The last time Sen. John Neely Kennedy attracted national attention was when Jimmy Kimmel ridiculed him on his late-night show. The Louisiana Republican, defending the GOP health-care bill from Kimmel’s criticism, had questioned Kimmel’s knowledge of the subject, calling him “a funny guy” but no health-care expert.
Kimmel cued up a video of Kennedy’s comment with demeaning wisecracks: “Some of these characters they drag out of the swamp to defend this,” he said.
“I should not be the guy you go to for information about health care,” he added, “and if these guys — like inbred John Kennedy — would tell the truth for a change, I wouldn’t have to.”
The next time Kennedy drew widespread attention was last week.
Kennedy is the Senate Judiciary Committee Republican who grilled Matthew Peterson, President Trump’s nominee for the U.S. District Court in Washington, by asking him basic questions about legal procedures that he couldn’t answer. Peterson later withdrew his nomination.
Should your memory need refreshing, it went like this:
“As a trial judge, you’re obviously going to have witnesses. Can you tell me what the Daubert standard is,” asked Kennedy, referring to a well-known rule on using expert testimony in federal court.
Petersen: “I don’t have that readily at my disposal …”
And so on.
It was a memorable performance. Kennedy, an otherwise little-known freshman senator, got more than 7 million hits when the video made the rounds on the Internet. Even the showman Trump was impressed. Kennedy said Trump called him afterward and said, “‘Kennedy, I think you’re right.’”
There were at least two lessons in the event.
One, from a freshman senator to veteran senators, is that the best way to make a point is to show, not tell. A little drama, albeit painful for poor Matthew Petersen, can be effective.
Two, was this: Don’t underestimate John Neely Kennedy. Don’t stereotype him, as Kimmel did.
“Here’s the thing you need to know about” him, wrote politics blogger Peter Adrastos Athas. “He sounds like a redneck ignoramus” in his political ads. When campaigning, he “‘hicks it up’ to appeal to the rubes and peckerwoods. He sounds like a graduate of Podunk U when, in fact, he attended Vanderbilt, UVA law school” and Oxford University.
It’s true that Kennedy, 66, could be a character in Mayberry on the “Andy Griffith Show.” His “hicking it up” style appears to come naturally. He went around during his senatorial campaign saying he would rather “eat weed killer” than support Obamacare. Once elected, he said he would rather eat weed killer than vote for tax increases.
And he did grow up in a small city, Zachary, La., 16 miles from Baton Rouge.
But that’s all he’s got in common with Gomer Pyle. He graduated magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from Vanderbilt, was the executive editor of the law review at the University of Virginia Law School and excelled at Oxford. He is an adjunct law professor at the Louisiana State University Law School.
Former Louisiana governor Buddy Roemer, a Harvard graduate for whom Kennedy worked as special counsel, once called him “as smart as anybody I’ve ever worked with,” according to a profile in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. (Kennedy switched from Democrat to Republican in 2007, when he was serving as Louisiana’s elected state treasurer.)
He has said his model as a senator is John McCain, “my kind of guy,” he told the Times-Picayune, a believer in “bedrock conservative change.”
And he appears to have some of the McCain “maverick” in him, to judge by his first years in the Senate.
Indeed, while he proclaims himself a Trump supporter, he is one of the few Republicans who has appeared willing to publicly take on the president. Petersen was the third Trump judicial nominee Kennedy has opposed as unqualified.
In November, he said he would vote “in a heartbeat” against Brett Talley, Trump’s choice for a U.S. District Court seat in Alabama who was rated “not qualified” by the American Bar Association. Kennedy came out in opposition to Talley after reading that he was married to White House counsel Don McGahn’s chief of staff.
“I had no idea his connection,” he said. “And he’s never tried a lawsuit in his natural life. And he’s gonna be on the federal bench? Give me a break,” he said. “A break. It is embarrassing. And I think the president of the United States is getting some very, very bad advice.”
Kennedy also opposed Trump nominee Gregory Katsas for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. Katsas is a deputy White House counsel who has worked on the Russia probe and helped craft some of Trump’s controversial executive orders.
He has conflicts that “a first-year law student could see,” Kennedy said. “He is counsel to the president of the United States. He’s going to walk across the street and sit on the court that is going to hear cases involving the president, and we’re all as Americans supposed to believe that he alone will judge when he has a conflict or not,” as The Washington Post reported.
Kennedy complained that he had raised concerns about the nominees with the White House but got little response.
“It’s like talking to the wind,” he said.
The White House ultimately withdrew Talley’s nomination, along with that of Jeff Mateer, who had once described transgender children as proof of “Satan’s plan,” for a district court vacancy.
While criticizing Kennedy for being late in his opposition to some of Trump’s appointees, Slate’s Mark Joseph Stern conceded that until the Louisianian began speaking out, “no senator had dared to break with the White House on judicial nominees; with luck, Kennedy might free his independent-minded colleagues to vote their consciences.”
Kennedy said Trump was not upset with him when the two spoke. “He said, ‘Look, Kennedy, do your job…. I’ll never criticize you for doing what you think is right.’”
That’s just what Kennedy says he doing — his job.
“Just because you’ve seen ‘My Cousin Vinny’ doesn’t qualify you to be a federal judge,'” he told New Orleans television station WWL.
Correction: An earlier version of this story inaccurately said Kennedy’s opponent in 2016 was Mary Landrieu. It was Foster Campbell, and the story has been corrected.
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