Kentucky Cured by legendary Kentucky journalist Al Smith is the book his followers, fans and friends wanted.
It’s a compilation of narratives and opinions, mostly about the influential Kentuckians who provided direction for the state over the past 75 years. Some of Smith’s observations were written especially for this book. Others first were published in the Lexington Herald-Leader and The Courier-Journal.
Wordsmith, Smith’s autobiography released in 2011, described his whiskey-sotted arrival in Russellville, Ky., in 1957, after he’d lost his reporting job at a New Orleans newspaper. Smith eventually would own the Russellville paper and several others and become the host of KET’s long-running public affairs program, Comment on Kentucky.
Wordsmith included a riveting account of Smith’s struggles with the bottle and his recovery from alcoholism. But the gloves rarely came off when he wrote about the powerful and rich-and-famous with whom he rubbed shoulders over the past half-century.
Kentucky Cured corrects that, and is proof, at 85, that Smith can still bite when he turns a phrase.
“In a state like Kentucky,” Smith writes, “leadership often falls to political hacks or fresh faces with painless promises, which fail.”
Smith’s activism surfaces when he blisters Kentucky lawmakers who “remain mired in the ignorance and bigotry of our sorry past.”
The author clearly misses the deal-making political progressives who ran the state, often from smoky backrooms, until a few decades ago. He praises their accomplishments but also provides critical evaluations of their complicated lives and careers.
Smith observes that former governor and senator A.B. “Happy” Chandler was “the leading cheerleader of his own fan club.” Another former governor and senator, Earle C. Clements, is described as “cold and unforgiving.” Education reformer and Roosevelt “whiz kid” Edward F. Prichard was “overly infatuated with his own biting wit, and not careful about debt.” Grandsons of the powerful are “chips off the giant oaks.”
Smith’s essays clearly reflect his belief Washington should help people do what they can’t do for themselves. Journalists who appeared on his Comment program have debated whether Smith is a Roosevelt “New Dealer” or a Johnson “Great Society Democrat.” Kentucky Cured provides support for both sides, and his book again reveals his appreciation for the powerful who struggle to help the powerless.
Smith tackles more than politics. His topics range from black history in Louisiana to the heroes of World War II. He’s at his best when writing about those who never sought the spotlight but “switch on the stage lights for great performances.”
Smith’s respect for Russellville and Logan County runs throughout his work — not surprising, since it’s where “the cure” started. He needs only three pages in chapter one to get to his political mentor, Logan County political boss Emerson “Doc” Beauchamp.
The book would have benefitted from more aggressive editing. The reprinted columns occasionally repeat information. The revered Southeastern Conference becomes South Eastern. The years for Martha Layne Collins’ term as governor are wrong. Happy Chandler’s title during his baseball years is never exactly right, and there are a few others. But they’re minor and don’t get in the way of the book’s goal; recognizing people who did the right thing.
I’ve written before that Al Smith has informed, cajoled, agitated and entertained us. He does that again in Kentucky Cured. That’s why this is the book his fans wanted.
Ferrell Wellman, a former reporter for WAVE-TV in Louisville, is the host of KET’s Comment on Kentucky, founded by Al Smith.