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Tuesday, October 31st at 10pm on WGVU Public Television, FRONTLINE presents "McConnell, the GOP & the Court"

Amid a Republican leadership shakeup in the House, and questions about the future of Mitch McConnell in the Senate, FRONTLINE investigates one of the most powerful Republican leaders in Senate history. McConnell, the GOP and the Court shows the path to power of an unlikely political leader who has dramatically reshaped the Supreme Court and left an indelible mark on American politics. WGVU’s Patrick Center spoke with writer and producer Michael Kirk.

Michael Kirk: Start at the beginning when he's a little boy and take him all the way out to being a man in great peril, not only as a representative of the sort of more moderate Republicans, but also having great physical problems.

Patrick Center: What is his trait that really stands out in your mind?

Michael Kirk: I think you don't ever know where he's coming from on a lot of things. He's quiet. Is he a tough guy? What does he really believe? He plays it all really close to the vest. He's politically been sort of forced into positions that I don't think he really believes, but he's such a deal guy, such a politician. And I don't say that necessarily negatively, although it can certainly be viewed that way. Somebody who believes strongly in some things, but you never really know what they are? When one finally, a decision point surfaces for him where he has to decide where he stands. Sometimes, a few times in his life, you've seen him on that knife's edge of making a decision. And it's from those decisions that, not necessarily how he decides, but that he had to decide reveals a great deal about who Mitch McConnell is. So, you could, for example, say, well, like what? And I would say it would surprise me, and it did dramatically, that he was such a believer and adherent to the civil rights movement in the United States growing up as a little boy in Kentucky and being in that sort of living around the South, being in that sort of Southern mindset on race, I believe. But actually, he interns in Washington in 1963 and 1964 during the great rise of Martin Luther King and the struggle, the civil rights struggle. And he finds himself really a believer in it. By college he's not leading marches but participating in marches. And at school is a campus leader in favor of civil rights giving speeches, writing op-eds. Surprises me that he's a civil rights adherent. And even so much as the first time he has to make a choice, which is between Barry Goldwater, the very conservative Republican who voted against civil rights, he and McConnell chooses Lyndon Baines Johnson. The idea that Mitch McConnell would have voted for Lyndon Baines Johnson is a shock to me and I suppose to many of your... of your listeners, but there it is, a big part of him. But there are many times during the Trump presidency, for example, during Charlottesville, for example, where he has to make a decision about where to stand and to stand up against Trump's apparent racism, and he doesn't do it.

Patrick Center: Why doesn't he do it?

Michael Kirk: Well, he's the politician. He is a politician and he decides, and he likes to take great pride in the fact that he can look forward and do something that will get him what he wants further down the road. So, for example, he never liked Trump. He hated Trump from the beginning, but he made a deal with himself and with the Republican party and with Trump. That if he could, because he's always had his eye on, that is McConnell has always had his eye on, a very conservative, the United States Supreme Court. The court was where he was going to make his legacy from his perspective. And he thought Trump could get him there, could get him, if he got elected, could get him exactly the candidates he wanted, the conservative candidates on the United States Supreme Court. So, he... Even though he didn't like him, even though he didn't trust him, even though he didn't believe a damn thing the guy said, he was with Trump from the very beginning and for that longer goal to get what he wanted. And the same is true on civil rights in Charlottesville. He looked the other way, took a big deep breath. And instead of coming out and really wailing away on Trump, which a few Republicans did, they of course paid the political price for it. Jeff Flake and Bob Corker and others. But there was McConnell in the Trump camp looking the other way on one of the most outrageous moments in terms of civil liberties in modern times, in recent times, and he sticks with Trump on that Charlottesville stuff. And there are a few other instances like that, which just tell you that he's a guy who believes things deeply. But when it comes, when the rubber meets the road and if there's a big political goal to be earned, he'll play the politics rather than the morality of it.

Patrick Center: Is that troubling? When you see someone who is so devoted to the civil rights movement, sees what is happening in Washington, in Charlottesville, working with then President Donald Trump and to do that? What does that tell us about politics today in America?

Michael Kirk: It's another, yet another example, I think, of people who scratch their heads at the idea that here's Donald Trump back again, leading the polls for the Republicans for the nomination for president. And when asked, even after Charlottesville, and even after a number of other things around the civil rights movement, even after the George Floyd stuff. And even after January 6th, some 70% of people who say they're Republican say they support Trump. Do not believe that Biden is the president of the United States. I don't know if that many Republicans believe that part of it. But what it says about our politics is that the division is the white line, the bright line between one perspective on what America is and what democracy means and the other is very, very bright. And McConnell, in order to be a Republican, like so many conservative, but more moderate Republicans, all of them have held their noses and stuck with Trump and that perspective. Why? Because of their politicians. Somebody told us in one of the films we made that the definition of a politician is somebody who wants to get reelected. That's the primary definition. And Mitch McConnell certainly wants to get reelected. And so do almost every other Republican in Washington. If Donald Trump owns the MAGA base and the MAGA base is a substantial number of people, that's where Mitch McConnell will stand. And that's where most politicians will stand. It's frustrating, possibly even a positive sign that Republicans are having so much trouble picking a majority leader, but it's played out right before your eyes. Maybe. Maybe this is the time when Republicans finally step up and finally, I don't mean on a scale of what is right and what is wrong, but just from the perspective of other moderate Republicans and conservative Republicans who don't like Trump or the MAGA base or the Freedom Caucus people or Jim Jordan. Now a different group of Republicans are now stepping up and perhaps pushing back against the Trump perspective. It'd be interesting to see where McConnell is on this, but of course he's laying very low.

Patrick Center: You interview a number of people who are close to Mitch McConnell, going back to his time in politics in Kentucky all the way through his current time in Washington. Have they had conversations with Mitch? Is he concerned about the future of democracy in this country? Does he talk about it?

Michael Kirk: I think he is. It would be hard not to be. I mean, I think even, I mean, they may not agree for the, about the causes, but everybody that I ever talked to in Washington is profoundly concerned about, and I mean everybody, profoundly concerned about the democracy and the health of American democracy. If you sat with Ron DeSantis or any of the Republican candidates for president or any of the Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives or the Senate, and now they would all say and agree that the democracy is in serious peril, they would just have different reasons and different manifestations of what it is. And I think McConnell himself as a student of history, he would have to be concerned about where we are now. We watched him very closely during January 6th and during the Stop the Steal movement where Trump was claiming that the vote had been stolen, that he had won. There was no proof for it. He'd lost in 60 court cases. Absolutely almost silly the case he was making, and McConnell thought so too, but McConnell never stepped up, never said to people as it was starting to really cook all through November, half of December for six weeks, McConnell never said a word out loud like, this is crazy. Even though many people we talked to who were with him privately said he thought Trump was crazy for doing this. And he thought Biden had won by a large margin and that nothing was up for grabs. And he actually looked forward to having Biden as president because he thought if it could, you know, finish Trump, and Biden and he could work on some bipartisan things that needed to be done. He was, I think, looking forward to that because they'd been colleagues in the Senate for decades back in the day when the Senate and being in the Senate and being a Republican or a Democrat didn't mean you hated each other personally, which I think it is like that more and more in Washington. So, McConnell, I think, was just the world was more like the world back during the Obama years when he was the majority leader. He detested personally and politically Trump and the MAGA instincts that Jim Jordan and the more radical Matt Gates and others, the more radical elements in the Republican Congress, but doesn't do very much about it.

Patrick Center: For the full story, tune in Tuesday, October 31st at 10 p.m. on WGVU Public Television for Frontline presenting McConnell, the GOP and the court producer, Michael Kirk. Always a pleasure.

Michael Kirk: Thank you. You're welcome.

Patrick joined WGVU Public Media in December, 2008 after eight years of investigative reporting at Grand Rapids' WOOD-TV8 and three years at WYTV News Channel 33 in Youngstown, Ohio. As News and Public Affairs Director, Patrick manages our daily radio news operation and public interest television programming. An award-winning reporter, Patrick has won multiple Michigan Associated Press Best Reporter/Anchor awards and is a three-time Academy of Television Arts & Sciences EMMY Award winner with 14 nominations.