Republican Sen. John Neely Kennedy seems to have a saying — or three — for just about anything, including the Senate floor debate this week on immigration.
“Now’s the time: It’s saddle up and ride,” he told reporters Tuesday.
“Let everyone stand up and be counted before God and country,” he told another set of reporters.
“It’s time,” he also said, “to put up or shut up.”
The Louisiana lawyer has been in the Senate a little more than a year, but he’s already become one of the most sought-after interviews in Washington, in part because he spews out witty one-liners, as he might say “faster than green grass goes through a goose.”
Take, for instance, the way he called Arizona’s Republican Sen. John McCain “tough as a boiled owl” or how he explained last fall, in his thick Southern drawl, that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was backing a health care bill “like a cat on a fat rat.”
Skeptical of the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, which estimates the costs of various bills, Kennedy remarked last fall that it makes “those late-night psychic hotlines that you see advertised reputable.”
And don’t forget how he summed up the controversial memo written by Rep. Devin Nunes, a fellow Republican: “If you’re completely confused, you understand it perfectly.”
In a world of wonky jargon and arcane procedural rules, Kennedy — and his colorful way with words — stands out on Capitol Hill.
The junior senator from Louisiana went relatively unnoticed during his first few months in Washington, but his profile has steadily risen as he’s become a reliable fixture for memorable hallway interviews and TV appearances. He also became a viral sensation in December after a brutally simplistic grilling of one of President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees.
Kennedy says he considers it his responsibility to make it easier for constituents to navigate the tricky political landscape of Washington.
“I just think you ought to talk straight with your people. It’s none of this, ‘Let me say this about that.’ Just say it, for God’s sakes,” he told CNN in an interview, sporting a bright green tie speckled with tiny crawfish. “I think the American people, with some justification, think that most politicians live in la-la land.”
‘Old school’ Louisiana populism
His folksy demeanor is unmistakable, but below the surface is a former state treasurer and longtime lawyer who reads The Economist cover to cover each week and earned degrees from elite schools like Vanderbilt, the University of Virginia and Oxford University.
“He’s an interesting guy, isn’t he?” said Republican Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama. “He’s witty, but if you think about what he’s saying, it makes sense a lot of the time.”
Kennedy believes part of his rhetorical style was honed while trying to keep students’ attention when he was an adjunct professor at Louisiana State University’s law school for 15 years. “Just to make sure they’re not all looking at pornography, I’d just try to keep livening up the lecture.”
Perhaps his most animated speech comes when he’s lamenting the gridlock and fierce partisanship in Washington. “That’s why the aliens won’t talk to us,” Kennedy said recently. “They look at all of this stuff, and they go, ‘These people … they’re 13-year-olds.’ “
Kennedy, unlike some members too afraid of ruffling feathers, has commented freely on a range of issues and offered clear-eyed analysis of his own party’s reckonings. Amid the GOP’s infighting over tax reform, Kennedy offered a food analogy.
“It’s like taking a big ol’ piece of cheesecake and putting a bunch of spinach on top and saying you can’t eat the cheesecake till you eat the spinach,” he said once, describing disputes that leaders had to resolve last fall before passing a final bill.
He’s even called out his colleagues in a decidedly anatomical way. Senators need to “grow some oranges and … make some hard decisions,” he said in September, talking about fiscal issues. Too many of them “have been dictionary definition of weenies,” he added.
Shortly after Trump allegedly described certain nations as “shithole countries” amid immigration negotiations earlier this year, Kennedy argued Americans were growing irritated by scandal-clad distractions that threaten legislative efforts. “They didn’t know that ‘The Jerry Springer Show’ was in syndication,” he said. “We need to get this thing back headed in the right direction.”
He was also critical of his party’s agenda last year as some Republicans were still trying to tackle a health care bill in September while others had moved on to an overhaul of the US tax system. He said they’re running around “like a bunch of free range chickens” and need to focus on one major issue at a time.
Paul Baier, a law professor at LSU who has observed Kennedy’s career for nearly two decades, said the senator’s style is derived from “the old school of Louisiana politicians” who took a populist approach in their rhetoric. “He’s interested in talking on the plane of the common man, and that’s a tradition in Louisiana’s political world,” he said.
When it looked unclear at one point last fall that Republicans had enough votes to pass their tax bill, Kennedy said the public’s patience was growing thin: “I think the American people will look at all of us and say, ‘I can’t believe you people didn’t pass this bill. How did you make it out of the birth canal? A pox on all your houses.'”
This kind of rhetorical style allows him to vent about fellow legislators in a way that is attention-getting but non-offensive, according to Allison Burkette, an associate professor at the University of Mississippi and expert on sociolinguistics.
“In other words, he can be critical without looking like a jerk,” she said. “And he can make statements that are then repeated by others because of their ‘charm.’ “
Republican Sen. Bill Cassidy, the senior senator from Louisiana, said Kennedy is effective in getting people to mention his point over and over. “It’s unique, isn’t it?” Cassidy said, when asked about Kennedy’s style — though he was reluctant to describe it as a Louisiana-specific trait.
“People in Louisiana enjoy and appreciate the humor,” he said. “To try and put a label upon everybody in Louisiana is impossible because it really is a colorful state. So might he occasionally quote something that he heard from somebody else? Absolutely. But is there still sort of a unique accentuation that he plays to? That’s, I think, his own particular talent.”
‘Be yourself, unless you suck’
While Kennedy’s expressions have built up his reputation on Capitol Hill, it was his questioning of district court judge nominee Matthew Petersen in December that truly put him on the map beyond the Beltway. Kennedy zeroed in on Petersen’s lack of relevant experience and hit him with a series of basic questions about the law. Petersen failed the quiz, and video of the moment spread rapidly across the internet.
Petersen withdrew his nomination less than a week later.
Kennedy was also on the national stage when he tangled with late-night TV host Jimmy Kimmel last fall. After Kennedy knocked Kimmel for criticizing efforts to repeal and replace the health care law, Kimmel, who also sparred with Cassidy, responded by calling Kennedy “lady,” “inbred” and a “character” who Republicans “drag out of the swamp” to defend repeal and replace legislation.
Kennedy, a former Democrat, is frequently mentioned as a potential contender for governor. While he embraces an outsider persona, he’s been involved with politics since the late 1980s, when he held key positions in Louisiana Gov. Buddy Roemer’s administration.
He ran an unsuccessful campaign for the Senate in 2004 as a Democrat, and again, as a Republican, in 2008. In the meantime, he served as state treasurer for five terms, from 2000 to 2017, along with teaching law school and volunteering as a substitute teacher in public schools.
Kennedy said he mostly gets his expressions from reading and he makes an effort to remember the clever sayings he comes across. But most of the time, he said, they just pop out. “I know that is probably a sad testament to the way my mind works,” he said. “But it is what it is.”
His favorite saying of late, however, comes from a country music song by Roy Clark. “Thank God and greyhounds it’s over, you know?” Kennedy said in several interviews after the three-day government shutdown last month.
Kennedy has been a reliable vote for Republicans so far in the Senate, but he has sometimes left leaders waiting on his decisions until the last minute. When Republicans were trying to reauthorize a crucial federal surveillance program last month, Kennedy was a holdout until the very end on a key procedural vote, creating drama on the Senate floor. Leaders scrambled to lobby him to support reauthorization, which he ultimately did.
Still, the moment suggested that Kennedy could be a wild card on future votes.
“As an old friend of mine once told me, ‘Just be yourself, unless you suck,’ ” Kennedy said. “And none of us think we suck, so you’re just better off being yourself, and you know, that’s the way I’ve always been, frankly.”