What gifts should we give our political leaders this year?

Published 9:24 am Thursday, December 28, 2017


Guest columnist

For decades, proprietors of this column have bestowed whimsical Christmas gifts on Kentucky political figures, in return for giving us so much to write about. That will continue, in truncated form, after a message from your sponsor.

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I thought about passing up the tradition this year, since our politics have become so divisive, depressing, and (in the White House) dangerous. During a season that should be one of peace and goodwill, as Luke’s gospel reminds us, there is a tremendous shortage of goodwill in the public sphere. The rhetoric in both parties is overheated, and both sides are too quick to ascribe motive and cast the other side as untrustworthy and malevolent.

This has always been a thread in politics, but it seems worse than at any time in memory, and it can have far-reaching ramifications. When intelligence agencies told congressional leaders that Russia was interfering in the 2016 election, Sen. Mitch McConnell and other Republicans delayed the public alert sought by the Obama White House, perhaps tipping the election to Donald Trump. The two sides were so worried about each other as adversaries that they discounted the larger, mutual adversary, Greg Miller of The Washington Post said on a “Frontline” documentary on PBS.

For some readers, citations of the Post and PBS will be a red flag, because they prefer to believe those who unfairly attack my profession. Almost all the journalists I know — including many in Washington and New York — are people of goodwill, dedicated to delivering truth in the service of democracy. There are exceptions, and mistakes are made, but that’s true in every profession, and good journalists believe in accountability for all, including themselves. But we and our paymasters need to do a better job of explaining ourselves and separating fact, analysis and opinion.

I suspect that President Trump doesn’t really believe most of the charges he levels at journalists, but I wonder about Gov. Matt Bevin. He is still in campaign mode, always looking for a villain, and seems to harbor a deep disdain for those who try to report on or question one of the most opaque Frankfort administrations of modern times. When we criticize his lack of transparency, that doesn’t mean we’re out to get him or oppose his policies; we’re just trying to do our jobs.

So, in a spirit of goodwill, our gift to the governor is a cap with a feather in it, to salute his recruitment of what could be a game-changing industry to Eastern Kentucky – a huge, high-tech battery plant in Pikeville that promises to pay high wages in return for state incentives.

McConnell called the new Republican tax law his second greatest achievement, after his saving of a Supreme Court seat for conservatives, but there’s scant evidence that the tax cuts will pay for themselves, so I started to get the majority leader an economics textbook. But he knows economics; he’s playing politics. So his gift is a hollow model of a horse, to symbolize the bill’s Trojan-horse strategy: If the economics don’t work, the bigger deficits are excuses to cut programs.

McConnell also gets a box of roll-call cards, to use as he pursues Democratic votes — something he avoided with the tax bill but must do to get much done in 2018. And put the name of Sen.-elect Doug Jones of Alabama in blue type; McConnell has must take some blame for Republicans’ loss of that seat, because his allies’ attacks on Rep. Mo Brooks allowed Roy Moore to win the primary.

McConnell’s seatmate, Sen. Rand Paul, will have to wait a little while for his gift: an advance copy of McConnell’s forthcoming book, title unknown, about Kentuckians who have been leaders in the Senate. Paul could still be one, if he can find issues to bridge political divides.

Both Republican senators get a copy of President John F. Kennedy’s “Profiles in Courage,” which was all about senators. He wrote, “We cannot permit the pressures of party responsibility to submerge on every issue the call of personal responsibility — for the party which, in its drive for unity, discipline and success, ever decides to exclude new ideas, independent conduct or insurgent members, is in danger. … When party and officeholder differ as to how the national interest is to be served, we must place first the responsibility we owe not to our party, or even to our constituents, but to our individual consciences.”

And for our readers, we wish a holiday season and a new year with more goodwill.

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.