WASHINGTON — It was a classic quip from Louisiana's quotable junior senator.
“I don’t mean any disrespect, but it must suck to be that dumb,” U.S. Sen. John Kennedy said in reference to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi while President Donald Trump beamed at his side during a rally earlier this month in Monroe.
Videos of it circulated online, Kennedy's name was at the top of social media trends for hours, and it spawned dozens of headlines, especially in conservative media.
Folksy, blunt and brash — it had all the makings of the types of zingers that have earned Kennedy national attention, despite being a first-termer in the often-stuffy upper chamber of Congress.
But like many Kennedyisms, it wasn’t the first time he uttered the line, and he had altered it significantly from a few weeks earlier.
Appearing on Neil Cavuto’s Fox News show Oct. 19, he said, “I know that Speaker Pelosi is a smart lady. She is not dumb. But if this were anybody else, I would be thinking to myself, ‘It must suck to be that dumb.’”
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That also wasn’t the first time he used a variant of the phrase — or even the first person he had used it to describe.
"It must really suck to be that dumb," Kennedy said during an interview with CNN anchor Jake Tapper in April, referring to U.S. House Ways & Means Chair Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat who requested Trump's tax returns from the IRS.
Since making his way to Washington, D.C., in 2017 after two unsuccessful Senate runs and nearly two decades as state treasurer, Kennedy, 68, finds himself described by national media outlets as “the most quotable” and “the folksiest” senator — thanks largely to the witticisms he dispenses as breezily in committee hearings as he does on live television.
Maybe you’ve heard the one about “weedkiller”?
Kennedy, who fended off 22 other candidates in the 2016 race, said he would “rather drink weedkiller” than support Obamacare. He’d also “rather drink weedkiller” than join the “insider club” that he says rules Washington. And as state treasurer, he described Louisiana lawmakers who would “rather drink weedkiller” than go along with a plan to sell off the state’s tobacco settlement.
Maybe you’ve heard his philosophy on the economy and the middle class?
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He’s said some variation of “We’ve got too many undeserving people at the top getting bailouts, and we’ve got too many undeserving people at the bottom getting handouts. And we in the middle get stuck with the bill” many times, including in campaign ads, on the U.S. Senate floor and in a question-and-answer interview with The New York Times shortly after taking office.
Another apparent favorite line is that people who should be ashamed of themselves should hide — or hang — their "head in a bag." He's directed that zinger at former FBI Director James Comey and others at the bureau; at the people responsible for leaking information about Brett Kavanaugh accuser Christine Blasey Ford; and even at himself, saying he would feel obligated to do so if Congress didn't act on tax reform.
And Kennedy, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that vets federal judge appointees, has repeatedly said he thinks that Supreme Court justices should be “a cross between Dirty Harry and Socrates” — a line he also used to describe David Vitter during Vitter’s unsuccessful gubernatorial bid in 2015.
Kennedy often attributes the development of this repartee to reading a lot.
“Sometimes I’ll jot a clever turn of phrase down. Sometimes I’ll just remember it. I try to speak in a way that people can understand,” he told Politico.
“I try to speak plainly so that my constituents who don’t follow the nuances of government like I do, because they’re too busy earning a real living, can understand the issues before me,” he told Fox News.
Kennedy's office said Wednesday the senator wouldn't comment further on his rhetoric.
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Shawn Parry-Giles, a University of Maryland professor who specializes in political communications and rhetoric, said Kennedy's shtick is part of a long tradition, especially among politicians from the South and rural areas who hold unfavorable views of the Washington, D.C., establishment.
“There’s a concept of 'Don’t forget where you came from,'” she said. “Don’t become arrogant, as if you are too good for the people you grew up with.”
Especially in the case of the Pelosi remark, Parry-Giles said, the tone Kennedy has taken insulates him from some criticism.
“There’s a humorous component that provides some cover for more problematic comments,” she said. “It’s offensive according to many people, but he can come back and say ‘I was just making a joke.’”
Parry-Giles said she was already very familiar with Kennedy and his style before being asked about it.
“He’s certainly entertaining and you know he’s going to say something that attracts attention," she said.
Others see Kennedy's routine through a less-favorable lens. American Bridge 21st Century, a liberal political action committee, released a digital ad last fall calling Kennedy "senator sound bite," insinuating he was a politician who was all quotes and no action, as he mulled entering the Louisiana governor's race.
Kennedy, who grew up in Zachary, studied political science, philosophy and economics at Vanderbilt University and graduated magna cum laude. He earned law degrees from the University of Virginia and Oxford University in England.
Bob Mann, an LSU communications professor and former Democratic political operative under Gov. Kathleen Blanco and U.S. Sens. Russell Long, John Breaux and Bennett Johnston, has known Kennedy professionally for more than a decade and said he’s often struck by how Kennedy’s style has changed over time.
Kennedy was an active Democrat until jumping to the GOP in 2007. His political career began in the administration of then-Democratic Gov. Buddy Roemer. Kennedy was first elected treasurer as a Democrat in 1999 and ran for U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 2004.
“I just don’t remember his speeches being so folksy or cornpone,” Mann said. “It’s like cotton candy — there’s not much substance there."
Other contemporaries have told him they are similarly bewildered by the evolution, Mann said.
“It’s just a different person in so many ways than the Kennedy that I and many others knew," he said.
Kennedy will be 72 years old when his first term ends in 2023. In a body where chairmanships are closely-guarded prizes and members can spend decades moving up the seniority ranks, it could be difficult for Kennedy to navigate the normal channels of gaining clout.
“His power is going to be in his notoriety and his ability to command an audience in the press,” Mann said.
Mann turned to a well-worn adage — one not unlike the sayings that have made the senator popular — to theorize Kennedy’s strategy.
“It’s like the saying, ‘There are workhorses and there are show horses,’” Mann said. “With no seniority and little prospect of gaining it, maybe he’s decided being a show horse is the way to go.”