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Mitch, I Sadly Knew Ye

Not so fast there, my friend. No, this blog is not about politics, but about human values, common decency, and naivete.

Early in my career as Director of Congressional Affairs at the National Archives I had the opportunity to give Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and his wife, Elaine Chao (who would go on to be a member of two presidential cabinets), a tour of the National Archives. As the former Acting Archivist of the United States, Frank Burke used to say, there are two types of visitors to the Archives. One is familiar with the original Plymouth Compact, and the other thinks that it was just a small car manufactured by Chrysler. The former category is way more fun to show around the building and Mitch and Elaine were securely in that camp. They knew their American History and were thrilled to see the Charters of American Freedom.

As I chatted with the Senator that day he told me that he was a collector of rare documents himself and had a number of valued deeds of manumission, some associated with his family inheritance and some not. These were legal documentation that a slave had been freed and were carried by the freedman or freedwoman for identification in daily life, employment, and travel. Given the amount of handling they received, they are typically in a tattered state and require delicate restoration and conservation.

Senator McConnell, after visiting our conservation lab, asked me whether it would be possible for our staff to take a look at his documents and give him some advice on their preservation. He was neither Majority nor Minority Leader of the Senate at that point, but after two terms was already a powerful member. I knew that the appropriate answer to this request, while unusual, was yes. I arranged the receipt of the collection from the Senator and facilitated two meetings with our conservators in the months that followed.

After that, Mitch McConnell would always recognize me when I walked past him on the Hill and usually had something pleasant to say. He was always supportive of the Archives and on at least one occasion helped me with a jurisdictional issue when he was in leadership.

Move the clock forward eight years. I had retired from the National Archives and become the Government Relations and Public Affairs Director at the Legal Services Corporation (LSC), largest provider of legal aid funding for low-income Americans. It was the Tea Party era and in 2010 the Republican Party had engineered a 65 seat pickup in the House. They had fallen short in the Senate by a slim margin and Senator Mitch McConnell was the Minority Leader.

With this new political reality, we were not just in a battle for stable funding, but for our very existence. Our progressive agenda had been under attack for decades and two facts loomed large on our resume. Hillary Clinton had been a former chairman of our board and we were a favorite target of Ronald Reagan.

When Reagan was Governor of California, LSC-funded programs had made his life a living hell. Charges of fair housing violations at both the state and federal levels were levied by legal aid attorneys against California with a hall-of-fame-worthy batting average of success. Reagan hated us and as President came after LSC with a vengeance.

In the final years of my tenure, Barack Obama was President and gave us all of the support possible at the Executive branch level. He had appointed a strong Chairman who had in turn hired an exceptional President. It was the Congress that loomed as a barrier to our funding and a renewed danger to our survival.

My team and I had slogged to the Hill with the gospel for dozens and dozens of meetings, but when you are meeting with people who don't think that government is the answer to anything, meetings tend to be short.

While a true Energizer Bunny and creative logistician, our new Chairman had a blind spot when it came to federal lobbying. To sum up his theory, it you got to the person in charge and provided him a logical argument, success would be yours. It is what I call the Marquis of Queensberry approach. Assume that when the fight starts, everyone in the bar accepts the rules.

In politics the rule is there are no rules.

My Chairman was in a constant state of disappointment that we couldn't get in the door with conservative leadership to hawk our liberal message. Through a Kentucky board member we finally arranged a face to face with Minority Leader McConnell and I crafted the prep for the meeting. Voting history, advantages to Kentucky, cost saving arguments, equal justice, etc. etc. And while not in writing, I told our President and Chairman that we had a 1 in 100 chance of this being worth our time.

And there was this...

Mitch McConnell worships Ronald Reagan. In his farewell to leadership speech on the Senate Floor this week, he invoked the name of the former President a dozen times. He even admitted to arranging his wedding to fall on February 6, Reagan's birthday. (Yes, you're right, that's weird). Reagan hated LSC. McConnell loves Reagan. McConnell hates LSC.

We were escorted into the Leader's office and directed to seats at his long mahogany conference table. After a suitable interval (accidental or intentional intimidation), Mitch swept into the room wearing two aides like cufflinks. We stood up to prepare for handshakes. None. He simply sat down silently as did Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.


We had decided that our Bluegrass board member would lead off and he did so with a brief introduction of each of us and a short reminder of our mission. The Chairman then said the words that he had been waiting to impart to important people for some months as Mitch sat expressionless at the end of the table.

As his pitch for more funding wound down, he sadly conflicted the background part of my prep memo with the talking points and said, "You know Senator there have been bills put forward to actually abolish the Legal Services Corporation."

McConnell, recognizing a lob over the net, smashed it back with just eight words.

"I know, I voted for that both times."

After a few more pleasantries, McConnell stood up to indicate the meeting was over and gave us the courtesy of a brief hand shake as we headed out the door. When our eyes met, he smiled and gave me a nod.

What have you done for me lately?


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