The Ballad of Ken Bone

On what might have been the most depressing night of the 2016 campaign so far, citizens found their hero—not on the stage, but in the seats.

That's Ken in the red sweater, moments before he became Internet-famous (Reuters / Shannon Stapleton)

His question was simple: “What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job layoffs?”

The reaction to the question, however, was swift and passionate. More specifically: The reaction to the questioner was. Kenneth Bone! Ken, to his friends! Besweatered, bespectacled, instantly beloved! The jokes and appreciations instantly cascaded onto Twitter (“Bone, hugs, and harmony”; “Kenneth Bone is Barb’s father”; “KENNETH BONE IS HERE TO REMIND U IT’S SWEATER WEATHER”). Buzzfeed aggregated the quips into a post titled “27 Really, Really Good Tweets About Debate Hero Ken Bone.” One citizen, Jonathan Mann, wrote a song about him. Another, Courtney Stodden, proclaimed her love for him. (“Every Barbie needs a Ken ... and Ken Bone is mine!”)

Here are some of the explanations that have been offered so far as to why Ken Bone proved himself to be, as CNN put it, Sunday’s “true debate winner”:

  1. His name
  2. The fact that his name lends itself so well to puns of varying levels of lewdness
  3. His red sweater
  4. The fact that he wore that red sweater with a white button-down and a tie
  5. His Midwestern accent
  6. The fact that, post-debate, he took pictures of the moment with a ‘90s-tastic disposable camera​​​​​​

And, sure, all of that. Mostly, though, the public outpouring was likely the result of the fact that Ken Bone represented, on Sunday … everyone. Not just in his official capacity—as one of the voters selected to ask a question of the candidates during the town hall-style debate—but also in an unofficial one: As a buffer. As a reminder of what is at stake in this election. As Mashable put it: “Ken Bone was the light in the dark second presidential debate tunnel.”

You could compare Ken, the elevated Everyman, to Joe the Plumber, the Ohio man who became a celebrity in 2008 when he asked then-candidate Obama a question about tax policy. Or to Tito the Builder. Or even, in a way, to Harry and Louise. Ken, though, is unique. The appeal of Ken, at least per his appearance on Sunday, is specifically that he is non-partisan. He doesn’t give a “human face” to a public policy; he instead gives a human face to a broader set of ideas and ideals that have been tested in this election cycle: Earnestness. Civility. What we will allow, as a citizenry, to be normalized in our political discourse.

Debates, which will always feature performances and pageantry, have long merged the logic of reality TV with the logic of reality itself. But rarely have they been so hateful. Rarely have they been so dirty. On Sunday, Donald Trump casually referred to his opponent as  “the devil.” He threatened to throw her in jail. This was not the stuff of sighing or watch-checking or “where’s the beef?”-ing. It was personal and vitriolic—90 straight minutes of angry, ad hominem (or really, more often, ad feminam) attacks. Wherever you sit on the political spectrum, it was hard—it was profoundly sad—to watch.

And there, in the midst of all the ugliness—“like a Phoenix from America’s ashes”—was Ken Bone. Ken Bone, who had dressed up for the occasion. Ken Bone, who was listening and learning. Ken Bone, who was taking it all seriously. Ken Bone, who just wanted to hear about, you know, the things the candidates vying to become the next president might do to safeguard the future of the planet. And Ken Bone, who—as the Twitterer @zacthezac noted—“looks like the human version of a hug.”

Last night, more than ever, a hug is exactly what the nation needed.