U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell (R-Louisville) touched on the unpopularity of the Iraq War and challenges of being Minority Leader in the United States Senate during his keynote address at the Leadership Tri-County Leader of the Year Banquet at the Corbin Center for Technology and Community Activities Monday evening.
About 350 attended the event and listened as McConnell was given the William Hacker, M.C. Leader of the Year Award for 2007 – an award established to honor the person designated by the group as the most influential leader in the area.
McConnell called leadership, as a concept, an “endlessly fascinating topic” and said his role as Republican Minority Leader in the Senate provides “unique challenges.”
“My leadership challenge is to keep a group of at least 41 Republicans together for one of two things – to shape legislation in a way that’s more favorable to the minority, or if its really awful,, to kill it altogether.”
McConnell was unanimously elected Republican Leader in Nov. 2006 and is the first party leader from Kentucky in over half a century. He served as Majority Whip in the 108th and 109th Congresses and as Chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee during the 1998 and 2000 election cycles.
He was first elected to the Senate in 1984 and was the only Republican that year to defeat a Democratic incumbent in a statewide race. He worked for former Kentucky Senator John Sherman Cooper as an intern before serving as chief legislative assistant to Senator Marlow Cook and deputy assistant attorney under President Gerald Ford.
Before elected to the Senate, he was County-Judge Executive in Jefferson County from 1978 until 1985.
His wife, Elaine Chao, is the current Secretary of Labor.
McConnell pointed to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as tough leadership challenges for President George W. Bush and other legislators who continue to support the war because of declining public opinion.
“I don’t have to tell you that the reason you are looking at the Minority Leader in the Senate instead of the Majority Leader in the Senate is the Iraq War,” he said. “Dissatisfaction with the war, in one way or another, is what took the President’s approval ratings down, which directly transferred to losses in the election for my party.”
Public opinion can’t be ignored, McConnell said, but it can’t always be used as a guidepost dictating what decisions are made in Washington. He told the story of how, while serving under Cooper, he asked the Senator about his somewhat controversial decision, at the time, to support the Civil Rights Act in 1964.
“He said, ‘what I hope is that people that oppose this today will conclude later maybe they were wrong and maybe I was right,'” McConnell said. “He didn’t say this, but put another way, what he was saying was ‘I’m not going to wet my finger, put it in the wind and see which way the wind is blowing today in order to make a decision … I never forgot that lesson.”
Defending sending U.S. soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan, McConnell said there have been no attacks on the country since 9/11.
“The next time you are thinking gosh I’m frustrated with Iraq, I wish it could get better, remember first we haven’t been attacked here at home since 9/11 and I assure you ladies and gentlemen that is no accident,” he said. “A lot of people that would do us harm … are no longer alive or they are incarcerated in Guantanamo. We have disabled many of the forces that have the ability and will to hit us here at home.”
Ronald Reagan, as a two term President, tackled many issues that were unpopular to the vast majority of the country, McConnell said. He pointed to Reagan as an example of a good leader, winning landslide elections for both of his terms.
With “instant messaging” and email and other means of instant communication and gratification, McConnell said being a leader today is harder than ever and cautioned giving in to the public sentiment at the moment can put leaders “in a constant swirl, going around and around and around.”
Leadership Tri-County Chairman Ed McGrath presented McConnell with the award at the end of the speech. He said the Senator was selected by the group for his effectiveness in securing legislation and funds to expand the Daniel Boone National Forest and eradicate cultivation of marijuana there, brokering a nationwide tobacco buyout, water line expansions and support for preschool programs.
Dr. William Hacker, Jim Oaks and Tom Handy founded leadership Tri-County in 1987. McGrath said the three saw a need for a local leadership organization after attending a Leadership Kentucky conference in 1985.
The organization has over 350 alumni. Every year, it sponsors a leadership educational program that spans from September to June. Anyone that lives or works in the tri-county area is eligible.
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