Louisiana Republican Sen. John Kennedy has behaved in ways as abhorrent as many of his colleagues but mostly failed to make it into primetime, overshadowed by the likes of Ted Cruz waging jihad on Big Bird and calling on Texas to secede from the union and Lindsey Graham repeatedly climbing into Donald Trump’s lap and golf cart to beg forgiveness.
That changed last week when Kennedy took his aw-shucks-country-boy-in-a-rumpled-suit shtick too far. The setting was a Banking Committee hearing to consider the qualifications of Saule Omarova to become the next Comptroller of the Currency, as one of the few Biden nominees to escape Cruz’s blanket hold on all nominees. Kennedy didn’t focus on the plans of the Cornell law professor who served in President George W. Bush’s Treasury Department to regulate the country’s largest banks and the Wild West of cryptocurrency before it gets too big to fail. Instead, he held a show trial of a citizen of the former Soviet republic of Kazakhstan, letting fly zingers like, “I don’t know whether to call you professor or comrade.”
Kennedy often plays his party’s designated hitter, playing a cut-rate Joe McCarthy while trotting out his commonsense and Christian values supposedly lacking in the hoity-toity book-learners in the other party. He hyper-articulated the name of the youth group Omarova belonged to—“the Leninist Communist Young Union of the Russian Federation”—and demanded a letter of resignation even after she explained that membership was compulsory and ended automatically when you aged out.
Omarova is an interesting nominee: an immigrant, a woman, a member of an ethnic minority, and easy prey for a conservative Republican. What’s just as interesting is who Kennedy is—not one of those Kennedys, but one of the biggest phonies in a Senate that has its fair share of them.
For starters, Kennedy’s probably been in Russia more recently than Omarova, one of six GOP senators traveling there the week of July 4, 2018, to be wined and dined by Vladimir Putin. But doubting the loyalty of others is Kennedy’s default charge. As the climate change summit in Glasgow was drawing to a close, she Senator explained that his party would have been more involved if the U.S. envoy to the talks weren’t John Kerry, a “woke Trotskyite.”
It gives Kennedy no pause that before he was against the purported Trotskyite, he was for him, endorsing Kerry in his 2004 run for president over George W. Bush. Kennedy was a Democrat back then, working for a Democratic governor, until he lost his first two races for the Senate.
Tired of losing, the Vanderbilt graduate, Oxford scholar, and editor of the law review at the University of Virginia, dusted himself with some hayseed, switched parties, and ran in 2016 for the seat left open by incumbent David Vitter, whose admission that he “failed” his family but had found “forgiveness and love” wasn’t enough to overcome his inclusion in the D.C. Madam’s phone book.
Kennedy’s been corn-poning with impunity ever since, complaining of Biden that, “It may be that the President has put in charge of his immigration policy a bunch of pink-haired wokers who don’t know their ass from their elbow. I use ass in the King James Bible sense… It may be that the President has put in charge of his immigration people who are bilingual—they speak English and stupid.”
He’s advised Kamala Harris to “stop saying stupid stuff.” Meantime, he likes to talk about Democrats whose “poll numbers are going down like a fat guy on a seesaw,” and blast supposedly socialist Democrat bills “shot through with spending porn.”
He’s profane for a conservative, taking advantage of an apparent exemption granted to truth-telling Southerners to go long on bodily metaphors. All experts are so-called, and can stick their advice “up their fact-checker asses.” He won’t comment on something because “I can’t get my head that far up my rear end.” His most popular warning to the softheads dissing the combustion engine is that “we can’t be putting fairy dust and unicorn urine in the gas tank.”
Kennedy’s so good at what he does, to call him out would be like tripping up gramps on his way to change the TV station. But he took it too far with Omarova, to the point where fellow Republican Sen. Thom Tillis disassociated himself from Kennedy with the Louisiana senator looking on.
Tillis came close to apologizing to the immigrant whose family escaped Soviet rule 30 years earlier and headed for America where she climbed the slippery ladder of academe and the law to make her way, against the odds, to the witness table in front of him.
“I want to make a few things crystal clear: Republican concerns with this nominee are directly tied solely to your extensive written record.” And then he zeroed in. “With the exception of some of the comments that my friend and colleague Senator Kennedy made, I think we’ve tried to focus on what we believe are legitimate policy differences.”
But Republicans have used Kennedy for their wet work for too long to rein him in now. He brushed off Tillis’s rebuke and went on Fox over the weekend for an encore. “During my time, my chairman [Ohio Democrats Sen. Sherrod Brown] went crack-brained on me and I told him to shut up.” The country is entitled, he said, to know if someone “used to be a member of the Communist Party.”
Could there be a silver lining in Kennedy’s overreach? Banking chair Brown said afterwards that the drama would have a happy ending. “Being called a comrade by Kennedy, I know there’s a sense of decency among my colleagues, and she will be confirmed.” Sadly, those are the words of a congenital optimist.
When the lights are off, most of Kennedy’s destructively partisan comrades are quietly thanking him.