Jeff Smith: When “John” Met John Y.

Lies can have unpredictable trajectories.

Sometimes, a stupid lie that seems inconsequential at the time – in my case about a campaign postcard – can lead to betrayal, the end of a friendship, and a prison term. Other times, a stupid, inconsequential lie can lead to the blossoming of a long and meaningful friendship.

***

During my first Senate session in early 2007, I drove to Louisville for the weekend to visit my ex-girlfriend, who served as press secretary for Kentucky gubernatorial candidate Bruce Lunsford. It was the weekend before the Democratic primary, and on Sunday afternoon before I headed back to St. Louis, we stopped at a restaurant which we soon realized shared a patio with an adjacent restaurant hosting a campaign BBQ for one of her gubernatorial campaign opponents, Kentucky House Speaker Jody Richards.

Lis, whose jet-black hair, pale skin, haute couture dress, and staccato delivery screamed New York City, hid her head in her hand. “Oh my God,” she said, “they’re totally gonna recognize me and think I’m tracking them. Ohmigod, this is so embarrassing. Let’s get the fuck out of here.”

Although most people in St. Louis politics viewed me as a Type A politician, who sprinted door-to-door and whose campaign aides who worked 16 hours a day seven days a week,  I tended to take a much more relaxed view of campaigns than Lis did. A year earlier, she had famously called my campaign manager and berated him for failing to blind-copy a group of reporters on a routine press advisory. I’d watched the call from his side in the office; he stood there, mouth agape and crumpling like a boxer taking gut punches, for 60 seconds while the office listened to her tear into him, the phone a safe distance from his ear.

Knowing her aversion to even the smallest gaffes, I mischievously decided, as was my wont, to antagonize her. “Hey, I’m gonna go meet Jody,” I said, rising from the table. As a politician, a political scientist, and a huge geek, I liked meeting and analyzing politicians. The only thing better than meeting and analyzing them was to do it undercover.  

Lis trembled and turned ashen. “Do NOT do that. Ohmigod I will fucking KILL you if you do that! Let’s just get the check and get out of here.”

     ***

Former KY House Speaker Jody Richards

I rose from my seat and approached Richards. “Hey, Mr. Speaker, how’s it goin’?”

He clasped my outstretched hand and pumped it furiously. “Hey there, young fella, how ya doin’?”

“I’m great. How’s the campaign going?”

“Well, pretty dern good!” He gestured to the patio, where an embarrassingly small group of supporters had gathered for the BBQ. “Look at all these folks! I’d say things are pretty dern good! What’s yer name, young fella?”

“John,” I lied.

He reached out and pumped my hand some more. “It’s great to see ya, John. Where ya from?”

“Oh, right down Bardstown,” I replied, gesturing vaguely to my left, praying he wouldn’t pursue that line of inquiry any further.  I needed a distraction, fast. “So, tell me about your platform.”  

He frowned. In Kentucky, and most places outside Cambridge, Manhattan, and the Bay Area, most politicians most of the time prefer not to delve too deeply into specifics when hunting for votes, lest they alienate voters. When I went door-to-door, I usually talked sports and shutters.

“Well, Ah been Speaker for over a decade, and we sure have gotten a lot done in that time – gotten an awful lotta good things done for people.”

“That’s great. What kinda things?”

“Lotsa things. Good things. Ah’d love yer s’port,” he wheedled.

“Well, I haven’t made up my mind yet,” which was actually a double lie, since 1) I had, and 2) I couldn’t vote in the election anyway.

“Well, what can Ah do to get yer vote?” asked Jody.

“Where do you stand on abortion?” I asked. “How about gay rights?”

This wasn’t Jody’s first rodeo; he didn’t miss a beat. “Y’know what? Lemme interduce ya ta mah runnin’ mate. I bet y’all’ll have a lot ta talk about.”

Jody grabbed a boyish guy away from a conversation and pulled him over towards me. “John Y, Ah want ya ta meet mah friend John. John, this is mah run’mate John Y.”

Mop-topped John Y on the stump

This was John Y. Brown III, I realized – former Secretary of State, son of larger-than-life former Governor and KFC magnate John Y. Brown Jr., and grandson of a Congressman and former Kentucky Speaker. This was Kentucky political royalty. Except, he didn’t look like it, at all. He had an unruly mop of dark wavy hair that framed a wide, toothy smile. He wore a short sleeve plaid shirt, Dockers, and tennis shoes, which made him look more like a young high school teacher/JV tennis coach than the scion of Kentucky’s pre-eminent political dynasty. “Hey there,” he said. “I’m John Y.”

“Hey, I’m John too, great to meet you.”

“Yes, good to meet you,” he said, but he looked confused and turned to Jody, who had already pivoted to get away from having to answer policy questions from this obviously liberal young man whose Northern accent marked me as an outsider as surely as if I had “UNION” stamped across my forehead.

“So where are you from?” asked John Y.

“Well, originally from Missouri,” I said, which was true, if by originally I meant:  born there, raised there, and currently represent 175,000 constituents there.

“What brought you to Kentucky?”

“A girl,” I said accurately, resisting the impulse to gesture at Lis, who sat fifteen feet away, mortified. “And a teaching job,” I lied.

I asked him how the campaign was going, and what it was like to fundraise for such a big race. “Man, I hate fundraising,” he laughed, and I instantly liked him. “Not having to do much of it was my only condition when I accepted Jody’s offer to be on the ticket!”

I was impressed by his candor and told him so.

He thanked me and then paused, squinting. “So listen, you’re not John, are you?” he asked.  

“Um, what?”

"The documentary"

“You’re not John. You’re Mr. Smith – from the movie, the documentary*…right?”

Oh, shit. Lis was gonna kill me. “Uh, yeah. Listen, I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to…”

“I don’t care about that!” exclaimed John Y., grinning broadly. “Who cares, I think it’s funny. What’s your real name?”

“It’s Jeff.”

“Well, listen, I loved the documentary. Man, great story. Listen, I totally get what you had to run against. And you’re probably thinking to yourself, ‘Who is this guy, he’s had everything handed to him, what the hell does he know?’ But that’s why I get it. All the advantages Carnahan had against you, I had ’em too when I first ran for Secretary of State. I had a big fundraising advantage because of my dad’s connections, and of course the name was huge. I tried not to abuse it by running for an office I wasn’t qualified for. But hey, I wouldn’t blame you if you hated me.”

“Of course I don’t hate you!” I actually liked him a lot, based on his acute self-awareness. “Listen, I don’t have a problem with all dynasty candidates. Just unqualified ones. Plus, just the fact that you recognize and admit the advantages you had is pretty rare.”

“Hey, the fact is, people like me have advantages and they can be unfair, and you were right to be frustrated by that. The film has important messages about money and name and how the process can be tilted against the little guy.” Realizing that we were both under 5’8”, we laughed at his phrasing.

We ended up talking for a while – I even introduced him to Lis, much to her chagrin, and fortunately he got a kick out of the fact that she worked for his opponent. He said he admired my advocacy for public financing of campaigns, and he vowed to push it if he were elected. Then he admitted that he regularly used a line he got from one of my speeches in the film. He was the most genuine, and genuinely self-effacing, pol I’d ever met.

     ***

John Y. is a fellow recovering politician, and in the four years since has become a dear friend. Without that silly lie several years ago, we wouldn’t be friends, and I wouldn’t be writing for this site. And without the other lie about my knowledge of a postcard mailed during a campaign seven years ago, I wouldn’t have spent last year as a guest of John Y – and a few hundred million other taxpayers – in his beloved (and my phony) home state of Kentucky.

– – –

* The “documentary” refers to “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?” an award-winning film about my run for Congress, a race won by Russ Carnahan, the scion of a prominent political family in Missouri.

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