The Closed Mind of Mitch


In 1977, a bored Republican lawyer from Louisville named Mitch McConnell, then thirty-five, decided the time had come to act on a lifelong dream to become somebody important—in this case, county judge of Jefferson County, Kentucky, which surrounded the city of Louisville. “Judge” was the archaic title for the county’s chief executive. The last Republican to hold the job had become Senator Marlow Cook, a figure on the national stage, precisely what McConnell dreamed of becoming. He had been running for office since high school, winning nearly every contest he entered. Now he hoped this could be his own first step toward a seat in the United States Senate.

Mitch McConnell
Mitch McConnell; drawing by James Ferguson

In his new memoir McConnell writes poignantly about that first campaign: “Approaching strangers, speaking in front of crowds—it was all extremely hard for me at the time…. At my core, I’m quite shy.” He and an old friend who helped manage the campaign

slogged through the summer, spending our weekends eating fish sandwiches and shaking hands at the Catholic picnics popular throughout the county. During the week…I’d travel up and down Dixie and Preston Highways as the sun went down, going in and out of stores by myself, introducing myself to the employees and customers at local diners and small businesses, and explaining why I was running for county judge. County government was a mess. People were escaping from the jail. Taxes were going up.

He was able to raise enough money, McConnell writes, to put ads for his campaign on radio and television. In November, he defeated the incumbent Democrat by six percentage points, to his great satisfaction.

McConnell’s charming account of that first experience in electoral politics has but one flaw: it isn’t what happened. Alec MacGillis, a fine reporter who has worked at The Washington Post, The New Republic, and ProPublica, fills in some large holes in McConnell’s account in his short but revelatory book, The Cynic: The Political Education of Mitch McConnell. First and most important, the substance of McConnell’s campaign was shaped not by the candidate and his sidekick with whom he ate fish sandwiches, but by two highly experienced (and expensive) campaign consultants. McConnell’s campaign in 1977 cost $355,000, a level of spending without precedent in Jefferson County. His success raising money allowed McConnell to hire Robert Goodman, an artful producer of campaign commercials for television, and Tully Plesser, a prominent pollster and strategist.

MacGillis tracked down both Goodman and Plesser nearly four decades later. This was worth the effort. Both men remembered being underwhelmed by their new client in Louisville. McConnell wasn’t an interesting person, Goodman told MacGillis; he had no “aura” to exploit, and “he wasn’t like a man’s man, really.” Plesser added that McConnell “doesn’t make a dominant physical presentation.” (Today, at seventy-four, he still doesn’t.)

But then these two old hands discovered a less obvious trait in their client that more than compensated…

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