By RONNIE ELLIS
Glasgow Daily Times
As word spread of Gatewood Galbraith’s passing, the same phrase was heard repeatedly: “Gatewood was a colorful character.”
But that fails to measure the man. For all his eccentricities and colorful, humorous descriptions of Kentucky’s perennial problems, they were usually on target. Some dismissed him as only colorful, but Gatewood was an extremely intelligent man who spoke truth to power. That requires courage.
“Whether you agreed with Gatewood or didn’t agree with him, I think we always admired the courage with which he stated his views,” said Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo.
They said he was a perennial candidate, but Gatewood was different from other candidates who run repeatedly to stoke their egos or create a spectacle. Gatewood, as he was universally known, was serious even if not always taken seriously. Voters associated him with his early advocacy of decriminalizing marijuana, but he was genuinely passionate about civil liberties, personal privacy, education and the environment. He frequently offered thoughtful, unconventional responses to seemingly intractable problems.
But even those who failed to appreciate the substance of his ideas like state vouchers for postsecondary education, including a wide variety of vocational training, or the sincerity of his positions on personal liberties or mountaintop removal, loved his humor and wit.
“If I was going to lie to you, I’d already be governor,” Gatewood often told audiences. “I’m a perennial candidate because Kentucky has perennial problems. If the people who’ve beaten me had solved our problems, I wouldn’t still be running.”
Who will argue with his logic?
It’s true Gatewood was simply uninterested in many areas of state government and consequently he didn’t think much about them and wouldn’t have been prepared to deal with them had he somehow been elected. But he knew he was never going to be governor. He ran to make us think about what we’ve been doing – rather badly – and to show us the emperor really wasn’t wearing clothes. He ran and campaigned to influence public policy, aware he would never lead it. But most of all he ran to speak truth to power, to force us against our will to look at our failures and the failures of our leaders.
Ferrell Wellman, a Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame reporter who taught journalism at Eastern Kentucky University before becoming host of “Comment on Kentucky,” said Galbraith displayed the courage to take on controversial subjects and powerful interests when others wouldn’t, including mountaintop removal before audiences sympathetic to coal or an incumbent governor seated nearby.
“That kind of voice is going to be missed,” Wellman said. “He was a valuable contributor in his own way.”
It was the only way he had. He didn’t throw up his hands and say it was futile. He didn’t surrender idealism to realism or accept the corruption of Machiavellian politics. Yes, he was a colorful character but more importantly he had the character to speak his convictions. As time passed, more and more recognized Gatewood was in some ways a serious candidate with serious ideas. Over the years, several told me they were “tempted” to vote for him because he made more sense than his opponents. Unfortunately, too few of them shared Gatewood’s willingness to act out of conviction rather than act “sensibly.”
“Thirty years ago, they said: Gatewood, you’re 30 years ahead of your time,” the impish Gatewood told one audience. “Well ... here we are.”
Sadly, Gatewood Galbraith’s time has passed. He had a real good time and so did we. Farewell Gatewood. You’ll be missed.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.