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May 13, 2009

Grand old pummeling

How a low-level Republican activist berated and assaulted a LEO reporter

“Wherever you are, be a good one.” —Abraham Lincoln

It sounded harmless enough:

For $200 a plate, 400 of Kentucky’s Republican intelligentsia were to congregate in the Galt House’s Grand Ballroom for the GOP Lincoln Day Dinner, wherein all manner of backslapping, guffawing and four-star dining would occur in the name of their most venerable of political saints.

At a time when the national Republican Party is “lost” in the political wilderness, tonight’s dinner was supposed to be a show of strength, in a way; a chance for Kentucky’s GOP — of late, the party has faired better in elections here than other states — to garner comfort in their numbers, and to share good food, ideas and the occasional liberal joke.

Yet due to a violent turn of events that transcended ideology, basic human decency and the radar scopes of most local journalists, the story you were supposed to read no longer exists; no “he said, she said,” intra-party jousting, no snarky comments about Sen. Jim Bunning’s inability to locate his assigned table. Instead, it’s just a story about your humble correspondent, a low-level GOP foot soldier and a blatant case of physical assault. Harmless enough, indeed.

I had arrived early. The ballroom was virtually empty save the predominately black wait staff, gathered single-file before the center stage, their arms crossed and adorned with white towels, chatting amongst themselves[1]; behind them, a naked podium and Old Glory, the latter hung like a green-screen backdrop, a visual punctuation to the night’s cavalcade of speakers.

All was quiet. Everything was nearly ready.

After checking in I took a seat at one of the two far-flung tables sanctioned for use by the press and struck up a conversation with another reporter whose face was glued to her laptop. She asked me if they had anything to eat outside, where the pre-dinner reception was winding down. I told her no, there were only beverages, but the Melba toast crackers adorning the immaculately white linen tables looked to be fair game.

With half an hour until Kentucky Secretary of State/Lincoln Dinner Master of Ceremonies Trey Grayson’s opening remarks, other media types began filing in. The ballroom was suddenly electric with the noise of people and conversation. Waiters scurried around doing last-minute checks on the table setups, adjusting knives and forks. Local news crews anchored their cameras into place. Bartenders poured $6.50 Wild Turkeys, handing off glasses of chardonnay by the stem. The backslap-guffaw machine was in full effect.

I wandered through this crowd, digital camcorder in hand, trying to get a feel for the ambience of things when a youngish man stopped me.

“What are you filming?”

“Just a little cinema-vérité,” I told him, “for a video I’m putting together.”

The man placed his hand over the camera’s lens and asked me, “Well, instead of doing it like a secret dog, why don’t you just do it like a man?”[2]

I was puzzled: Who was this guy?

“I don’t believe I’ve met you,” I said, ignoring the affront. I extended my free hand for a cordial shake. “I’m with LEO Weekly, and you are …” — glancing at the printed nametag on his lapel — “… J.D. Sparks?”

“I’m nobody,” he said, his hand cupping the lens. “I’m nobody.”

“Well … you’ve got to be somebody …”

Mr. Sparks — a diminutive, bespectacled gentleman who reminded me of an average contestant on “The Apprentice” — continued to harangue me and, after I asked him again with whom was he affiliated, proceeded to grab my arms, squeezing tight, all the while trying (and failing) to grab the camera from my hand in an effort to forcibly remove my reporting-ass — and, presumably, all evidence — from the premises.

“Get your hands off of me!” I shouted. “Will you quit manhandling me?!”

From a distance, we must’ve looked like we were dancing; we had waltzed toward the ballroom’s rear, nearest the press cameras. The guests, standing about the room in various clusters nursing their drinks, were oblivious to the violence as Sparks and I slammed through a pair of double exit doors, his hands still firmly locked around my wrists, my camera still recording. At the climax of the assault the crazed Sparks wrenched my watch — along with a few half-moon shaped slivers of skin — from my forearm, sending the timepiece careening to the carpeted floor.

Shortly thereafter I spotted my assailant, whom had lurked to a safe zone deep within the crowd, talking to a handful of fellow attendees and pointing wildly in my general direction. He must’ve spotted me (I was smiling and waving), because after I made pursuit he had vanished.

I asked these fellow attendees if they knew the man they were speaking with just moments earlier, who he was with, etc. They looked at me in unison, scanning me from head to toe like I was some kind of lower-caste wastrel. Then they simply resumed their conversation. Like I wasn’t even there.

Hotel security made a valiant (albeit fruitless) attempt to locate Sparks, at which point I called the police. A Louisville Metro Police officer responded and informed me that, under Kentucky law, he couldn’t arrest Sparks unless either police or security personnel witnessed the assault. I was less-than-thrilled, thanked him for his time and returned to the ballroom just as state Sen. David Givens uttered the words, “… We celebrate the freedom to gather peacefully …”

Aside from the assault, the dinner was a non-event: The Right’s equivalent of a Left-wing hackey-sack jam, more or less, but held indoors with a dress code and a tangible threat of bloodshed.

All the familiar talking points about pro-life, low taxes and supply-side economics were preached to the well-intentioned choir. Words like “socialism” and “empathy” were received like the punch lines in a ribald knock-knock joke. Sens. Bunning and Mitch McConnell were seated on opposite sides of the cafeteria like jilted middle-schoolers, their animosity cum elephant-in-the-room providing the hook for most accounts of what was another failed opportunity for the Party of Lincoln to forge a new path toward electability.

It’s a story I wish to write some day, this inevitable rebirth of the GOP, but as a journalist it’s difficult to stay in the middle of the road if someone’s pushing you into oncoming traffic.

As Bunning noted during his remarks on the Obama budget, “Abraham Lincoln had a list of 10 ‘cannots’ … words we should all remember when making decisions about our future … You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than your income … [and] you cannot establish security on borrowed money.”

Unfortunately for Bunning, Sparks and Co., Lincoln never said any of those things; a Presbyterian minister in the early 20th century did. But no matter: In lieu of physical assault, what’s the harm in a little white lie?

[1] Out of curiosity I asked them how they voted in last November’s election. They looked at one another, and a few broke into laughter. “Obama,” they said.

[2] Secretive or otherwise, a lack of (1) opposable thumbs and (2) abstract reasoning facilities generally inhibit canines from operating most consumer electronics, FYI.