Not Even a Snowball’s Chance

W&L alumnus Mike Allen '86, left, interviews Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell.

W&L’s Mock Convention got a polite but firm “No, thank you,” on Tuesday from Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, who gave a good reason for turning down the University’s signature political event.

Here’s the story: The senator was the featured interviewee on the “Playbook Breakfast,” during which W&L alumnus Mike Allen, a member of the Class of 1986 and author of “Mike Allen’s Playbook” for Politico, conducts a one-on-one session with a newsmaker. In fact, this was the very first edition of the new “Playbook Breakfast,” and it was held at the W Hotel in D.C. Allen conducts the interview before a live audience, and it is filmed for the Politico website. As it happened, a group of Washington and Lee students was in the audience. So Mike offered them the chance to ask McConnell a question.

And they did: Would McConnell consider an invitation to speak at the 2012 Mock Convention? Harmless enough, right?

Ah, but McConnell clearly knows his history. He replied: “You know, one of my predecessors did that. Alben Barkley. And right in the middle of his speech at your Mock Convention in 1956, he had a heart attack and died. And so the answer, my friend, is no.” And in case that wasn’t clear enough, McConnell added emphatically: “There’s not a snowball’s chance in hell.”

Barkley was, like McConnell, a senator from Kentucky, and the story of his death is a staple of Mock Convention lore. Here’s the official version from the Mock Convention website:

The guest of honor that year (1956) was Senator and former Vice President Alben Barkley of Kentucky. Barkley delivered a rousing keynote speech exhibiting his genuine love for politics and political conventions. In 90 degree heat, he told students he had not intended to go to the real Democratic convention that summer. However, after participating in the W&L event, he had changed his mind, felling “like an old firehorse when he hears the bell.” In his excitement, he accidentally knocked over a microphone. Thinking quickly, he enthusiastically told the audience, “That’s nothing to what’ll happen to the Republicans in November!” Explaining why he had settled for becoming Kentucky’s junior Senator after occupying the second highest job in the land, he said: “I would rather be a servant in the house of the Lord than to sit in the seats of the mighty.” As the crowd roared its approval, Barkley stepped back from the podium and collapsed. Within minutes he was pronounced dead of a heart attack. Only Barkley’s widow could make the student delegates resume their task; “You have unfinished business,” she told convention officials. A week later the convention reconvened, correctly predicting that Adlai Stevenson would once again be the Democratic nominee.

Here is the video from the “Playbook Breakfast” with McConnell. To see his response to the Mock Convention invitation, go to the 38:23 mark.

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4 Responses to “Not Even a Snowball’s Chance”

  1. 1 Frank Parsons January 30, 2011 at 6:30 pm

    The Mock Convention website promptly changed the year of Alben Barkley’s death from 1954 to 1956, but no effort yet to get his last words correct. (It was “house of the Lord,” not “land of the Lord.” John Jennings and I have often had to correct the last words from “seat” (singular) to “seats” (plural).

    But, hey, nobody’s perfect. I should have taken time in my first comment to look up “sociable.”

    There are still about eight of us old geezers still living in Lexington who were present on that memorable day. I have proposed that we get together, stimulate our memories in a discussion under the guidance of an experienced “facilitator” in oral history, get it all on audio and video tape, and prevail upon W&L to establish, once and for all, an “offical” record of that Mock Convention session. There is so much more to be found in an accurate account of that day’s events and circumstances than hardly anyone realizes. (In 1956, I was “Director of Publicity” for W&L, and as such was responsible for meeting the requirements of the “working press” covering the event. I won’t go into the reasons why here, but for nearly a week, the University was under severe criticism from “freedom of the press” groups for having prevented any photographs of Barkley’s collapse, efforts to revive him, or the removal of his body from Doremus [in the latter instance, a student convention official DID physically restrain a TV (16mm film in those days) cameraman.]. However, the next issue of LIFE magazine had a flash photo of the fallen Barkley, taken straight down from the spectator area around the second level running track, just above the speaker’s lectern, by a person, still unknown to me, with a camera and the awareness that LIFE would pay for the use of the photograph. The following weekend, the Newport News, Va., daily paper, the p.m. paper, had a photo display in its weekend edition, all made by its able reporter-photographer who used a Leica camera and “available” light to get a series of photos on the speaker’s platform itself, unnoticed in the general confusion as all there awaited the arrival of the physician who pronounced Barkley dead. There was not a doctor present at the convention and it took Dr. Robert Munger about twenty minutes, as I recall, to get there. No one on the platform, including Barkley’s widow, was capable of deciding whether he was ill, had fainted, had expired, or what. As I suggested earlier, an accurate account of the “VEEP’S” last day will be an amazing thing for consideration by the historian chosen to continue the University’s history in a successor volume to Ollie Crenshaw’s “General Lee’s College.”

    I will soon be 83, and by noon I have difficulty remembering what I had for breakfast, but as the late Pax Davis (one of my journalism professors at W&L) once explained, “These aren’t things you remember, these are things you CAN’T FORGET!”

    Oh, one other thought. In sorting out the events of Barkley’s last day, I hope to involve two well-known newsmen who were my student assistants at that time and who were each “stringing” for a major news medium. They are Phil Labro, at that time in his second year as an exchange student from France, and Lloyd Dobyns, who want on to a distinguished career with NBC and in other areas of journalism. Labro has been contacted and promises to sort out his memories of Senator Barkley’s last day.

    I hope my health holds up long enough to get this project underway, at least. I am about five years older than the others still here who attended the 1956 Mock Convention, thanks to Army service in the Japanese occupation, and again in 1950-51 in Korea, thanks to Kim Il-Sung.

    Frank Parsons, ’54A

  2. 2 Frank Parsons January 26, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    Please, someone, get the W&L MockCon website to remove the “official” version of Barkley’s death until the numerous mistakes in it can be corrected!

    Starting with, for instance, the year it happened. W&L students today seem to be as careless with facts and truth as they are highly intelligent and socialable.

    Frank Parsons, ’54A

    • 3 Maurice Fliess, '66 January 27, 2011 at 10:41 am

      Among other things, the history on the Mock Convention web site lists the winner of presidential elections since 1908, including 1964: “Kennedy.” As today’s students might tweet, OMG.

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