Politics
1:47 pm
Fri August 1, 2014

On the Eve of Fancy Farm, Remembering Gatewood Galbraith and an Old Kentucky Oratory Tradition

It’s Fancy Farm, 2011. Gatewood Galbraith, clad in his trademark fedora, takes the stage. 

“Thank you very much folks," he tells the applauding crowd. "Gatewood Galbraith here. First of all, I’m gonna go away from my regular speech for just a second and tell you Gov. Beshear, that was the worst darn speech I ever heard anybody give!”

The audience cheers.

Dubbed by many Kentucky political observers as one of the best stump speakers in recent history, Galbraith’s populist oratory style and steely resolve was a perfect match for the event.

Unlike most Kentucky politicians today—who complain about the lack of civility and the rise in heckling from the audience—Galbraith could take the heat as well as he dished it out.

Related: Can Kentucky's Fancy Farm Picnic Be Tamed?

For example, there was this comment from a past stump speech:

“Hey, dear? If you’re gonna use your outside voice, go over there and join the other children on the playground. We’re trying to get some serious conversation going on, okay? So you go with the other kids over there."

Raised in Nicholas County,(The audio inaccurately reports Galbraith was born in Carlisle County) Galbraith made his career as an attorney in Lexington. When he wasn’t defending clients — many of them facing drug charges — he was running for higher office, putting his trademark fedora in the gubernatorial ring five times.

Since his death in January 2012, Galbraith’s advocacy for the legalization of marijuana is seen by many to be a sign that he was ahead of the times: as many states legalize the plant for medicinal use, and it is now legal for recreational use in Colorado and Washington state.* Some state politicians see it as just a matter of time before medical marijuana is legal in Kentucky—an unthinkable prospect just a year ago.

But his Fancy Farm stump speeches gave Galbraith his greatest visibility.

“Gatewood is what I would consider one of your traditional, old-style stump speakers," said Mark Wilson, political director for the Fancy Farm picnic.

“He was very articulate, he was quick on his feet, he had a lot of good one-liners. Irregardless of what political ideology you were, the crowd always enjoyed listening to Gatewood.”

Wilson says that, in Gatewood’s absence, few politicians have emerged to carry on his traditional style. He mentions Democratic Kentucky House Speaker Greg Stumbo as one potential successor.

“Well, I take it as a compliment," Stumbo said.

Stumbo ran against Gatewood three times over the years, and although their sparring reached fevered pitches on the stage at St. Jerome’s picnic grounds, Stumbo said a mutual respect always existed between them.

“He did it humorously," Stumbo said. "Gatewood and I never had words after whatever we were debating or talking about, we’d always shake hands and laugh about it.

"But he called me Eddie Munster. And I called him Lurch.”

Galbraith’s former running mate, marketing consultant Dea Riley, said Kentucky politics won't won’t see another like him.

“He was truly the last of the great stump speakers," Riley said.

Riley ran for lieutenant governor in 2011 on an independent ticket with Galbraith at the top. She compares him to the late Alben Barkley, the Kentuckian who served as vice president from 1949 to 1953. She said Galbraith’s and Barley shares  a kind of mercurial loquaciousness steeped in Bluegrass tradition.

“People came from long and wide to hear the man speak," Riley said. "You know, that was a tradition in Kentucky, and I think that Gatewood had that tradition. He was raised in that tradition. And you don’t see it as much now.”

This Saturday, when an anticipated 20,000 people will descend onto a patch of well-worn picnic grounds in West Kentucky, no matter what they hear and from who, they’ll owe a debt to Gatewood Galbraith for keeping a unique Kentucky tradition alive.

“I asked somebody the other day, he says 'I'm going to endorse you.' I say, 'Why are you gonna endorse me?' He said, 'cause you never lied to us.' I said, 'Hell, if I was gonna lie to you I'd already been elected governor,'" Galbraith told the 2011 Fancy Farm crowd.

"God bless our military; God bless Kentucky; and God bless America. Give us your vote. Thank you.”

*The audio of this article inaccurately reports the DEA has rescheduled Marijuana.