humility. As the country hurdles breathlessly through scandal, tweetstorms and hyperbolic shouting, Steve Beshear and his approach to government emerge as a sort of Bizarro Trumpism — and not simply as a quaint nostalgic reminder of a halcyon bygone era, but rather as a potential elixir for today’s toxicity.
Steve Beshear tried something nearly impossible in today’s polarized and paralyzed politics: Securing center-left progress in a bright red state. Beshear inherited a dispirited body politic, made cynical by the ethical scandals of prior administrations. Further, just a few months into his first term, the Governor’s expansive campaign promises were undermined profoundly by the worst national economic crisis since the Great Depression. For most of his time in office, Beshear continually was forced to thread the tiniest needle: Creating jobs and maintaining safety net services with scarce resources, while protecting progressive values in a Bible Belt climate.
It was the latter social-issue struggle that helped precipitate a premature undoing to Beshear’s early political career. The young Attorney General’s 1980 opinion that prohibited courthouse postings of the Ten Commandments haunted him in future unsuccessful bids for Governor and the U.S. Senate. Some of the more interesting sections of his book relate to how the late-20th century religious wars informed the older and wiser Beshear on the social hot buttons of the new millennium. While at the time, many liberals chastised the Governor for appealing a federal judge’s marriage equality ruling, and for signing off initially on tax incentives for a Noah’s Ark theme park, the reader will catch a rare behind-the-curtains glimpse of how the pro-LGBT, pro-science Beshear tried to subtly square the policy circle to protect progressive interests while retaining political capital.
Ultimately, of course, Steve Beshear used that political capital for his most progressive and consequential accomplishment, in the process making him a national hero for Democrats. It is hard to over-estimate the political risks the Governor assumed by embracing the Affordable Care Act. There have been few modern politicians less popular in the Commonwealth than the 44th President, and his local popularity was at its nadir during the rollout of Obamacare. Yet, in the most challenging moment of his Administration, Beshear went all-in, expanding Medicaid and opening up the South’s only state-based exchange. He rolled out the initiative with a coordinated and targeted communications strategy, articulating the benefits in a manner that transcended the deep political divide. For those who could not accept any program associated with the President, he responded simply and clearly: “Get over it.” Whatever your view of the action’s substance, it’s hard to deny that Beshear’s signature moment was a case study of putting people over politics.
It’s only been a few years since Steve Beshear left the state capital, but they’ve been some of the most tumultuous in our nation’s political history. The political figure tapped to deliver the Democrats’ response to our new President’s first State of the Union address is revealed in People Over Politics to be the ultimate anti-Trump: a careful deliberator, operating in gray areas of our black and white political system, tempered by genuine humility. Steve Beshear won’t be running for office again. But any of the large and growing cavalry looking to pursue the White House in 2020, and once again recapture the great swath of red states in the center of our nation, would be wise to follow his example.