Voices: The big problem with Senator John Kennedy

US Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, arrives for the Senate impeachment trial of US President Donald Trump at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on 22 January 2020 (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
US Senator John Kennedy, Republican of Louisiana, arrives for the Senate impeachment trial of US President Donald Trump at the US Capitol in Washington, DC on 22 January 2020 (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)

Louisiana Senator John Kennedy, you suck.

In my fifty-plus years as a journalist, I have never written such a flip sentence. I don’t like doing so now. But it describes the Louisiana senator in his own words. It says something, too, about the slough of political make-believe he is digging precisely at a time when the opposite is called for.

Kennedy portrays himself as a country philosopher, dispensing amusingly sage advice in an accent that is meant to sound like a southern good ole boy. This has earned him more press coverage than a junior senator normally gets, which of course is the reason for it.

Kennedy is building on this image in his campaign for reelection to a second term. In a campaign ad, the down-home senator says, with the pasted-on visage of a gravely serious solon, “For all those Washington insiders, elite bedwetters whose feelings I hurt, here’s some free advice: Go buy yourself an emotional support pony.” He ends his “real talk,” as he calls it, with this: “Always be yourself, unless you suck.”

Unfortunately, this “authentic” message is tinsel and the persona fake. It adds a new dimension to the political play-acting that has become a dominant characteristic of Kennedy’s party, which was once largely a bastion of dignified rectitude and now has members who say the January 6 insurrection was a typical day of enthusiastic tourists visiting Capitol Hill.

Kennedy has always had a strange voice. It often sounds as though he has taken a couple of long drags from a helium-filled party balloon. But the cornpone accent is new, acquired and sort of perfected when he arrived in the Senate in 2016. Listen to the way he spoke a few years ago and you hear a different orator, someone who speaks more like a certified member of the elite that he derides. He graduated with honors from Vanderbilt University, the University of Virginia Law School, and Oxford University.

Kennedy has always liked the zippy quip. Since running for the Senate for the first time, however, he has habitually turned to bizarre, nonsensical soundbites whose only redeeming feature is that they are entertaining. A couple of years ago, he received a coveted invitation to speak for Republicans at the Gridiron Dinner that journalists put on each year in Washington. I cringed with others in the audience when he opened his long string of weird remarks with, “I am as nervous as a pregnant nun.”

Kennedy was once a moderate Democrat, of the kind we need more of, until he seemingly decided in 2007 that it was more efficacious to change his beliefs than seek to persuade people of his beliefs. He clearly wants to be Mr Smith Goes to Washington. But he is a Gabby Hayes sidekick to Donald Trump. Clinging to Trump’s careening red wagon, he voted “no” on certification of President Biden’s election. Earlier, he signed on to such wacky conspiracy theories as that the Ukrainians tried to get Hillary Clinton elected president in 2016.

One wonders what the esteemed Oxford jurists under whom he studied would think of his lack of fidelity to the niceties of election rules, such as installing the candidate who actually won.

We Americans cotton to political leaders who are comic characters. When I reported on Congress in the 1970s, Pennsylvania Democrat Daniel Flood could be seen sweeping through the halls of the House with his waxed Snidely Whiplash mustachios, white suit, and dark flowing cape. When I worked on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Edward Beard, the lone house member from Rhode Island and a former house painter, tacked a paintbrush on the door to his office, a sign of his affiliation with the working man.

These individuals were a mixed bag. Flood was hardworking and masterfully brought home the bacon for his constituents; he resigned from Congress amid charges of having taken bribes. Beard, one of the few members of Congress who did not have a college degree, left no significant legislative mark in his three terms, after which he owned a tavern. But he authentically spoke for the common man, something Kennedy only fakes.

Such imperfections are particularly inopportune today, when our polarized political system is fragile and needs genuine expertise and sincerity to shore it up. But Kennedy’s schtick presents a special problem. It mocks democratic institutions, instead of treating them seriously.

What else can one say of the “advice” he delivered to President Joe Biden on Sean Hannity’s Fox news show? “Now, I say this with respect, with all the respect I can muster. But my advice to the president is this. Mr President, you’ve just got to try harder not to suck.”

Suck has been Kennedy’s go-to word. “I don’t mean any disrespect,” he said of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, “but it must suck to be that dumb.” In his extensive suckology, Obamacare sucks, Facebook’s user agreement sucks, and the economy sucks.

The great pity of this frat-boy name-calling is that Kennedy is capable of so much more. When not mugging for the cameras in a highly visible hearing, he can be a thoughtful, calm questioner methodically boring into a judicial nominee’s expertise.

Louisiana’s other senator is a stark contrast. Bill Cassidy, a deeply committed Republican, has opted for principle over convenience. Despite the risk to his political career in his scarlet red state, he found Trump guilty in his second impeachment trial of inciting insurrection and voted to certify the election of President Biden. On explaining his rationale for challenging the election, Kennedy could do no better than this: “I’m not saying that something DID happen, but I’m not so sure something DIDN’T HAPPEN.”

History will be kinder to Senator Cassidy. It is perhaps more than a coincidence that Cassidy, an authentic product of Louisiana, has no marked accent, whereas Kennedy’s Foghorn Leghorn cartoon drawl is so phony that it is not only inauthentic to him, but also to the state he serves.

Kennedy’s masquerade calls to mind a review that a New Orleans newspaper once gave to a local restaurant that similarly claimed to be genuine: “T’aint Creole, t’aint Cajun, t’aint French, t’aint country American, t’aint good.”

John Maxwell Hamilton is the author most recently of ‘Manipulating the Masses: Woodrow Wilson and the Birth of American Propaganda’, and winner of the Goldsmith Prize