Opinion | Our Foghorn Leghorn Republican senator little resembles his former Democratic self, but in Louisiana we know the type – The Washington Post
Robert Mann, a mass communication professor at Louisiana State University and former press secretary for Democratic senators Russell Long and John Breaux of Louisiana, is the author of “Backrooms and Bayous: My Life in Louisiana Politics.”
Many Americans took fresh notice of Louisiana’s sardonic junior U.S. senator, John Neely Kennedy, last week when the Republican lawmaker questioned the patriotism of President Biden’s nominee for comptroller of the currency.
“I don’t know whether to call you ‘professor’ or ‘comrade,’” Kennedy told Saule Omarova, a Cornell Law School professor, during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Banking Committee on which Kennedy serves.
When Kennedy asked if she had a resignation letter from the Communist youth group the Soviet-controlled Kazakhstan government forced her to join as a child, Omarova responded, “Senator, I’m not a Communist. I do not subscribe to that ideology. I could not choose where I was born.” Omarova told Kennedy the Communist regime persecuted her family, adding, “That’s who I am. I remember that history. I came to this country. I’m proud to be an American.”
Among those criticizing Kennedy for trying to smear Omarova was Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), who said his Louisiana colleague had violated “senatorial courtesy.” That includes, Brown added, “not doing character assassination.”
But Kennedy’s antics at the hearing should have surprised no one in the room. Since entering the Senate in 2017, he has specialized in outrageous comments on Fox News, on the Senate floor and in committee hearings.
An acerbic Biden critic, Kennedy is a fount of sharp-but-folksy one-liners. He punctuated his 2016 Senate campaign spots with, “I will not let you down. I’d rather drink weedkiller.” With his exaggerated Southern accent, he affects a mixture of Mr. Haney, the con artist of the 1960s CBS sitcom “Green Acres,” and the bombastic Looney Tunes rooster, Foghorn J. Leghorn.
The 70-year-old Kennedy is so committed to this persona that a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune challenged readers in 2019 to guess the author of a series of eccentric statements: Foghorn Leghorn or Kennedy? It was a difficult quiz.
Whenever Kennedy appears on Fox News or launches an attention-getting stunt, those of us in Louisiana who know him well roll our eyes and reflect on the Kennedy we knew before his Senate election.
We recall the brainy graduate of Vanderbilt University, the University of Virginia Law School and Oxford University’s Magdalen College; the relatively progressive Democrat who ran for the U.S. Senate in 2004; the man who, despite his 2007 party switch, served capably as state treasurer from 2000 to 2017; the official who, although in the same Republican Party as then-Gov. Bobby Jindal, was a fierce critic of Jindal’s reckless fiscal policies.
Mostly, we wonder what happened to the reasonable, non-incendiary Kennedy we once knew.
In preparing this piece, I found a lengthy interview Kennedy did in October 2004 with the Shreveport Times. In pitching his Democratic Senate candidacy, he was articulate, restrained and progressive. He scorned the tax cuts for wealthy Americans that then-President George W. Bush had signed. He favored increasing the federal minimum wage.
He was no Bernie Sanders liberal, but he was the progressive Democrat in the race — so much so that some prominent Black leaders, including our congressional delegation’s most liberal member, Rep. William J. Jefferson of New Orleans, backed him.
But what stood out in that 2004 interview was the absence of the homey sayings, abusive zingers and character assassinations that have become Kennedy trademarks. He was nothing like the man you see these days insulting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — “It must suck to be that dumb” — or vilifying then-Interior secretary nominee Deb Haaland as “a neo-socialist, left-of-Lenin whack job.”
When people outside Louisiana ask me about Kennedy, I tell them he’s not the folksy bumpkin you see on TV, but a wealthy, well-educated attorney with an Oxford degree. Just like Pat Buttram, who portrayed Mr. Haney in “Green Acres,” Kennedy is acting. He’s a shape-shifting, attention-hungry politician who found a role — wily country boy — that brings him some fame.
Since the days of Huey Long, Louisiana has celebrated its brash, entertaining and clever politicians. But Kennedy’s latest media splash was not clever. It was entertaining only to those who enjoy cruelty and xenophobia. It was conduct that, until recently, might have earned Kennedy criticism from some members of his party. The pre-2017 Kennedy would have abhorred it.
What troubles me about Kennedy’s latest stunt is not just what it revealed about a politician doing what some unprincipled, opportunistic politicians have always done. What bothers me more is what it says about Louisiana politics, and today’s Republican Party, that Kennedy could expose himself as a xenophobic demagogue and pay no price for it.
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