WASHINGTON — As the junior senator from Louisiana descended an elevator in the U.S. Capitol’s basement on a mid-October afternoon, a swarm of cellphone-clutching reporters surrounded him, ready to pepper John Neely Kennedy with questions.
The president, in the midst of a public feud with Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, had just joined GOP senators for a lunch on Capitol Hill. The press expected fireworks, choice words or, at the least, a bit of awkwardness.
“It was a very positive meeting,” Kennedy said with a smile. “Nobody called anybody an ignorant slut or anything.”
The quip, a reference to a classic "Saturday Night Live" bit, found its way into print and pixel across the news business. Politico, Newsweek, The Hill, The Daily Beast, The Guardian and Vanity Fair all picked up the line.
Kennedy, 66, has spent the past three decades in Louisiana politics, a long run in the public eye that’s made him one of the most recognizable names in public life. His penchant for the colorful turn of phrase is a longstanding trademark.
During his 17-year tenure as state treasurer, Kennedy often used his office as a megaphone before riding his record and a few choice lines to a landslide U.S. Senate victory in 2016.
But about halfway through the past year, a fresh and eager new audience discovered the freshman senator: the national press corps. The scribes who roam the U.S. Capitol, it appears, have taken a shine to Kennedy, finding a veritable quote machine in the man from Madisonville.
The stream of “Kennedyisms” may be a familiar part of his brand back in Louisiana, where the two-time Senate also-ran repeatedly vowed he’d “rather drink weed-killer” than do a growing litany of things and professed his belief in a memorable TV spot that “love is the answer — but you ought to own a handgun just in case.”
When he endorsed former Sen. David Vitter’s Republican run for governor in 2015, Kennedy likened the scandal-marred conservative to “a cross between Socrates and ‘Dirty Harry.’ ” Not long after joining the U.S. Senate, Kennedy repurposed the line to tell Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch that’s just what he’d like in a high court justice.
“Southern political personalities, like sweet corn, travel badly,” wrote the New Yorker’s A.J. Liebling in a classic profile of former Louisiana Gov. Earl K. Long. “They lose flavor with every hundred yards away from the patch.”
But the opposite has apparently been true for Kennedy.
The attention he's getting from the press is perhaps a reflection of the stale monotony of many of the players in national politics. Aside from the president — a former reality television star whose unpredictability has dominated news cycles and transfixed much of the media since the day he declared his candidacy — most Washington politicians aren’t known for packing much spice in the diet they serve up to reporters.
“Is there a more quotable senator right now than @SenJohnKennedy?” tweeted Seung Min Kim, who covers the Senate for Politico, in late November.
“I would buy a coffee table book of John Kennedy's best hallway quotes,” wrote Time magazine’s Nash Jenkins.
“I really want Sen. John Kennedy to do a roast. Don’t care who the subject is,” tweeted Sarah Mimms, an editor for Buzzfeed News, after Kennedy quipped that most Americans must be wondering how lawmakers “made it through the birth canal” as Congress hurtled toward a government shutdown.
Kennedy’s willingness to occasionally break ranks with his colleagues — or be “a free-range chicken that goes out on its own,” to borrow one of his own lines — has focused even more attention on the freshman in a sharply divided Senate where Republicans hold a thin 51-to-49 majority.
He was quick to turn on Tom Price, Trump’s former secretary of Health and Human Services, who was busted by Politico for billing taxpayers for hundreds of thousands of dollars in questionable flights on private jets. He joined South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham as one of just two GOP senators against blocking class-action lawsuits against banks. And if Congress tries to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s reversal of net neutrality internet regulations — something most Republicans back — “I don’t know how I’m going to vote.”
But it’s been his turn on the Senate Judiciary Committee that’s earned Kennedy the most attention, along with bipartisan praise.
Kennedy demolished one Trump judicial nominee, current Federal Elections Commissioner Matthew Petersen, with a grilling on legal terminology that went viral on the internet and exposed Petersen as patently unqualified for the bench. Kennedy remains the only Republican senator to cast a vote against one of President Trump’s judicial nominees. He blasted another as “embarrassing.”
Kennedy, who campaigned for the Senate with Trump’s backing and considers himself a staunch supporter of the president, said “99 percent” of Trump’s judicial picks “have been excellent selections.”
“My job is to do what I think is right," Kennedy said.
He's known for following his own path in politics. A former Democrat who switched parties in 2007, he was one of the first Republicans to turn on Gov. Bobby Jindal for the way Jindal was managing the state's financial affairs. His budget, Kennedy complained, was built on "gimmicks."
It’s catnip to the press, who seek out unpredictable figures and are drawn to iconoclasts and nonconformists, especially in a Washington marked by sharp partisan divisions.
“‘Maverick’ is a good label to have in the Senate — and outspokeness,” said Ross Baker, who teaches political science at Rutgers University and has worked for both Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. “That was John McCain’s stock in trade — he didn’t follow the herd — and I think, perhaps, that’s the kind of brand that Sen. Kennedy is trying to build.”
Timmy Teepell, a political strategist who led Jindal’s campaigns and served as his chief of staff, said Kennedy is “fiercely independent.”
“He’s got a sixth sense when something is amiss, and he hones in on it,” Teepell said. “I’ve seen him do it a number of different times.”
While he's occasionally broken ranks with his Republican colleagues, he’s been a reliable Republican vote on the vast majority of issues.
The Senate confirmed the judge he opposed after West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, a Democrat, voted in favor. The rollback of banking regulations passed over the objections of Kennedy and Graham. And the Republican majority in the House appears unlikely to take on net neutrality anytime soon.
Kennedy contends that his tendency to speak his mind has cut both ways during his career, drawing ire even as the stacks of press clippings grow. His goal, Kennedy said, has always been to find a way to distill a policy or position down to a phrase his constituents can instantly comprehend.
“I think some people think there’s a certain way that a senator ... is supposed to talk,” Kennedy said. “I don’t. I see my role as being able to speak plainly to members of the media and, therefore, my constituents.”
Bob Mann, a longtime former Capitol Hill staffer for Louisiana Sens. Russell Long and John Breaux, said Kennedy "has always been very quotable and had an unusual, folksy way of talking.”
“I think it was wearing a little thin in Louisiana — although he rode that line about drinking weed killer all the way to the U.S. Senate, so it must resonate with voters,” said Mann, who now teaches journalism at LSU and writes a column for the Times-Picayune with a liberal slant.
Mann likened Kennedy to “a poor man’s Sam Irvin,” the plain-talking North Carolina Democrat who rose to national fame leading an investigation into the Watergate scandal and whose claims of being just “a country lawyer” belied a sterling resume that featured a Harvard Law School degree.
The Southern-fried folksiness, Mann said, might occasionally be mistaken for unsophistication. Kennedy himself has suggested on several occasions that Washington insiders have assumed he’s “stupid” because he’s “new and from the South.”
But underestimating the Oxford-educated Kennedy — who studied at Vanderbilt University and holds a law degree from the University of Virginia — would be an oversight, according to Mann.
“No one who knows John thinks he's a dummy,” Mann said.
Kennedy said his first boss in politics, former Gov. Buddy Roemer, schooled him in how to deal with reporters: “You talk to the press, you don’t lie, you shoot ‘em straight and just be yourself.”
Gaggles of reporters tend to congregate in the underground passageways connecting the Senate office buildings with the U.S. Capitol, staking out their prey at key choke points as lawmakers head to and from votes. Hallway interviews are a central piece of covering the Capitol Hill beat. But not all of Kennedy’s colleagues are as keen for the impromptu grillings from the press corps as the pass through.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, usually powers past the press at a quick trot. Vermont’s Bernie Sanders has shooed this particular reporter out of the way with a stack of papers and plowed past over others as he, head down, hustled by. Some lawmakers fake phone calls to avoid the throngs of journalists while others, like GOP Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, take to the great outdoors to avoid the tunnels — and the press — altogether.
Vitter, Kennedy’s predecessor in the seat, largely declined to speak with reporters as he walked around the Capitol.
“In terms of not saying something stupid, that’s probably the right way to do it,” Kennedy said. “I just don’t do it that way.”
Instead the senator — frequently carrying a scuffed and worn suitcase — lingers. From the halls, he’s dispensed a memorable series of aphorisms and one-liners.
GOP Sen. John McCain of Arizona, Kennedy remarked, is “tougher than a boiled owl” while Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is “tougher than a $3 steak.” The United States, the senator has frequently remarked, “was founded by geniuses but is being run by idiots.”
Declaring himself adamantly opposed to one proposal for the GOP’s tax plan, Kennedy popped a wad of gum out of his mouth, tucked it into the pocket of his sport coat and said he’d “rather drink weed killer” than back it. Later, Kennedy told another crowd of journalists to “consider me drunk” if he ended up supporting it.
“I may have to get drunk to vote for this bill,” Kennedy said the next day.
The item he objected to never made it into the final bill.
And as allegations of sexual harassment roiled the film and media industries and took down fellow politicians — including “Saturday Night Live” comic turned Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken — Kennedy declared them “all pigs.”
“I don't know when they have time to make movies in Hollywood,” Kennedy added, “because it looks like they're all busy molesting each other.”
Kennedy’s initial reception from the press on Capitol Hill wasn’t the warmest.
The media largely panned his questioning of fired acting attorney general Sally Yates, which left many pundits scratching their heads.
“Citizens of LA, you need a senator who does not evoke derisive laughter,” tweeted Washington Post conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin, while comedian Wanda Sykes mocked him as “so flabbergasted, at one point it looked like he turned into Colonel Sanders.”
Kennedy’s jokes sometiems misfire. His Democratic opponent in the Senate campaign, Public Service Commissioner Foster Campbell, criticized Kennedy’s “weed killer” lines at a debate as making light of suicide — to which Kennedy retorted that he’d “rather drink weed killer” than respond to the critique, a line that fell flat.
The family of actress Lindsay Lohan, meanwhile, took offense to Kennedy using the former child-star’s alcoholism as a political punchline during a hearing and threatened to sue, though they never followed through.
The attention lavished on Kennedy has raised his national profile immensely, landing him the kind of attention — regular appearances on cable news and prominent quotations in major papers — not often bestowed on lowly newcomers to the seniority driven institution. Several political observers who’ve long known Kennedy said that’s the result of a calculated move by the senator to cut his own profile in the press.
“I don't think there's anything un-calculated about John Kennedy,” said Mann. “He knows exactly what he's doing. If he decided to strike this pose, it isn't on accident.”
But Kennedy insisted those who see a grand strategy behind his every move are overestimating him.
“I’ve got a lot of enemies in politics, particularly at the state level. They just made one mistake — they let me live and I’ve learned how to survive,” Kennedy said.
And firing from the hip, the senator insisted, is what’s made a career in politics fun.
"I wouldn’t do this if I didn’t enjoy it," Kennedy said. "I mean, you have good days and bad days but you never have a boring day and it’s not fun if you don’t do it in a way you feel comfortable."