LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WHAS11) – Cheers, jeers and plenty of mud – it’s a recipe for disaster and year after year, it’s what makes the Fancy Farm picnic in rural Graves County a raving success.
“The three things I know about Fancy Farm that are going to happen – somebody's going to stumble and say something stupid – it's going to be really hot – and there's going to be great barbecue. Those are the three things that you can guarantee every year at Fancy Farm picnic,” Mark Hebert said.
Former WHAS11 political editors Mark Hebert and Joe Arnold made the nearly 250-mile trip to Graves County many times during their television careers, covering the political boxing match for a combined 3 decades.
During an interview, they likened the picnic to 'political hazing'.
Kayla Moody said, “How do you even begin to describe Fancy Farm to someone who has never been themselves?"
"It's a political melee I think is the best way to describe it. Imagine getting up in front of hundreds of people while, and half of those people are catcalling, throwing stuff, yelling at you – you know making fun of your mother while you're trying to speak. That is the political speaking at the Fancy Farm picnic,” Hebert responded.
Arnold adds, “There's really no art to it at Fancy Farm. It is just boorish behavior by a lot of people. I mean I hate to say it that way but I was expecting like almost a debating society like you're going to wait for something to say something and then get that great rhetoric – no, it's just like I'm going to yell as loud as I can and ring this bell and drown them out and there's really nothing Fancy – there's nothing artful about that.”
At Fancy Farm, southern hospitality is traded in for refined hostility and served up with a heaping side of barbecue.
Always an added bonus but never truly enough to sweeten the deal, in fact, most politicians will tell you they don't actually enjoy it.
“For most politicians, it's an uncomfortable situation. Because as I said you have folks screaming and yelling at you from the other side and making fun of you and doing everything they can to throw you off your game while you're trying to make a speech,” Hebert said.
You have to have a thick skin to take on Fancy Farm. Even then, it's where campaigns have been launched and tanked.
"Some of the biggest mistakes have been made by people and candidates that go down to Fancy Farm and try to be something they're not. They try to yell over the crowd they try to be too cute. They try to something that they know will be the sound bite that shows up on TV and it backfires! It backfired on Scotty Baesler who was the former mayor of Lexington and sixth district congressman. He went down there in 1998 in his race against Jim Bunning for Senate and Scotty Baesler is this even keeled kind of guy – everybody thought he had a chance to win -- and he gives this rip-roaring rousing speech where he just beats the crap out of Jim Bunning and at the time, we're all watching it saying this is great Scotty Baesler taking on Jim Bunning but the Republicans turned that into a commercial where it looked like Scotty Baesler was a raving lunatic and it backfired on him. It probably cost him the election,” Hebert said.
Arnold added, “The soundtrack was the Ride of the Valkyries (singing) somewhat Nazi-esque if you will in terms of selling the idea.”
And who can forget that flub by Jack Conway in 2009, when he infamously misquoted Wendell Ford, prompting a "no cursing" rule at Fancy Farm.
What Ford actually called himself was "one tough son of a gun".
The mishap backfired on Conway – prompting claims that he wasn't ready for the U.S. Senate seat he was chasing at that time.
"He took the effort or intent to be the soundbite of the day and it became the soundbite of the day – but for all the wrong reasons,” Arnold said.
Perhaps some of the best players at Fancy Farm – Mitch McConnell and Steve Beshear. The two adversaries shared a memorable exchange over the course of 2014 and 2015.
"That was the best exchange back in forth and it was a great reflection both of two guys who hated each other but respected each other," Arnold said.
A tradition more than a hundred years in the making – attracting candidates from Kentucky and across the nation.
The political theater at Fancy Farm – part of the fabric of Kentucky politics.