Ken Bone is a coal power plant operator in an Illinois town near St. Louis, Missouri. After asking a question at the second presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Bone and his signature red sweater went viral on social media. Bone, who has yet to disclose who he voted for in 2016, has used his sudden fame to advocate on behalf of political unity.
Harvard Political Review: How did you get access to the second debate?
Ken Bone: The Commission on Presidential Debates uses the Gallup polling organization to select the participants for the town hall, so the Gallup poll calls people who live in the area where the debate is taking place. This time, it was in the St. Louis area at Washington University. They call a random sampling of the population; there is no pre-registration or anything like that. I just happened to be one of the people who got called, and I answered.
When they called, they started with an opinion poll. They ask whom you are going to vote for. I told them, and that is the last person I ever told whom I was going to vote for. They asked how likely you are to change your mind on a scale from zero to ten, and I said two: pretty unlikely, but possible because more news comes out all the time. They said, after a few more questions, that they had classified me as an undecided voter, were looking for people to come to the debate at Washington University, and would like to invite me to come and participate. I told them I would. That was eight days before the debate.
HPR: They classified you as an undecided voter, even though you were a two on the scale?
KB: Yes, they said that this election was so polarizing that a huge number of respondents answered with zeroes: no way, no matter what happens, I’m not changing my mind.
HPR: Our president referred to your question in the debate on energy policy as “such a great question” at the moment. Do you feel that the question itself got the attention it warranted, or were the answers tabled in favor of the attention that was directed toward your personality and appearance?
KB: When you ask a politician a question, especially when they do not know what you are going to ask them, the response that you get is whatever canned answer they have filed away in their brain. That is why both candidates’ responses had so much to do with the steel industry and the outsourcing of jobs to foreign countries. You cannot really outsource jobs in the electric utility industry to other countries, because you cannot transmit power across the ocean. It’s not like you can put it on a boat. Neither of their answers was really that on point. They both had some good concepts but not a lot of substance there.
As far as now that President Trump is in office, he says that he is going to ease environmental regulations to help build coal jobs back up again. I work in the coal industry, and I can tell you that while regulations do make it a little more difficult to do business, they are necessary to protect the environment. Taking them away is not going to build coal jobs back up. The majority of jobs in the coal mining industry that have been lost over the last 20 years has been lost to automation, not to regulation. Those jobs are not coming back.
It is important that we protect the environment over the next couple of decades while we transition to all-renewable energy. Based on all the research I have done and my experience working in the business for almost seven years now, I think we could be majority-renewable in 20 years and 100 percent in 30 years. That is if we start investing in the infrastructure now, which is starting to look unlikely.
HPR: What were your sentiments about getting all that attention in the direct aftermath of the debate, and how have they changed or remained the same since then?
KB: I have been busy ever since the debate. I started getting calls and emails and requests for interviews before I even turned my phone back on. I had dozens of requests. I spent two solid weeks after the debate doing pretty much nothing but doing interviews and making appearances. It was a lot of fun. It has not really changed my life that much. I still have my career and my family that I love very much. I do get a lot of opportunities that I did not used to. I will be traveling to Washington to be at CPAC—the Conservative Political Action Conference—at the end of the month, and then when the Democratic equivalent happens, I will be at that as well.
That will be with one of the companies I work with. I have partnered with a company that is developing some campaign management software, trying to cut into the market of nation builders, as Republicans refer to it. We will be one of the few campaign software companies that actually is nonpartisan and will work with either party. I have a small spokesman’s part to play in that. But like I said, I still have my regular career at the power plant, and that is my main focus.
HPR: What is the most interesting or bizarre experience you have had since being cast into the spotlight?
KB: I have gotten to travel all over the country. I have been to Los Angeles for the world premiere of Dr. Strange. That was fun. That was just because Disney thought it would be fun to have the celebrity of the month come out. I was in Las Vegas for the third debate to be on Jimmy Kimmel Live! and cover that. I have been on television or on the radio or in a newspaper in 34 different countries now. I have my first interview with a paper in the Netherlands that will come out in a week, so that is pretty wild. I never thought I would be doing anything like that. Apparently, I have a lot of followers overseas who cannot get enough of me. If you live in another country and all you see of America is 16 and Pregnant or politicians sniping each other and saying awful things, it is kind of nice to be able to see just a regular middle American who is willing to make fun of himself and have a good time.
HPR: Your question was very substantive, but none of the discussion afterward ever mentioned that. Do you feel like you got the short end of the stick there?
KB: I thought it was odd, honestly, that over the course of three debates, the only time a question was asked that related to environmental protection or climate change came from a guy working at a coal power plant. I thought there was a strange irony about that, especially given that it was the same year that the Flint, Michigan water crisis was such a big news item and we never really heard anything about environmental protection.
HPR: What are your thoughts about President Trump’s statements that he will cut the EPA and a lot of energy sector agencies and policies?
KB: I do not see any benefit to cutting environmental regulations at all. It will cut through a little red tape and maybe make it a little easier for some companies to do business, but it will make it a lot easier for people who do not care about the environment to harm it for money. At my plant, we care a lot about the environment. I would not work there if I did not think we did. Being allowed to emit five percent more SO2 or what-have-you is not going to help much financially in the slightest, but it could be devastating to the environment if every plant was allowed to do that. It is a low benefit to a few companies and a potential huge loss to the country as a whole.
Rather than trying to be competitive in manufacturing by cutting regulations, we should be competitive in environmental protection and find ways to do carbon capture. Developing countries like India do not really have access to as much renewable energy. I know they are making a big renewable-energy push, but their infrastructure cannot support it for the entire nation. They need fossil power plants, but we do not want to build more fossil power plants without environmental protection. If America were the leader in environmental protection like we should be and were coming up with viable utility-scale carbon-capture methods, that could be the 21st-century industry that pushes us back to the forefront of the economy.
HPR: Was your decision to not disclose whom you voted for affected by the publicity you’ve gotten?
KB: Most of my friends and family knew who I was planning on voting for, because it is just something that you talk about, but once I became a public figure, I did not think it was fair to use my influence to advocate for either candidate, because I got recognized sort of at random. There are enough people out there telling you who to vote for. I trust the average voter to make up their own mind; I do not have such a low opinion of the average American as a lot of people seem to. After the election, it had been so long since I initially got noticed that if I ever announced whom I voted for, it would just seem like a shameless attention grab, like me just trying to thrust myself back into the spotlight.
HPR: Do you feel that your life has overall changed for the better as a result of your fame?
KB: Overall, I think it is better. I am passionate about helping the homeless, and through donations from followers, fans, and sponsors, we have raised over $50,000 for our local homeless initiative. I feel great about that. That is a lasting impact if nothing else.
I got a lot of young people interested in the process. I have had hundreds, if not thousands, of messages from people telling me they registered to vote because I asked. Between Senator Bernie Sanders doing a thousand times as much as me, my little part, and people like me, I am hoping that the next generation will become more interested in the political process and that we will not have to wait until that generation is in its 40s and 50s before it is a political block that can actually effect change. I am hoping for the younger generation to be politically effective in the next election. We will not have to wait.
On a more personal level, I do not have a car payment anymore, so that is awesome.
HPR: With respect to the Reddit incident, do you feel that people’s responses to that were justified?
KB: The response from the average thinking, feeling human being was totally justified. They thought, “This was a nice guy, and he said this weird stuff.” But then they read about it and realized, “That’s not actually that weird.” They looked at what I had to say and listened to me when I explained what I had said. To the people who do not agree with me and I offended, I am sorry. The only person I feel like I owe an apology to is Jennifer Lawrence. If I ever met her personally, I would apologize. The reason that everybody knows about the Jennifer Lawrence thing is because I made a comment on Reddit saying that I should not have looked at those pictures. Then, I made a stupid joke at the end of that comment, and that is what everyone wants to show on the screen. But they did not read the sentence before that, where I said that I was sorry about it and that I should not have.
The Trayvon Martin thing? It is dangerous to have a political opinion if you ever get famous. A couple of people were arguing about the Trayvon Martin case, and I was right in the middle ground. George Zimmerman is a terrible human being, and he shot a kid, and I wish he had not, but it was not illegal. It was a legally justified shooting. That was the only point I was trying to make. He got acquitted because he did not technically break the law. The word “justified” got plastered all over the New York Post, which called me an awful person. But I did not say it was right. Morally, it was wrong. Legally, it was allowed. If you want to stick to the stand-your-ground doctrine, go ahead, but it was not illegal at the time.
The only people I felt like didn’t handle that situation well was the New York Post or Gizmodo. The New York Post used to be a real source of news. Now they are bottom-feeders. They might as well be the National Enquirer. My 13-year-old son has to see a headline that says, “Ken Bone is an Awful Person,” and because they reprinted an article from Gizmodo using selective pieces from quotes on the Internet, uninformed people who only read headlines now think I am some sort of pervert or monster.
The only thing that the media and Internet culture love more than building up someone is tearing them down. They love to find a random person to latch onto and talk about how they are the greatest person in the world and then later destroy them: like Thomas Edison. Nowadays, the only thing you hear about Thomas Edison is that he was a monster. Maybe that is true, but he did some good things. Or Mother Teresa. We have to hear about how Mother Teresa was basically a monster. Well, she also fed a lot of poor people and took care of lepers. These are human beings who have good and bad about them, but we build them up and then we destroy them.
I have a feeling that the next victim is probably going to be Elon Musk. That is whom I am laying my money on. Elon Musk is a great guy who has done a lot for renewable energy, and for a couple years now, people have basically worshipped at the altar of Elon Musk. But now that he is part of the Trump advisory team—which Mr. Musk is doing with the best of intentions, since he wants to help moderate a potentially crazy administration—some parts of the Internet are going to jump on him and say that he is a Trump crony.
HPR: How often do you wear the red sweater, and do you ever get recognized in public while wearing it?
KB: I never wear it just because I want to wear it. I only wear it when somebody asks me to come out and make an appearance or be in a video or something with them and they want me to wear it. I wear it for sponsors; I wear it for charity events. Basically, if somebody wants me to come out to an event, I will wear it for them, but other than that, it is kind of retired, because it does make it hard to go out in public and also fosters the image of me as some kind of cartoon character who wears the same clothes every day.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Image Source: Flickr/Gage Skidmore