stayed home on election day this November.">
When was the last time you were close enough to a politician to "smell the onions"? As campaigning becomes more abstract, rural places are ignored. No surprise that more rural voters stayed home on election day this November.
Science having just finished mapping the human genome, is it churlish to lament a less enlightened era when we didn’t know as much about the body’s DNA, but the voters were more up close and personal with the body politic?
While bioscience is making progress, can we say the same of political science? In the governor’s race, what’s to like in any of those TV attack ads from cyber space? How do we cheer or cry over a news report about a court order ousting a candidate we never knew in the first place?
In the Russellville weekly paper, my successor as editor, Jim Turner, complains that live in-person candidates are dissing Logan County—seldom seen in a courthouse where the Rhea-Beauchamp gang could once deliver a dependable 2,000 Democratic votes to make or break a state race.
No need, then, to ask how long has it been since a chartered bus plastered with Republican banners paused in Tompkinsville for pastoral encouragement of the Carter family’s Monroe County faithful?
Lost to paid TV and visits to targeted urban counties with big numbers for the major parties are the days when rural voters met the candidates in the flesh, not on cable, or KET. When a politician lied to you, he did it in your face while hugging the baby. You could smell the onions.
Jim Kelly, a Social Security director in the mountains, remembers when Congressman Carl D. Perkins skipped a speech at an overly long political rally in Pikeville but exhorted the crowd not to leave until he had individually spoken with everybody there. Seventy-five citizens filed through the door pumping Carl D.’s hand on the way out and telling him what he hadn’t done for them lately.
Not exactly how we communicate today; but that’s the way Mr. Perkins stayed in touch. One of the last of the New Deal liberals, he held enormous power in Washington, flowing from the poorest of the poor who kept him there until he controlled every federal dollar spent for education in the United States. “I’m just a beggar for paupers,” he said. Quaint words, but they were from his heart, not from a ghost writer, and they resonated in every election until his heart gave out on an August day in 1984, flying home on the Piedmont to the hills of East Kentucky.
This Friday and Saturday as the mountain’s movers and shakers hold their annual leadership conference at Hazard to worry over issues of poverty and image, the rest of us who are depressed over our sorry state of politics might think about what made Perkins such an effective champion of his Appalachian people. Looking for what few say they see or hear in the governor’s race, but what was always found in Carl D., perhaps the answer is conectedness.
Al Smith is a newspaper, TV and radio journalist who also chaired the Appalachian Regional Commission and led the state’s efforts in public arts and oral history. This essay, written in 2003, comes from his recently published anthology Kentucky Cured.