Journalists are trained to answer the five W’s — who, what, when, where, why (and sometimes how). Who, what, when and where are typically inconsequential. John Doe or Joe Blow, who cares? (Unless you are, or you personally know, Mr. Doe or Mr. Blow.) It happened on a Tuesday? — or a Thursday? What difference does it make?
The most interesting aspect of any story is usually the why, and it’s usually the most difficult question to answer. Most people don’t know why they do what they do, regardless of where and when they might do it.
The most important question for any politician is why did they choose a career in politics? Hoping to discover why Senator (R-KY) Mitch McConnell entered politics, I carefully read and studied his autobiography: The Long Game: A Memoir. Repeatedly he mentions his desire to gain the respect of his peers.
In 1956, his family moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where he attended DuPont Manual High School. At a student assembly, McConnell was mightily impressed “by the president of the student council, a boy from the senior class...the confident ease with which he spoke impressed me...my mom was eagerly waiting to hear about my first day. I couldn’t wait to share every detail of the convocation, and how in awe I had been of the student council president. It wasn’t just that he himself had particularly impressed me, but it was also the fact that one person could have the envy of everyone at the school. What teenage boy didn’t desire that?”
(I, for one, did not desire that. My high school friends and I grew our hair long, wore scruffy “hippy” clothes, and didn’t much care what people thought about us.)
McConnell told his mother: “That would be something, getting to be president of that big school, and having the respect of your peers....”
Mitch’s mom said, “I bet you could do that.”
McConnell replied: “I doubt it. I don’t know a soul at that school. I don’t have even one friend.”
That happened on his first day at Manual. (He was 14, presumably a freshman.) A few years passed, and McConnell “made a few friends, and I even had a steady girlfriend....
“At the end of my junior year, my desire to lead the school and know I’d earned the respect of my classmates had not abated.”
And so McConnell ran for student council president. He wasn’t especially popular at school, but he shrewdly enlisted the support of the popular kids “like Janet Boyd, a well-known cheerleader....
“ ‘If you vow to vote for me, I think others will too.’ Not one person said no, and others quickly followed suit....”
McConnell “went at it full-on,” printing pamphlets and placing them in every single locker, and hanging a 25-foot-long banner reading “McConnell for President” in the school’s main stairwell where everyone would see it.
McConnell won. He has always been a fiercely competitive, efficient and effective campaigner.
In 1964, McConnell graduated from the University of Louisville with a B.A. in political science. He served as president of the Student Council of the College of Arts and Sciences. In 1967, McConnell graduated from the University of Kentucky College of Law, where he was president of the Student Bar Association.
McConnell writes: “I moved back to Louisville and took a job at a law firm, handling tax returns, divorces, and workers’ comp cases. It was a time of highs and lows...I’d just gotten married to Sherrill Redmon, my college girlfriend...But I was very unhappy professionally, sitting at a desk, shuffling papers.”
A few years pass -
McConnell writes: “After slogging through being a lawyer for a few years, providing for my family...I finally reached a point where I had had enough...Not only did I not enjoy practicing law, but I wasn’t very good at it. I knew I couldn’t keep doing this. The good news was that I had begun to set my sights on a clear goal. In three years, the current county judge of Jefferson County would be up for reelection....”
McConnell was a lawyer who didn’t enjoy practicing law and who wasn’t very good at it. So he turned his sights on something he was good at — running for office. In 1977, McConnell was elected Jefferson County judge/executive. He was reelected in 1981.
In 1984, McConnell was elected to the US Senate. He was reelected in 1990, 1996, 2002, 2008, 2014, and 2020. He is strongly opposed to term limits.
McConnell is undeniably good at campaigning and winning elections. His memoir describes in detail many of his more memorable campaigns.
But winning elections is one thing; legislating is another thing entirely. In his role as senator, McConnell acts more like a judge than a legislator. He doesn’t craft or propose new legislation. Rather, he passes judgment — thumbs up or thumbs down — on other folks’ hard work. Almost always, it’s thumbs down, earning him the nickname “the Grim Reaper,” an epithet he claims proudly.
McConnell is for anything that favors Big Business and the uberwealthy, especially tax cuts. He has supported numerous large tax cuts for the rich: most recently President Trump’s Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017, which provided small and temporary tax cuts for the middle class, and large and permanent tax cuts for corporations and the super-rich.
McConnell will also support war, such as the Iraq War, if polls show it will favor his party. Otherwise McConnell believes government should play a very small and limited role — one that excludes and prohibits virtually every social program.
In a perfect democracy each person has an equal voice, and the majority rules. In a perfect representative democracy, elected representatives carry out the will of the majority.
McConnell, however, thinks “the finest form of democracy [was] first laid out by Edmund Burke, a British parliamentarian...Burke envisioned that people would elect representatives who would follow their own best judgment...In a speech...at Bristol, England, in 1774, Burke said, ‘Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’ ”
In short, McConnell doesn’t care about your opinion, regardless of how many times you voted for him. He models his role as a US senator after an 18th-century British parliamentarian.
In December 2020, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell urged Republicans not to object during Congress’s count and certification of the Electoral College vote on January 6. But even after the violent insurrection, six Republican senators defied him and objected; 121 members of the US House objected. (None was from Kentucky.)
Mere minutes after voting to acquit Donald Trump of “incitement of insurrection,” McConnell said Trump was “practically and morally responsible” for the deadly attack on the Capitol.
McConnell then opposed a bipartisan proposal to independently investigate the Capitol insurrection, and said he would “absolutely” support Donald Trump if he won the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
First, last, and always, McConnell wants Republicans to win elections.
Mark Heinz lives at Nolin Lake. Visit his website at amazon.com/author/markheinzbooks.