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McConnell is stepping down from leadership. Here's how he got there


Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell wrote his college thesis on Kentucky Senator Henry Clay and his role in the Compromise of 1850. That compromise was an attempt to avoid open conflict over slavery and broker a peace between free and slave states. That thesis began McConnell's lifelong fascination with Clay, and it kicked off his quest to become the next great senator from Kentucky. This year marks his 38th as a senator from the Bluegrass State. And this week, McConnell reflected on his career as Kentucky senator when he announced he'd be stepping down as the Republican leader in the Senate. Journalist and author Michael Tackett is writing "The Price Of Power," a biography of McConnell. Hi there.

MICHAEL TACKETT: Hi. How are you, Ari?

SHAPIRO: I'm good. You know, it's a provocative title, "The Price Of Power." What price do you think Mitch McConnell paid to become the longest-serving leader in Senate history?

TACKERR: Well, there are several. One, he paid the price of being one of the least popular senators in the country, both among Republicans and Democrats. Two, he paid the price of having to endure the scorn of the former president, Donald Trump. And three, he had to deal now with a very restive and combative right flank in the Senate. So he did pay a heavy price for it. But at the same time, he ended up, you know, as it turns out, got to write his own last chapter by resigning on his own terms or saying that he was going to resign as leader.

SHAPIRO: You've had access to McConnell's archives. You've interviewed him extensively. What's surprised you as you've been reporting this book?

TACKERR: A few things have surprised me. One is the depth to which his parents kept records and the extent to which he has kept records. So for my purposes, it's just a wonderful trove to go over to try to tell more of the complete story. I think that the thing that surprised me is people see McConnell in a sort of monochromatic fashion. They only see him, you know, in the Senate, walking from one place to the other, or more commonly, just standing in the well of the Senate giving a speech. He's a much more complicated person, much more complex person. And believe it or not, Ari, he actually laughs.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

TACKERR: I've seen it. He's got a decent sense of humor.

SHAPIRO: Believe it or not says a lot. Really?

TACKERR: Yeah. And he's also - he's very sentimental, really values a lot of family memories, really values a lot of personal relationships. And yet, you know, it can be a very lonely existence in his job. But the fact that he focused on that job single-mindedly is probably what sets him apart from a lot of other Senate leaders. Most - as you know, most members of the Senate wake up, look in the mirror and see the next president of the United States, and that was never his aspiration.

SHAPIRO: He has really shaped today's Republican Party and also feels out of step with the Trump party of today. In your conversations with him, has he reflected on seeing the GOP move away from the party he was raised in and helped define through so much of the 20th and early 21st century?

TACKERR: Yes. And this is particularly true in terms of the party's worldview. He comes to the Senate during the Reagan era, when the idea of peace through strength, you know, to combat the Soviet Union and to rely on international alliances and international relationships to achieve that, the idea that international trade accords were actually a good idea, not a bad idea for the American economy. All those things have sort of fallen by the wayside in the Trump era as Trump has lurched the party and its people to the right. Interestingly, though, several members of the Senate, who are now some of his sharpest critics, just to name one, J.D. Vance of Ohio, almost certainly wouldn't be in the Senate without the help of the McConnells super PAC, the Senate Leadership Fund, which put tens of millions of dollars into Vance's race.

SHAPIRO: So even as he laments the changes to the Republican Party that he might not approve of, does he feel in any way responsible for those changes? Does he have any regrets?

TACKERR: You know, that's one thing that's been - that's been the harder wall to crack is to get any kind of confessionals. In that sense, maybe at some point before my research is over, we'll hear those. But I haven't heard a lot of them yet.

SHAPIRO: What has he said to you about Trump?

TACKERR: Well...

SHAPIRO: Or are you waiting for the book to publish to make news?

TACKERR: Ari, you've got to spend the $24 like everybody else.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

TACKERR: You know what I mean? He, you know, he's made pretty clear repeatedly that he stands by the remarks he made both after January 6 and on his decision to vote to not impeach him, where he said that the criminal and civil justice systems would still hold him to account. So there's not much doubt that there's no love lost between the two men.

SHAPIRO: Michael Tackett is deputy Washington bureau chief for the Associated Press, and he is the author of the forthcoming book "The Price Of Power: A Biography Of Mitch McConnell." Thanks so much for talking with us about him.

TACKERR: Thank you, Ari. It's been a pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Megan Lim
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.
Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.