Bunning offers example for Bevin, Trump

Published 9:06 am Monday, June 12, 2017


Guest columnist

At a time when our governor and our president make baseless accusations against journalists and news organizations that are trying to hold them accountable, while largely avoiding questions from same, my thoughts turn fondly to Jim Bunning.

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Fondly? Jim Bunning? The U.S. senator and Hall of Fame pitcher who was known for his pugnacious public attitude with most folks, especially reporters? Yes, that Jim Bunning, the one who died May 26. May he rest in peace.

With journalists and others he disliked, The Big Righthander never pretended to be friends, like some two-faced politicians do. You always knew where you stood with him, and it was often somewhere between disdain and disgust, but he rarely made it personal.

He would occasionally take a shot questioning your motives, but it was pretty much the political version of the brushback pitches that he used to keep hitters from crowding the plate — keeping us inside our lines and putting us on the defensive — keeping us honest, he might have said.

He would pop off, sometimes in ways that reflected poorly on him, but he wouldn’t go on tirades about unfavorable coverage like President Trump or Gov. Matt Bevin do.

In baseball and politics, Bunning seemed to regard writers who asked impertinent questions —and those are most writers, at one time or another — as a sort of lower species that didn’t matter in the larger scheme of things. Baseball writers returned the disregard in kind, unjustifiably leaving it up to baseball’s veterans committee to place in the Hall of Fame one of the greatest pitchers ever.

The pitcher is the man on the high ground, who has the ball, who starts every play in baseball. Bunning always wanted the ball. His competitive attitude embodied the character that former President Theodore Roosevelt exalted in 1910:

“There are many who confine themselves to criticism of the way others do what they themselves dare not even attempt. . . . It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

In 12 years each in the House and Senate, Bunning never had the triumph of high achievement that he did in baseball. His integrity was unquestioned, but some thought he didn’t work as hard in Congress as he did on perfecting the slider that helped him strike out Ted Williams three times in a game. And his two narrow Senate elections can be credited to the help of Sen. Mitch McConnell, who then ended Bunning’s career by saying he couldn’t win and drying up his money.

Bunning got the last word, endorsing the ultimately successful Rand Paul in 2010 against fellow Northern Kentuckian Trey Grayson, whom McConnell had groomed as a successor.

Part of the help McConnell gave Bunning in 1998 was a campaign policy to keep him out of journalists’ reach, for fear he would pop off with a gaffe that would make him lose to Democrat Scotty Baesler. The strategy got physical with the help of Bunning’s sons, who shielded him from reporters.

One night in Owensboro, just after Congress had finally recessed after a long October, I tried to approach Bunning with questions as he walked, then jogged, from the platform to his campaign bus. Each time I got close, the sons cut me off. Finally, I angled a shoulder into one, and the senator said, “Let him in.” I asked my questions, got my answers and wrote my story without mentioning the physical stuff. The day before the election, sharing tales with other reporters, I realized too late that this was a campaign policy that should have been reported.

In 2004, word spread that Bunning had told a Republican crowd in Northern Kentucky that his presumptive Democratic opponent, Daniel Mongiardo, resembled “one of Saddam Hussein’s sons.” I confirmed that with multiple sources and called Bunning’s office for comment. After an hour passed with no response and my deadline neared, I called his home and got his wife, Mary, who offered the best defense anyone did, saying Iraq was on her husband’s mind because he had talked earlier in the speech about flying over the site where Hussein’s two sons were killed by American forces.

For Jim Bunning, father of nine, family was off limits. The next time we met, he gave me a piercing, angry stare. But he kept his temper in check, and he got re-elected.

Bunning wasn’t a sterling example of how politicians should deal with the news media. But he wasn’t a crybaby like Bevin or a serial falsifier like Trump.

Today’s media environment is different, so such politicians think they can focus their messaging on more favorable channels where they don’t get as many tough questions, or none at all. That firms up their base support, but it’s an insult to persuadable voters – the people who want and need answers to the tough questions of the day. In the arena that is our democratic republic, it remains the job of journalists to get and report those answers. Jim Bunning knew that. He may not have liked it, but he played by the rules of democracy and didn’t try to write his own.

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues and associate professor in the University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media. His opinions are his own, not UK’s. This column originally appeared in the Courier-Journal.