Kentucky's political prominence is alive and well

Lincoln, clay top list of kentucky's political giants

September 22, 2012 

Despite its modest size and a location that's remote from the centers of power, Kentucky has exercised considerable political influence since nearly the beginning of the republic.

Much of our early prominence stemmed from Lexingtonian Henry Clay, arguably the most influential politician of the early 19th century. Though he'd famously "rather be right than be president" — and proved it by losing several presidential bids — Clay occupied many other important national offices, from speaker of the House to secretary of state.

Most significantly, "The Great Compromiser's" scrupulous and diligent statesmanship helped delay civil war for several decades. Clay's greatest triumph, however, may have been in inspiring into public service the very rail-splitter who led us through that bloody conflict.

While Abraham Lincoln spent his formative years in Illinois, his iconic log cabin birthplace is in Hodgenville; he married into a prominent Lexington family; and as president, he clearly recognized the strategic value of his home state: "I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky," he said.

Today, a bronze likeness of Kentucky's greatest native stands in repose in our Capitol rotunda, facing his hero, Clay, with his back toward his nemesis, Western Kentucky native and Confederate President Jefferson Davis.

The remaining politician honored in the rotunda, Paducah's Alben Barkley, served as Harry Truman's vice president. But there's considerable momentum toward adding modern history's most famous Kentuckian: Muhammad Ali, who was named at birth after Henry Clay's cousin Cassius. Ali earned his fame in a different kind of ring, but few politicos were more influential or outspoken on the divisive issues of Vietnam and civil rights than the "Louisville Lip."

We love to mix our politics and sports here, elevating handfuls of University of Kentucky athletes into elected office, and cheering A.B. "Happy" Chandler, a former governor and senator, when he was selected as baseball's second commissioner. Chandler's most strident political enemy never served in public office, but Paris native Ed Prichard's Shakespearean-like political journey — from FDR wunderkind to federally convicted ballot stuffer to top gubernatorial advisor — culminated in the launch of the Prichard Committee, a non-profit that helped usher in the commonwealth's nationally celebrated education reform.

Indeed, the story of Kentucky's late 20th century was filled with colorful political characters, including national celebrities in the governor's mansion — KFC magnate John Y. Brown, Jr. and his Miss America wife, Phyllis George. Other politicians of note are the first woman governor south of the Mason-Dixon line, Martha Layne Collins; and quiet giants in Congress, such as U.S. Sens. Wendell Ford and John Sherman Cooper and House Appropriations Committee titans William Natcher and Hal Rogers.

The 21st century began with a political bang in the form of Danville's Centre College hosting the 2000 vice-presidential debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman, an event so successful that the small campus will be the site of this year's VP debate between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan.

As Kentucky's senators (Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Tea Party favorite Rand Paul) dominate the talk show circuit, we can rest assured that Kentucky's national political prominence will continue well into the future.

Jonathan Miller blogs at

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