It’s been a precipitous fall and a bitter winter for two Kentucky icons, Rick Pitino and Rand Paul.
Rand’s fall has been even sharper and more dizzying. As recently as October 2014, the seminal Time magazine published a cover story proclaiming that Kentucky’s junior Senator was “The Most Interesting Man in Politics.” Many soothsayers of conventional wisdom agreed, and declared Paul a top-tier presidential candidate as the 2016 Republican caucuses and primaries approached. With the Grand Old Party skewing far too elderly and bleach-white, Paul seemed to have positioned himself uniquely well to energize pro-pot, anti-war Millennials, as well as minority voters craving criminal justice reform.
Then Trump happened. And the Tea Party army revealed itself not as Paul-style libertarians, but rather as a mixed bag of regular folks angry and resentful toward the Establishment that Rand had been nurturing to appear more electable.
Then Paris happened. And Paul’s isolationist pronouncements and ACLU-style civil liberties “stands with Rand” detached him from a GOP base that was increasingly fearful and looking for a stronger voice to lead the war on terrorism.
Worst of all, Rand’s seemingly-clever strategy to triangulate and expand his father’s ideologically-rigid coalition by positioning himself as the champion of arch-conservative social causes, failed to convince many sincere evangelical voters, and simultaneously undermined his libertarian base: While Ron Paul secured more than 21% of the 2012 Iowa caucus vote; Rand’s current tally is struggling to rise above the 5% line.
If that weren’t enough, on Friday, Rand Paul “won” recognition from the Washington Post as having “the worst week in Washington.” His poll numbers plummeting, Paul was excluded from the main stage GOP presidential debate, and instead of joining the “kiddie table” undercard forum, he publicly complained and groused and boycotted his party’s showcase. Worse yet, after seeming to escape a serious 2016 Democratic Senate challenger when former Auditor Adam Edelen demurred, Paul learned this week that popular Lexington Mayor Jim Gray was seriously considering a bid. Indeed, such a race might be tough to resist for the moderate, respected businessman — considering the continuing beatings Paul is expected to take in Iowa, New Hampshire, and especially in the March 5 Kentucky presidential caucuses that Rand begged his party to schedule so that he could run for both offices simultaneously. Meanwhile, the “money bombs” that had fueled Paul’s surprise 2010 Senate victory may be a lot less explosive considering the disenchantment of his father’s Rolodex.
So, Paul pulled a Pitino.
Like the Cards Coach who vented his frustrations after an agonizing UK loss by flipping the bird at a rowdy Rupp Arena crowd, the junior Senator from Kentucky, in an interview with ABC Radio, extended his middle finger to the media — literally — on behalf of “99 percent of my supporters” for being shut out of the debate.
As a scholar of the salute (OK, I just looked it up on the ultra-reliable Wikipedia), I can report that the middle finger gesture has been around for millennia. Used in ancient Greece and Rome, the finger represents the phallus (surprise!), and was delivered as a sign of insult or disrespect. By late 19th century America, the gesture became part and parcel of pop culture, with a message roughly translated as “f___ you” or “f___ off” or “go f___ yourself.” (Snopes here debunks the counter-theory that the salute was derived by English archers at the Battle of Agincourt, declaring “Pluck You!”)
In drawing renewed national attention to the middle finger, Pitino and Paul may have eloquently, if not elegantly, captured the political and sports zeitgeist. As I elaborated last month, we tend to no longer view our sports or political opponents as competitive rivals:
We hate them. They are the enemy. F__ them!
Just scroll down and review the comments section below or on any online e-mag — a significant percentage of written screeds are simply rhetorical extensions of the middle finger: at columnists, public figures or often other commenters. Indeed, the Trump campaign has emerged as the bird-flipping blog comments section writ large: featuring bilious demagoguery about “the other” and fact-challenged conspiracy theories, all punctuated by venomous ad hominem personal attacks.
Gallons of virtual ink have been spilled trying to explain today’s public mood and how it’s flipped all political conventions upside down, benefiting unlikely, anger-fueled frontrunners such as Trump, Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders. I’m most persuaded by a recent Thomas Friedman column, quoting my law school classmate, Dov Seidman, who argues that the 24/7 news construct, amplified by social media, has heightened our nation’s moral arousal and moral outrage dramatically:
“People everywhere seem to be morally aroused,” said Seidman. “The philosopher David Hume argued that ‘the moral imagination diminishes with distance.’ It would follow that the opposite is also true: As distance decreases, the moral imagination increases. Now that we have no distance – it’s like we’re all in a crowded theater, making everything personal – we are experiencing the aspirations, hopes, frustrations, plights of others in direct and visceral ways.”
Seidman concludes with hope that societal leaders can channel this moral outrage into “deep and honest conversations” about reform and change. I’m less sanguine. But I do have optimism that when the 2016 presidential campaign concludes, and the U of L scandal is resolved, we’ll have much more constructive outlets over which to vent our moral outrage.
I’m even more hopeful that a Paul/Gray race — between two very smart guys with polar-opposite ideologies and perspectives on the value of public service — can offer Kentucky voters a meaningful opportunity to deliver a clear verdict on the role of government in their lives and for their communities. And that’s something that might allow all of us to rest our middle fingers…for at least the time being.