Hoosier trades capital for life on the farm
CANAAN, Ind. -- Hay in the barn, cats underfoot, Kevin Kellems is back home.
He is elder of a one-room Presbyterian church. He enjoys chatty lunches in the only restaurant in town.
Kellems oversees restoration of his mother's family farm, hangs discovered photos of ancestors. He devotes care to this history, while also selling another. Even in camouflage and jeans, Kellems cannot be just another lover of sunshine and soil out in the middle of nowhere.
He also settles into a storefront in downtown Madison. There, the farm owner works as president of The Strategy Center. On the job -- and, at 44, he still needs one -- Kellems lets people in on what he otherwise ordinarily does not. He offers experience and contacts very few can rival, to clients in business and in politics. That is, he did not stay as long at The Courier-Journal as he had imagined.
Kellems ended up at the side of Vice President Dick Cheney, of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, of World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz, at the peaks of their political stardom. In the inner circle, Kellems advised then as he does now to clients such as Hirons & Co., an Indianapolis-based public relations firm.
"He knows how to approach issues, he knows how to approach people," said Jim Parham, Hirons' chief operating officer. "He's both thoughtful and very strategic."
Kellems left Washington two years ago, a principled parting from Wolfowitz that made headlines. Besides, Kellems' grandmother had died and the 130-acre farm outside Madison needed stepped-up stewardship.
"It's not big, but it's big enough for me," the single Kellems said. He calls it a tall order, yet an important one, to leave the place better than he found it.
Kellems said he appreciates his rarified resume but would not want to repeat it. He is happy, having fun far from Pennsylvania Avenue. He asked to amend that, though, upon reflection. "It's not that I wouldn't do it over again," he said. "But I wouldn't do it now."
Kellems did it after, as a reporter in the Indiana bureau of this newspaper, being assigned to cover re-election announcements of U.S. Sen. Richard Lugar. Kellems said he was taken by what he considers Lugar's sincerity, as well as his insightful grasp of the world.
"It was one of those turning points in life," said Kellems, who applied for and got a press-related job with Lugar in 1988.
That introduced Kellems to the Republican power elite, and vice versa. Arguably, the only misstep in Kellems' ambition was a run for Congress in 2000. He did not make it out of the primary. Then again, Kellems points out, one path closed left another open. It took him around the globe, into the West Wing, before the pope.
Kellems attributes it to fortunate timing, to hard work, to the recognized need for practical input amid the ideology. Kellems calls it his front-row seat for history.
Along with journalism, history was an early love, Kellems said. He helps local history groups and said he would enjoy teaching history in college. By the way, Kellems relies on history to be respectful of Cheney, one of his former bosses.
Not that Kellems is willing to dish many details -- much less dirt -- from his days in Washington. "He hardly ever will bring it up," said Kyle Lyon, a lifelong friend. Kellems' story of 9/11 grips, though. He escaped a burning Pentagon and then helped steer news coverage of the attack.
Kellems denies any interest in returning to the ballot, though some read otherwise into this return to Indiana. Kellems seems bound to be subject to a range of well-meaning wishes, given his elite background.
"Those experiences will count for something down the road," said Kevin Boehnlein, another friend.
For now, however, Boehnlein likes that Kellems has fled the rat race, that he feels fulfilled around hay and cats and a tiny church. "Sincerely, my hope for Kevin is he gets what he wants out of life," Boehnlein said.
Isn't it interesting for the Courier-Journal to pick now to do an article about the return to Indiana of Kevin Kellems? After all, he's been back in Indiana for almost two years.
The cynic in me says that the answer lies not in the return to Indiana of Kellems but the nature of the article itself. These sorts of puff pieces were done by the Courier on Baron Hill in 2005 and Mike Sodrel in 2007. They're a base media outreach prerequisite of someone pondering a run for office, particularly (in the cases of Hill, Sodrel, and Kellems) when they've run for office before. I seem to recall that they even did one about Mitch Daniels before he ran for Governor.
Kevin Kellems ran for Congress in the 9th District in 2000, and lost in the Republican primary to anti-abortion activist Michael Bailey. Bailey, who is from Harrison County, did not carry his own home county in that race. But he did nevertheless beat Kevin Kellems in what was sort of a shock primary upset.
Now, of course, things are different. Kevin Kellems is back home again in Indiana. With cats, hay, farms, photographs, his consulting work, and his column for Brian Howey (who just recently penned something quoting a source from southern Indiana; imagine that). Such a bucolic and simple life must surely be a far cry from licking the head of the Deputy Secretary of Defense, but I digress.
Nowhere mentioned in the Courier article are the circumstances about Kellems' departure from his globetrotting career. He left Wolfowitz and the World Bank under, shall we say, rather questionable circumstances (an extended treatment of those circumstances is available here). Only two weeks before Kellems left the World Bank, it was hinted that Paul Wolfowitz, the Bank's embattled president at the time, was intending to throw Kellems under the bus to end a scandal.
None of that got mentioned in the Courier article. Not a word. Before that scandal broke, Kellems was also mentioned (by no less than Brian Howey) as a potential candidate for the 9th District race in 2008.
And the puff piece closes out with a quote from Kevin Boehnlein. That's the Kevin Boehnlein that was Mike Sodrel's campaign manager in 2004. I am certain it is just a coincidence and that Kellems (as the article contends) plans no run for higher office, but I'm going to add him to my list of the 9th District candidate field over on the right anyway, just in case.
And, of course, no post about Kevin Kellems would be complete without the infamous YouTube clip of Kellems doing a little licking as a lickspittle for then Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz.