An American Tradition
Barbs, bingo and barbecue kick off election season
For most of us, public speaking comes in the form of a work conference or PTA meeting. Now imagine something like that, but with several thousand people screaming at you so loudly you can’t hear yourself talk.
Welcome to Fancy Farm.
Modern campaign operatives take great pains to put their candidates before friendly audiences where cheers are guaranteed and jeers are non-existent. But nestled deep in the Jackson Purchase region of Kentucky, about as far west in the state as you can go before driving into the Mississippi River, candidates ascend a stage on the first Saturday in August and begin speaking in front of hecklers, chanters and riled-up partisans.
Officially, the event is a church picnic dating back to 1880 and hosted by the St. Jerome Catholic Parish. In Kentucky political parlance, however, it is known simply as Fancy Farm, the name of the town where the commonwealth’s political center of gravity moves for a few days each summer. For politicians, the mission is simple: give their best stump speech in front of a crowd that’s roughly half for them and half against, depending on the year and the kind of race on the ballot (contests for U.S. Senate and governor tend to attract the biggest and most raucous crowds).
Mark Wilson, who has helmed the picnic committee with his wife, Lori, since 2005, thinks of the event as “a carry-over from the good ole days” of Kentucky politics: “Fancy Farm is an anomaly, a one-of-a-kind event in the political world. Political campaigns used to be focused on attending events, pressing the flesh and meeting as many voters as possible.”
The political speaking at St. Jerome—popularized when former Major League Baseball Commissioner A.B. “Happy” Chandler spoke on the grounds in 1931 as part of his campaign for lieutenant governor—unofficially kicks off the general election campaign season in Kentucky. Sure, campaigns have been up and running for months before, but it gets real when a candidate’s name is called by the Fancy Farm emcee.
“I literally could not hear myself speak,” says Jonathan Miller of his 2003 experience speaking as the incumbent candidate for state treasurer, calling it his most intense: “I either gave the best—or worst—speech of my life, depending on your perspective.”
Al Cross, a veteran political reporter and associate professor at the University of Kentucky who is a former event emcee, says candidates shouldn’t let the hecklers rattle them.
“Keep talking … if there’s a good line to use as a riposte to one (of the hecklers), use it,” Cross advises.
The population of Fancy Farm—on any other day—is 458. But the “world’s largest one-day barbecue” attracts around 10,000 visitors who treat it as a homecoming, a chance to see old friends and an opportunity to chow down on some delicious pork or mutton (19,000 pounds of it, to be exact). The speeches take place under a large roof that is open on three sides, with the fourth blocked in by an elevated stage where the dignitaries wait their turn to address the crowd.
Also lurking on the stage—a loud bluegrass band, which strikes up a tune to play off speakers who run over their allotted time.
The sweating dwarves and other theatrics
The speaking pavilion is something of a weird island in a sea of barbecue stands, carnival games, cake walks and bingo. In and around that island, you’ll find campaign volunteers in costume, amateur thespians roped into skits that track with their candidate’s remarks and attack themes.
“It was extremely hot and humid, and I and six other dwarves were sweating profusely. I remember being heckled, but it comes with the job. It beat knocking on doors or putting out yard signs that day,” says Kentucky Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, who, as a College Republican volunteer, dressed as one of seven dwarves in 2003 as part of a gag that added visuals to gubernatorial candidate Ernie Fletcher’s speech mocking his opponent, Ben Chandler.
“A candidate cannot win their race at Fancy Farm, but you can certainly lose,” says Quarles, who has participated in Fancy Farm as a volunteer, a speaker and emcee. “Kentucky has had some great orators over the years, and Fancy Farm brings out the best in them.”
Those who come to hear the speakers tend to arrive early (Wilson expects folks as early as 8 a.m. for an event that begins at 2 p.m.), plopping down portable folding chairs or snagging seats on the provided wooden bleachers. That includes reporters, who must decide what story lines matter most.
“The reporters at Fancy Farm are seated between the stage and the audience, like the judges on American Idol. And it’s a similar dynamic,” says Joe Arnold, a former political reporter for Louisville’s WHAS-TV and the current vice-president of strategic communications for Kentucky Electric Cooperatives. “What lines were written and delivered cleverly? How did the politicians handle the pressure cooker? And, how did they react to each other?”
Bill Goodman, who most Kentuckians remember from his hosting days on Kentucky Educational Television, will serve as this year’s emcee—or, as he calls it, referee.
“Of course, there will be hootin’ and hollerin’. I won’t be able to do a thing about the noise nor would I want to try and derail the enthusiasm,” he says. “I hope to see the tradition of authentic citizen engagement and civil discourse played out on a national stage in a way that makes all Kentuckians proud.”
But why do so many politicians head west to face brutal heat and the even more brutal crowds who can’t wait to heckle them into oblivion? To show respect, says U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who first spoke at the event in 1984.
“If you don’t show up, it really matters,” McConnell says. “The chance of making a significant impression is low, but it still matters to show up. If it is important to the people who put on the event, it ought to be important to people like me who are running statewide.”
It was, he adds, “more fun before they stopped outlawing things,” recalling a 1994 gimmick in which he took a life-size cutout of then-President Bill Clinton on the stage—a practice now banned—and dared Democrats to have their picture made with it. One did—first-term U.S. Rep. Tom Barlow, who lost to Republican Ed Whitfield in November of that year.
McConnell’s operating principle is “do no harm … everything you say is being filmed.” He points to the footage Republicans took of Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Scotty Baesler in 1998 that was later weaponized into attack ads that propelled the late Jim Bunning to a narrow victory.
The 2019 picnic’s main event will feature Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and Democratic challenger and current Attorney General Andy Beshear, who square off in November’s general election.
But no matter which party you support, Father Darrell Venters, St. Jerome’s pastor, says to spend liberally during your picnic visit.
“The funds raised from the picnic help to fund our various ministries throughout the year, which includes in part: youth ministry, mission trips, and assisting people with rent and utilities bills,” he says.