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U.S. Sen. John Kennedy, R-La., speaks to media members before a luncheon hosted by the Rotary Club of Greater Ascension at Lamar Dixon Expo Center, Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019.

Whatever happened to simple dignity in politics?

I know, the man in the Oval Office happened. President Donald Trump didn’t get us to where we are alone, but there’s no question that the tone is set from the top. And Trump’s tone relies heavily on juvenile taunts like “Pocahontas” and “pencil-neck,” bending the truth to the point of breaking, and regularly trotting out inciteful rhetoric against immigrants, political adversaries and the free press.

As a country, we’ve apparently learned to live with it, but that doesn’t mean that everyone needs to sink to his level.

Take, for example, U.S. Sen. John Kennedy.

Now, Louisiana voters pretty much know Kennedy’s deal. He’s a smart guy, a lawyer with degrees from prestigious universities and a longtime state treasurer who built his political brand as a colorful, all-purpose critic. He made some good points along the way — such as when he called out former Gov. and fellow Republican Bobby Jindal’s smoke-and-mirrors budgeting — but also took a lot of potshots and often suggested that complicated, entrenched problems could be solved with just a little homespun common sense. By the time he ran for U.S. Senate in 2016, Kennedy had resorted to joking about drinking weed killer and declaring that Obamacare “sucks.”

It’s obvious, but I’m going to say it anyway. To argue that something “sucks” is not to offer an actual criticism, let alone a path toward making the policy in question suck less. The point of saying something like that is to get quoted.

In his two-plus years in Washington, Kennedy’s proven a master at getting quoted. His greatest hits include his line about Lindsay Lohan and the keys to the minibar, his assertion that former CIA director John Brennan is a “butthead,” and this one about a congressional spending bill, which he deemed “a Great Dane-sized whiz down the leg of every taxpayer.”

In this environment, it’s hard to even argue that there’s a line to be crossed, but in my mind, Kennedy recently found one and eagerly jumped it.

It wasn’t his tirade about LSU football coach Ed Orgeron’s appearance at a fundraiser for Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, although that got much more attention. It was Kennedy’s comments in an interview on CNN about a fellow member of Congress, House Ways and Means Chairman Richard Neal, a Massachusetts Democrat who has requested access to Trump’s tax returns under a law allowing the committee to view any citizen’s records.

"I will be very blunt," Kennedy told anchor Jake Tapper on Friday. "Chairman Neal, powerful man, head of Ways and Means. I know he's an adult, but I don't think he's like a real adult."

"He says that he needs Trump's tax returns," Kennedy added. "He says it's policy, not politics. He has said, I think on CNN, that the reason he needs them is that he needs to determine how well the IRS is auditing taxpayers. I can't believe he really thinks the American people are going to fall for that … It must really suck to be that dumb."

There’s that word again.

Now, a little bit of context here: Trump’s tax returns are a point of contention because he’s made them one. Unlike just about every other president, he’s refused to release them, and unlike other presidents, he’s declined to extricate himself from private dealings that could create conflicts of interest, allow him to use the job to enrich himself, and more. This, not the congressional request, is the part that’s not normal.

Trump has cited an alleged never-ending audit as a justification (every president is automatically audited, it turns out), and Neal’s request centers on the audit function. What he’s doing is what Congress does, including when Republicans held the House and Barack Obama was president. Yes, there’s lots of politics at play, but shouldn’t a guy like Kennedy also be a little bit curious about why the president is going to such extreme lengths to keep his financial dealings secret?

Even if he’s not, that’s no excuse for using this type of belittling language about a fellow member of Congress. 

I wasn’t the only one who was struck by it. Tapper, who deals with this sort of stuff on a daily basis, appeared nonplused by the interview and immediately invited Neal to come on his show and respond.

Think about it. If a guy with Kennedy’s chops can’t make a point without resorting to adolescent name-calling, then maybe he’s in the wrong business.

Sadly, the evidence would suggest that, in 2019, he’s probably in the right one.


Follow Stephanie Grace on Twitter, @stephgracela.