Kentucky has a constitutional oath that requires officeholders to swear they won’t fight in a duel. Yet at the same time Kentucky has the political crucible of Fancy Farm that requires candidates seeking statewide… and congressional office are required to endure each August —which at times has seemed less inviting than a duel with guns (and a few times less dangerous, too.).
It’s not bullets you fear but jeers and cheers (for your opponent) and the momentary mental lapse of twist of tongue that could be the gaffe that everyone talks about the next day. You fear humiliation on the most prized of our state’s political stages, the platform for political speeches at Fancy Farm.
Fancy farm is an amalgam of history and entertainment. Part historic and revered much like the old Chautauqua assembly and yet also part “trial by ordeal” much like the carnival game of baseball toss to cause the seated person to fall into the dunking tank. As a speaker at Fancy Farm you strive to be remembered as falling into the former category rather than into the metaphorical dunking tank. And if you succeed, you are the exception to the rule.
At 32 I was the Democratic Party’s nominee for secretary of state and slated to speak at the vaunted Fancy Farm picnic. The picnic is on a Saturday and I was staying in Paducah, Kentucky the entire week before leading up to Fancy Farm to campaign in the Western Kentucky region and prepare mentally for the big day. As the big day approached, the more nervous I got. Thursday I was barely able to eat. To make matters worse, it was my anniversary and, yes, I somehow blanked out and forgot. And didn’t remember before my wife reminded me. She had not forgotten. Fortunately, with the help of some wonderful local friends we found a romantic restaurant in Paducah to spend our 4th anniversary together. And after that romantic dinner, and the gift of a kitchen table my wife had been lobbying me to buy us for several months, and the passing of another 18 years of marriage, I almost feel like that incident is behind me now. Almost.
The next day was the other big annual event that weekend: The Democratic Party’s Bean Supper in Marshall County. It was my first visit to Marshall County since the primary and I got off to a rocky start after I announced to the large audience that it was “Great to be back in McCracken County again.” After the speech the chair of the Democratic Party, Terry McBrayer, whispered to me that I was actually in Marshall County. I asked Terry if I should get back on stage and correct myself and maybe explain it was confusing with both counties starting with the letter “M” but he suggested I just let it lie and work on getting it right next year. That was wise advice.
I also learned after my less than dazzling speech that swung for the fences and at best turned out to be a broken bat single (or arguably a forced walk) that sometimes less is more from the speaking stump. I spoke after attorney general candidate and current state auditor Ben Chandler. Ben gave a familiar and non-controversial speech that was well received, as always. I was all over the place with my speech trying to stand out. Trying to quote Shakespeare and comparing Larry Forgy to Hamlet. Afterward as we listened to others give their speech I asked Ben how I did. He smiled in the way a mentoring friend would if he were wanting to say to you, “Well, you didn’t humiliate yourself. But you came darn close a few times.” Of course, Ben was too much of a gentleman to say that and instead whispered to me, “You know, it’s not always the best strategy to try to give the most memorable speech at Fancy Farm.”
I wasn’t quite sure what Ben meant at that moment. But at Fancy Farm the next day I saw Ben’s opponent Will T Scott become, shall we say, overzealous during his speech, getting lost in the moment of the Fancy Farm experience –in the same way US Senate Candidate Scotty Baesler did a few years later — and the footage from both speeches found themselves in damaging commercial spot against both candidates.
That evening after the Bean Supper we went by Fancy Farm to get a sense of the layout and what we should expect the next day. Like an athlete checking out the gym during the most crucial away game of the season the next day. As I pulled into Fancy Farm I got a call from my father that he and my step-mother of 17 years were getting divorced. I gave my condolences to both and after talking through it best we could under the circumstances, hung up the phone and agreed to talk more about it on Monday. I got out of the car and approached the podium. I was greeted by Al Cross, Kentucky’s gold standard for political reporting and someone who somehow manages to find out things happening in your life even before they happen—or at least before you find out about them. “Hi John,” Al offered. “Hello, Al. Good to see you.” (Even though as a political candidate seeing Al approach you with a microphone felt more like seeing a live scorpion crawling on your arm with its tail flickering).
Getting interviewed by Al Cross was a civilized and erudite prelude to Fancy Farm in many ways. Another political right of passage in Kentucky but without noisemakers to excuse a poor response. And there was good reason to fear Al. He almost always knew more about the topic than you did—despite the fact you were supposed to have mastered the issue as a candidate. And Al would find a way to always ask the tough question you’d hoped he had forgotten and ask it in a diplomatic—even endearing– way. And he was always fair. But that was the problem with Al. Politicians aren’t all that keen on just getting fair treatment in the media. We prefer reporting that depicts us as a mirror image of how we see ourselves. And anything else positive the reporter might notice about us that we’ve left out. But it doesn’t work that way. Especially with Al Cross. The consummate political umpire in our state. Hence the tremor of fear as Al drew in a breath before asking you a question. “Do you have any comment on your father and step-mother’s divorce?” I thought to myself, “My goodness. I just found out about this 2 minutes ago myself.” Really and truly I felt like asking, “Can you tell me what exactly happened and what the reasons were for divorce, Al, and then I’ll try to respond.” Of course, I didn’t. I just said something like, “I love them both and they are both good people who are moving in separate directions in their lives and I wish them both well and will continue to love them and always will consider Phyllis family.”
I had already learned from Ben Chandler the night before to say less and shut up. Like everything in life, with politics and the Fancy Farm experience, you learn as you go.
The next day I paced a lot. If anyone had taken my pulse or blood pressure they would have been concerned for my health. But Fancy Farm is like preparing for a giant Bungee jump. The adrenaline is necessary and welcomed. You need it. When I was introduced I had taken off my jacket, rolled up my sleeves and just hoped I didn’t forget how to walk from my chair to the podium. I didn’t use my notes and had memorized my speech but tried to make it seem extemporaneous. As I finished I remember looking down at the crowd and seeing Skipper Martin who was Paul Patton’s campaign manager and he was cheering me on. My wife gave me a big thumbs up (even after the forgotten anniversary debacle). Even though I had risen to speak as a meek candidate for a mid-level office, I sat down feeling like Alben W Barkley addressing the Fancy Farm crowd as a candidate for vice president. I also felt about 6-8 inches taller and ready to leap at least one tall building in a single bound. Maybe two. It was a Superman-esque rush of a lifetime. And I had succeeded. For the moment.
My opponent spoke next and I tried looking at the audience and just hoping he’d hurry up and sit down so I could bask more confidently in my Fancy Farm survival glory. But something unexpected happened. My opponent, Steve Crabtree, began making references about my father and holding up the book The Bluegrass Conspiracy, a book that had many salacious and suggestive details about my father and some of his former business associates and that tried to draw absurd conclusions that even though false were nonetheless tantalizing to think about. My father had discussed suing for defamation when the book was published and was advised by one of the nation’s top lawyers he would probably win his case but would still feel like he lost by having the trial played out in the media for over a year. He took the lawyer’s advice.
And then my opponent, Steve Crabtree, who was understandably upset with me after I had inadvertently defamed him the night before in my underwhelming speech in Marshall County by suggesting he had been divorced when he hadn’t was seeking a sort of revenge against me. He was not only holding up the controversial book to a chanting, frenzied audience but he walked over the Democratic side of the podium.
This was my moment of truth. Would I handle this political provocation in a mature and controlled manner? Of course I wouldn’t! I was caught up in the Fancy Farm frenzy and lost my bearings for a few moments.
At first I pretended to yawn and joke with the crowd as I waved my hand dismissively at Steve Crabtree’s fulminating speech. But the chanting got under my skin and my youthful temper flared and without being fully aware of what I was doing, all 5 8 ½ of me stood up suddenly as though I was expecting to stand up to be 6 ‘4 this one time. Steve Crabtree was an imposing figure. Young and strong and at least 6 inches taller than me. It was like a mouse standing up to roar. Fortunately for me, Billy Ray Smith, our 5 ‘8 ¾ candidate for Agriculture Commissioner restrained me from lunging at Mr. Crabtree. Thankfully, for me. Billy Ray kept me from embarrassing myself during the peak of the tension. Then I broke free and ran into what I was sure had to be a cast iron gate. It wasn’t , of course. It was a person. It turned out to be gubernatorial candidate Paul Patton. I grabbed his arms as he held me back and remember thinking, “My God, this man is about 60 years old and made of cast iron steel. What does he do to keep in shape, I wonder?” It was enough of a pause to allow me to realize I was making a fool out of myself and that I best go to the back of the podium and settle down before I hurt myself. And I did.
My momentary glory had spiraled into a side show of my own making. Immaturity and passion had bested eloquence and good luck. I had made my mark at Fancy Farm but it wasn’t in the historic revered way I had hoped but more in the carnivalesque way I feared.
As the event wound down I sat and pretended to listen to the other speakers. I really sat and did a lot of self-examination and self-reflection. I found Steve Crabtree afterwards and asked if he would speak to me for a few minutes and he agreed. I laughed and said “I can’t believe I stood up like I was going to hurt you. You are twice my size.” Steve chuckled and said slyly something to the effect of, “If you had, it would have been the lead story tomorrow instead of a curious footnote.” Again, I learned that keeping your cool is always important at Fancy Farm.
I also learned the even more valuable lesson of when you say something untrue about another person, you admit it and correct it and apologize for it. I apologized to Steve Crabtree for suggesting a divorce that had never happened. And, of course, Al Cross mentioned my mistake in a column the next day about my opponent. And I had to concede I had misspoken and was wrong. And again proving that Al Cross knows more about what is going on than anyone else. And really he just interviews you to see if you know what you don’t know. Or will try to fake it. I also learned that weekend not to ever fake knowing what I didn’t. Even if Al wasn’t nearby.
I saw Skipper Martin after the speech who was like a father to all the young democratic polticos around (including now State Auditor Adam Edelen who was a driver for Paul Patton). Skipper hugged me and while laughing uproariously in that way that makes whatever foolish thing you just did seem funny instead of embarrassing said to me, “Well, you just lost your political virginity today, didn’t you buddy?” And that made me laugh and leave Fancy Farm feeling like a survivor intact. But worse for the wear. And not looking forward to next year. At least not yet.
Perhaps my proudest accomplishment from my first Fancy Farm (other than eventually—I hope–making it up to my lovely wife Rebecca for forgetting our 4th anniversary), is that after the campaign ended I stayed in touch with my former political opponent Steve Crabtree. I again apologized for my mistake and he apologized for roughhousing me rhetorically from the Fancy Farm podium. And we have kept in touch over the ensuing 18 years. He is a good man and an even better father and husband and has a distinguished career in broadcast journalism that few peers can claim and has the esteem of the many esteemable people in his life. I am proud to call him a good friend and worthy foe and hope he feels the same about me. It’s always fun to see him on Facebook and we often interact in a fun and friendly way over posts of mutual interest. And do so with the advantage of age and maturity and civility and mutual respect.
And perhaps that is the most hidden and valuable legacy of Fancy Farm. If there is a better legacy for Fancy Farm than that—two people who almost came to (very uneven) blows—cementing a collegial friendship for nearly 20 years , developing a personal fondness and professional respect for one another gleaned from surviving that heroic experience together that we call Fancy Farm, I can’t imagine what it would be.
So after all the fanfare and hoopla; after all the air horns and caterwauling, and after the brave speeches that may or may not be heard or understood, there is something lasting we don’t always so easily see that transpires from Fancy Farm. The bonding of the characters who shined or were shunned or who simply survived day’s spectacle. They often become bigger people because of the ordeal of Fancy Farm than they were before it. And more respectful of their foes. And sometimes…in time…even lifelong friends or at least lifelong friendly foes.
And that is a worthy legacy that may make Fancy Farm worth preserving for another generation of Kentuckians.