The accidental poetry of Mitch McConnell

U.S. Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is an obstructionist, an enabler of Trumpism and, remarkably, a poet.

During the heated debate over the confirmation of Sen. Jeff Sessions as attorney general earlier this month, McConnell invoked a seldom-used rule to tell Sen. Elizabeth Warren to sit down and shut up.

On the floor of the Senate, the majority leader told another U.S. senator to sit down and shut up.

A man from Kentucky told a woman from Massachusetts to sit down and shut up.

And then, the male-dominated Senate voted to support McConnell’s invocation, silencing Warren and prohibiting her participation in the debate.

Thus was born a rallying cry.

“She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.”

The 11 words, uttered with contempt, were meant to suggest that Warren had brought such disrespectful treatment upon herself. She’d deserved what she had gotten. She’d earned the rebuke in the genteel Senate for her untoward actions.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. Joshua Roberts | Reuters

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky. Joshua Roberts | Reuters

And then the world exploded — or at least 51 percent of it.

Warren read a letter the late Coretta Scott King, wife of Martin Luther King Jr., had written to oppose Sessions when he was nominated for a federal judgeship in 1986.

The letter was a stinging rebuke from a civil rights leader who, through the repurposing of the letter, spoke from the grave to oppose the elevation of a man unsuited to be attorney general.

“Mr. Sessions has used the awesome power of his office to chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens,” King wrote in opposition to then-prosecutor Sessions’ judicial nomination.

McConnell accused Warren of impugning the character of a fellow senator and then denied her the opportunity to further participate in the debate.

In his abuse of the Senate rules, McConnell made a tactical and strategic error. First, he elevated a late-night speech over a nomination that could not be stopped to monumental proportions. Word of his actions traveled around the world, and King’s letter — later read on the same Senate floor by men — received new attention.

Had he allowed Warren to finish, her speech would have been less than a footnote in the fight against President Trump’s cabinet nominee.

Instead, McConnell embarrassed himself, the Senate and his Republican colleagues who voted to silence one of their colleagues.

But far beyond the impact on the debate itself, which created pain for Trump and Sessions but did not jeopardize Sessions’ nomination, McConnell reminded women — all women — of the jerk at work who talks over them, who interrupts, who disregards their ideas, who takes credit for their work.

He reminded the world of the many, many women in history who were warned and who nevertheless persisted. Women like Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman, Edie Windsor and so many others.

“Nevertheless, she persisted.” The words should have come from the lips of a suffragette or a Freedom Rider, from a historian or a poet, from a mother to her daughter. Not as a slur from the mouth of an old, white misogynist.

Last week, my 13-year-old daughter and I were talking about school. If you’ve got teenage kids, you know that getting any useful information can be a challenge. But that night, Addie was talkative.

She told me about a boy with whom she’s often paired for projects. The boy, a smart kid, has earned the reputation of being a leader, a take-charge type.

“Dad,” she told me, “they call me bossy when I act the same way.”

Nevertheless, she persisted.

“He likes to talk about how smart he is and says he’s smarter than I am,” she told me later, in a different conversation. “He wants everyone to know that he’s the smartest. And he tries to put me down.”

Nevertheless, she persisted.

“But I don’t really care what he says,” she concluded. “I’m strong enough to know that I’m smart — smarter than him, anyway — and I don’t need to prove it to him or anyone else.”

She persisted.

It’s just kids, sure. But it is the treatment women endure from the time they’re little girls through the time they serve in the United States Senate.

The day after Trump was inaugurated, millions of people rallied, including an estimated 20,000 in Portland and Augusta alone, as part of the Women’s March. They marched for peace, for health care, for women’s rights, to show their outrage.

They stormed the airports when the president took aim at immigrants and tried to ban Muslims from entering the country.

And on Saturday, they marched once again, this time for Planned Parenthood.

This president — empowered by his acolytes in the U.S. House and Senate — is trying to unwind the world with attacks on minorities, women, immigrants and anyone who is different.

Nevertheless, they will persist.

McConnell, with his wrongheaded sit-down-and-shut-up moment, put words to a movement that will be his undoing and the undoing of his president.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at