By Brian Arbenz
What on Earth could have transformed Mitch McConnell from a baron of subdivision drainage and park maintenance three and one-half decades ago into the bare-knuckled power-wielder for the nation’s elites?
How was a bespectacled, ostensibly nerdy, tentative-voiced suburban county government chief turned into America’s prime arbiter of conservative priorities with the mandate to declare to the pundits which law is the worst of our time?
The man who once politely asked for legendary civil rights activist Lyman Johnson’s endorsement today confidently defends his party’s various state voter ID laws which will keep millions of minorities and the poor home on election day.
Who or what made this once mousey-appearing civil servant roar? Did someone push Mitch’s buttons in a moment of crisis decades ago, setting off a hunger for validation, the kind to which politicians (including those actually in office and those of us who once seriously thought of running) are so vulnerable?
Remember that word “hunger,” as I start to recount a brush with a future Senate Minority Leader in 1978 that, who’s to say, didn’t change the course of history.
Then, as now, I was on the far left, not an easy place for a college student in the era quite accurately deemed the “Me-Generation” on campus.
Today, while Mitch McConnell and other Republicans insist they aren’t for exploiting the 99 (or, as Mitt Romney puts it, 47) percent, one of that group now named Brian Arbenz (nee George Morrison) collected concrete evidence – actually copper – that could qualify me for a spot on Rachel Maddow to portray Mitch as cheap and arrogant – to Marie Antoinette proportions.
But hold on. Adequate wages must be earned, not guaranteed. Yes, you heard correctly; I’m on the far left, and my encounter with my side’s future nemesis taught me that bit of conservative wisdom. Let me tell you, though, it must have taught the powerful something we leftists always hold true: poverty hurts.
Now unless first-year Jefferson County Judge-Executive Mitch McConnell 35 years ago had an intelligence gathering operation that would make today’s Secretary of Homeland Security blush, he could not have judged the 20-year-old college student bussing tables in a downtown Louisville restaurant he entered at noontime one autumn day as anything more than an inconsequential, pimply kid out to make enough in tips to buy a six-pack.
Well, in defiance of that period’s youth norms, I eschewed the brew and spent my dollars instead on the works of Michael Harrington, Kate Millet and Norman Thomas.
Mitch entered a Main Street row restaurant called the New York Steak Exchange with two other suits, presumably from county government or the business realm.
To everyone’s dismay, this power lunch happened on absolutely our worst day. Even on our best, we were no gastronomical gem. A newspaper review said our various gimmicks – including a real working stock ticker over the bar – couldn’t make up for the mediocrity of the food.
On this day, the service was poor to boot. So crowded were we that my supervisors had me work as a food server while not busing tables. After Mitch’s party had waited an inordinate amount of time for their food, we hauled three plates through the frenetic din to their table, only to be told this was not what the trio had ordered. We apologized and took the plates back and placed them under red lights to await their rightful owners.
More time went by as the judge-executive and his cohorts were just the most recognizable people in this restaurant hungering. Only so much politics and policy can be discussed at a table before, “Where’s our food?” becomes the sole concern.
And the three orphan plates sat there under the red lights until another server was ordered to take them to the McConnell table on the chance that they were theirs. Oh dear.
I gave chase trying to stop her. You see in the restaurant business, there is no mistake worse – more glaringly unprofessional and insulting — than bringing someone the wrong food. At that moment, I realized that there in fact is. That is bringing someone the wrong food twice. And as though the damage to us could have been worse, we were bringing the wrong food – twice – to the head of county government, the government that includes the restaurant inspection division of the health department.
She reached their table, asking: “Is this what you ordered?” Out of breath from running, I watched as Mitch and the other power hitters looked at the food, and looked at each other. Then the nation’s future highest-ranking member of the Republican Party looked at this young woman and said, in his classic McConnell-esque understated way: “Yes.”
Now we weren’t a grand jury, so this one-word lie doesn’t have the scandal potential of Bill Clinton’s “No” in response to an inquiry from Kenneth Star about the president’s involvement with an intern, though if the Democratic Party had the GOP’s chutzpa, learning of this would prompt it to call for McConnell’s resignation tomorrow. But the Democrats, unlike their opponents, tend to know not to make a federal case over an unimportant falsehood which, like Clinton’s, stemmed from a crucial human need — in this case, food.
And Judge-Executive McConnell – as they say in Senatorial debate lingo – ate someone’s lunch, learning in the process to avoid all contact from then on with the New York Steak Exchange, except – who knows — perhaps to send a memo about the restaurant to the health department.
So could it be that the indignity of eating survival rations, instead of what you wanted, soured Mitch McConnell on those of us who can’t afford to start our own Super PAC?
Well, who among us wouldn’t have sympathized at that moment with Mitt Romney’s declaration: “I like being able to fire people?”
Restaurant diners can’t directly do that to those who inflict even the lousiest service imaginable, but Mitch’s trio found an even more revealing way to express their discontent.
No tip? Nope. Lying on the McConnell party’s table, inscribed with that Eisenhower-era legislated monetary notation “In God We Trust,” was a penny – for the three of us who had waited on them somehow to divide among ourselves.
Notice Senator, that the nationwide perception of your party in the crucial year of 2012 – fair or not — is that you have it in for low-wage workers, the left and women.
Whether the ravenousness and disrespect we made you endure three and one-half decades ago lit your still burning fire, or was forgotten the following morning, shouldn’t you find cause to declare peace between the GOP and those constituencies from the knowledge that you once – albeit justifiably by most any standard — tipped a representative of each, literally, one-third of a cent?
If invincibility in politics is possible, Mitch McConnell appeared to have achieved it going into this decade. He won against the 2008 anti-GOP tide, he had in 2002 garnered endorsements from even liberal publications and he was always bathed in corporate money.
However, as a working person, I also am perched on a privileged spot. I got to witness something astounding in 1978. I saw the well-heeled and self-assured Mitch McConnell hungry and frustrated – so desperately that he was reduced to lying. How many people can say that?
Brian Arbenz retired from busing tables in 1979 to become a journalist, researcher and author. His third book, “Lost and Found in Louisville,” includes this recollection, which he wrote in 2012.