ST. LOUIS • The red sweater that is helping make Ken Bone an internet sensation is a little snug around his midsection and certainly not his first choice to wear for a national television debut.
Little did Bone know, that sweater — and his overall look, apparently — would soon make him a trending topic on social media. And it almost didn’t get airtime at Sunday’s debate at Washington University.
Bone, one of 40 undecided voters selected to ask the presidential candidates questions, had picked out an olive suit. But he’s gained a few pounds and, sure enough, he ripped the seat of his suit pants as he climbed into his car in his driveway.
His wife, Heather, ran inside to grab a backup — the red sweater and khakis.
“It was the next nicest thing I had ready to go,” Bone says. “This was all in a pinch. My wife is the best person I know. She helped me out once again.”
Bone, 34, of Shiloh, sat in the front row of questioners at the debate. His bright attire was a happy contrast to the drab suits and button-down crowd. Near the end of the 90-minute debate, a moderator called on Bone to ask his question. He asked about energy policy.
Bone, who works as a plant operator at a coal plant near Sparta, Ill., had the microphone for all of 14 seconds. He smiled slightly and read from a sheet of paper:
“What steps will your energy policy take to meet our energy needs while at the same time remaining environmentally friendly and minimizing job loss for fossil power plant workers?”
Almost immediately, the Twitter feeding frenzy began.
People liked his sweater. They liked his mustache. Some of the chatter was making fun of him. Some called him a hero and said he added a nice touch to an otherwise slimy affair. He spawned hashtags — #KenBone, #KennethBone, #KenBoneFacts. Parody accounts popped up, like @BoneForPres and @KenBoneStache. There’s even a GoFundMe site set up to buy Bone a new suit.
Bone, of course, was initially oblivious to his newfound star status. After the debate, he wandered around the stage. He shook hands with Bill Clinton and they briefly chatted.
“We talked a little bit about coal energy and its history,” Bone says of the former president. “He couldn’t have been nicer. He knew when coal jobs peaked in this country.”
Bone then used a disposable camera supplied by the debate staff to snap a photo of the TV equipment.
Per the rules of the Secret Service, he had to leave all electronic equipment behind. So his cellphone was stored in his car in the parking garage. When he got back there and turned on his phone, he got a big surprise.
“I had 247 Facebook friend requests, which I thought was unusual,” he said. “Then, as I’m driving home, friends are reading me things they see” on social media. By Monday morning, he was a top trending topic in St. Louis, with tens of thousands of tweets mentioning him and more flowing in by the minute.
“It was a strange sensation for an average Midwest guy.”
Suddenly, the red sweater was the talk of the Internet. Bone told the Post-Dispatch he got the sweater as a gift from his paternal grandmother, then later he asked his wife (“the authority” on such issues) and she reminded him that they bought it in Wisconsin two years ago for him to wear at his nephew’s baptism.
Bone was back on the Washington University campus on Monday morning, making the rounds for television interviews. He appeared on Jimmy Kimmel’s show Monday night.
What does he make of his 15 minutes of fame?
“I think it’s been a really fun experience,” he said. “It’s a chance for me to get out the simple message that your voice can be heard.”
Bone knew a week ago that he had been tapped to be among the 40 undecided voters who might ask a question. He has been responding to the Gallup pollsters for a couple of years now, and the last time he responded he was asked if he had decided who he would vote for in the presidential race. He said no, and they asked if he was affiliated with a particular party. Again, he said no.
He showed up at the debate with two questions. His second one, which went unused, was about student debt.
Bone said he is pretty happy with the responses he got on energy: “I would’ve liked to hear more from Clinton about protecting jobs, and more from Trump about environmental responsibility.”
Bone said he still is undecided. He was leaning more toward Donald Trump before the debate, but now thinks Hillary Clinton was impressive with her composure. He’ll watch the third debate to help him decide.
"It’s a tough political cycle,” he said. “There’s a lot to not like about both of them."
Before Sunday night, Bone didn’t know much about Twitter. He had seven followers. Two of them were accounts of the same person: his grandmother, Linda Bone of Granite City. By Monday morning, he had more than 25,000 followers who found him among the parody and fan accounts.
He glossed over the negative comments and is relishing in the good stuff. The best thing he’s heard so far is from his 12-year-old son, who says Bone is “the best kind of famous: internet famous.”
CNN interviewed Bone on Monday. The caption along the bottom of the screen read: “Ken Bone wins over debate viewers’ hearts.”
Bone is taking it all in stride: “That will carry on for about 10 more hours.”
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been corrected to reflect where Ken Bone acquired his red sweater. Bone said he realized he had misspoken in a morning interview about where he got his now-famous garment after talking to his wife, who he calls "the authority on these matters."
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