People who think politics is boring have never been to the Fancy Farm Picnic in Graves County, Kentucky on the first weekend in August.
The first thing you have to know about the Fancy Farm Picnic is that it is neither fancy nor a farm, but it is most definitely a picnic. In fact, it holds the record as the world’s largest picnic. This last weekend was the 132nd annual picnic, and they barbecued 9 tons of pork and mutton, fried 1,900 pounds of chicken, and cooked several thousand pounds of vegetables. There was also pie.
The second thing you have to know is that when it comes to politics, the Fancy Farm Picnic is deliciously uncivilized. Traditionally, senators, statewide officials, members of congress and legislators—as well as those candidates who hope to beat them—sit on stage and abide by three rules: stick to the time limit, no cussin’, and no hitting below the belt.
Those rules did not apply to the partisans in the crowd. If you think politics is too negative, Fancy Farm is not for you. I saw grandmothers spitting unprintable words and burly union men shouting “Obstructionist!” at Sen. Mitch McConnell. Republicans booed a hapless Democratic congressional candidate while he quoted Scripture. “Hold it, now, let me tell you what I’m going to do,” he said to a wave of derision. His platform of inviting disabled veterans to move to Western Kentucky to boost the housing market because “We don’t have factories anymore” failed to win them over, though his promise “to send mass murderers as fast as they can to Jesus” quieted the rabble.
Kentucky is a rare Democratic bastion in the South. Democrats control the legislature and the Governor’s Mansion, but because Barack Obama leads the ticket this year, most of the statewide Democratic officials skipped the Fancy Farm Picnic that serves as the kickoff to the fall campaign season.
This suited the Republicans just fine, and they pretended like the Democrats didn’t exist. James Comer, the Republican Agriculture Commissioner, introduced McConnell as the “highest-ranking official in the United States.” And after he got done insulting the actual highest-ranking official in the United States, McConnell exhorted the crowd, “Let’s make Jeff Hoover the first Speaker of the House since 1920.”
Kentucky, of course, has had Speakers of their state House of Representatives since 1920. They’ve just all been Democrats. Currently, Greg Stumbo presides over the Kentucky House, and if rhetorical vigor matters, Republicans won’t take the House anytime soon. Stumbo wrote a series of cutting one-liners on the back of a paper fan and, noticing a lens had fallen out of his reading glasses, ditched his notes and ripped extemporaneously into the Republican effort to take back the statehouse. Huey Long would have been proud.
“Ladies and gentlemen, 500,000 of Kentuckians have lost their homes since this Bush-McConnell recession,” said Stumbo. “They aint’ gonna take our house. We’ve had enough houses in Kentucky that’s taken.”
Next up was the aforementioned Hoover, whose stump style swaps volume for passion. “The House is not for sale,” he bellowed. “But I’ll tell you this: Under the Democrat leadership they’re about the bankrupt this state, and this November the people of Kentucky are gonna foreclose on the House of Representatives, and we’re gonna take control.”
It takes a special degree of thoughtlessness for a politician named Hoover to make a foreclosure joke when more than half a million people in Kentucky have lost their homes. For Hoover to identify voters with mortgage lenders and to cast Democrats as struggling homeowners is what psychologists would call “revealing” and political consultants would call “really stupid.”
Asked about the wisdom of his rival joking about foreclosure, Stumbo said, “It scares me when they say that because they know how to do it. Asking a Republican how to fix this economy is like asking a witch doctor how to do heart surgery.”
You know that old saying, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”? Yeah, Fancy Farm ain’t that kind of picnic. But it is a place that for one afternoon, people take politics seriously but manage to have fun at the same time. And I approve this message.