Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Kentucky: The Last Republican Revolution

Watching the returns roll in for Rand Paul tonight, I remember being a witness to the last Kentucky Republican Revolution, 49 years ago when a coalition of upstarts disestablished an old Bourbon-urban machine that had dominated Louisville since the bottom of the Great Depression. William O. Cowger, who got himself elected mayor, was born in Nebraska. He was smooth and nonconfrontational in the style of his profession: he was a mortgage-broker, back when a "mortgage broker" was a guy who imported eastern capital to the hinterlands. His partner Marlow Cook, who became chief county administrator, was from upstate New York. His campaign papers said he was a lawyer, but he was nearer to being a career politician.

Cowger could be almost too cute at times--we used to say that when Cowger said "frankly and honestly, Jack, I'm going to tell you the truth," then you knew he was lying. But he also had just a wisp of a smile as if to suggest he didn't want to take any of it too seriously. Cook was more active and engaging, more hands on, funnier.

In truth the Louisville Democrats weren't nearly as awful as many of their Southern counterparts: they had generated Wilson Wyatt, who helped create the Americans for Democratic Action, and a quirky but innovative mayor named Charlie Farnsley who governed with imagination and wit. But they'd gotten old and gone stale and retreated to their traditionalist roots. What Cowger and Cook brought was fresh energy, an openness to innovation. And in particular, they didn't give a hoot about race. Which is to say that they weren't precisely abolitionists, but that race simply wasn't an issue for them and they wanted to bat the race issue out of the way so they could apply their energies to other issues that looked more promising. Louisville had plenty of racial turmoil during the 60s but they would have had a lot more without the Republicans' attitude of benign neglect. Anecdote: Cowger once told me he thought the super markets were damn fools for not hiring black clerks; didn't they realize that these people were their customers?

They were both under 40 at their election; Cowger succeeded a decent but clueless establishment voice who was old for his age at 73. It says something about Cook's predecessor that I can't even remember his name (and Wiki is no help).

Cowger was barred by law from succeeding himself; he went on to a couple of terms in Congress and then died early. Cook won a second term as county administrator by a two-to-one margin and then moved on to a single term in the Senate; he was defeated there by another establishment Democrat.

Cook's most conspicuous legacy may be that he, in a grand gesture of anti-libertarianism, engineered the purchase of the steamboat Belle of Louisville from the public purse; the City of Louisville still owns it and runs it as an excursion vessel. His most meaningful contribution is that he gave a start to another who went on to be a Republican US Senator. That would be Mitch McConnell, who got his hands slapped when his chosen candidate lost out to Rand Paul tonight.

Cook lived long and prospered as a Washington lawyer; from retirement he resurfaced in 2004 to endorse John Kerry over George Bush:
For me, as a Republican, I feel that when my party gives me a dangerous leader who flouts the truth, takes the country into an undeclared war and then adds a war on terrorism to it without debate by the Congress, we have a duty to rid ourselves of those who are taking our country on a perilous ride in the wrong direction.
So far as I know, Cook is still alive (he'd be 84). Wonder what he thinks of the Tea Party.


elrojo said...

i knew marlow fairly well also. he did real well as a post senate lawyer representing big bacca and other major clients. he was a smart guy to start with. he lost republican primary to louis nunn, who used marlow's catholicism to beat him in mostly baptist eastern kentucky, and who went on to beat democrat henry ward for governor -- first republican elected gov in 25 years. i was in contact with marlow after the kerry endorsement and he was doing fine in florida, retired, enjoying a relaxed life.

Buce said...

Yo Rojo! I figured I'd hear from you.