During the two months I was decamped from Austin to Mount Carmel watching the federal government and a religious clown destroy several sets of belief systems and dozens of lives, a British tabloid reporter had asked me, “What is it about you Texans?”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“There’s always epic, bombastic things happening in this state.”
“Yeah, great place to be a reporter,” I told him.
“We have a saying, you know, on Fleet Street in London, about Texas.”
“Yes, of course. There are only two things you can count on in journalism: death and Texas.”
I didn’t think about that as Governor Rick Perry was unsheathing his mighty rhetorical sword to slice through his scary straw men while entering the courthouse for booking. But when he went to a popular ice cream stand, one of the few not yet turned into a condo high-rise, I was numbed anew by how much politics and government in Texas have become nothing more than entertainment.
Yeah, I know, it has been ever thus. I’ve been writing here for decades about political operatives that bug their own offices and governor’s whose oil wells blow out in the Gulf of Mexico and call it, “Much ado about nothing.” And I covered the trials and indictments of the attorney general and the house speaker and a U.S. senator. And I was on the Texas senate floor when a chicken processor handed out ten thousand dollar checks to officeholders because they wanted the money and there was nothing illegal about his generosity under our lobby laws, historically written by lobbyists and handed to elected types to pass as legislation, which, I should add, is the standard process for lawmaking in Texas.
Your creeping cynicism would kill you if you couldn’t laugh. Perry’s ice cream cone was the punch line for his booking day. “Meh, I’m facing a hundred years in jail but I need me a custard. Y’all come on by.”
We could, in Texas, concentrate on issues like our crowded schools and shrinking educational budgets, the annual lawsuit against our public education system because it is never funded, or the fact that we put out more tons of pollutants into the air every year than any other state, maybe consider coming up with the money for mass transportation and roads, stop saying we are a pay-as-you-go state while we crank up bonded indebtedness to billions that our children will be making payments on, and we might even think of a way to create political pressure to get the governor to expand Medicaid so the federal government can insure a million and a half Texans. Nah, not likely.
We could, I suppose, but did you hear, he got indicted and went for an ice cream cone? Let’s get the cameras over there. So, in the tradition of Texas political theater, let’s give Perry some credit for knowing that his audience likes a fighter, a man who isn’t afraid of being booked and charged and relaxing with a sweet treat. He understands Texans prefer a story more than they do an actual government that accomplishes things. Or at least that’s what we’ve grown to expect, and, ultimately, accept. Of course, that could be simply because we’ve never really had an efficient government.
And our Texas stories are great, even in the age of the Internet and social media. Perry’s saga can easily compete with a cat riding a Roomba and wearing a shark suit or the cat that rescued the little boy from the attacking dog or any post that ends with, “You won’t believe what happened next.” Texans will. Hell, we’ve seen it all before. Bet you never heard about the slave ranch in Kerrville, did you? Or the state rep who got busted with hookers and then had his PR guy take him around to meet all the capitol reporters with his embarrassed wife in tow? Perry knows he’s got a high bar to cross with his performance.
The governor’s decision to argue that his indictments are an attack on freedom of speech and his constitutional authority remind me of a state rep from more than thirty years ago who also wanted an enemy to fight. Mike Martin arranged to have a cousin shoot at him in his recreational vehicle to generate sympathy so he might be able to launch a run for the state senate. He was charged with perjury after he claimed the shooting was the result of a satanic cult he had been investigating. First, though, lawmen chased him home to East Texas and found him hiding in a stereo cabinet.
Kind of ruined his political career. But kept Texans entertained.
The governor is now bravely slaying armies of Democrats he is convinced want to destroy the Texas constitution, but he will, as he says, “Prevail!!!” But against what? Republicans, two judges and one prosecutor, led the investigation. Perry has avoided talking about that and concentrates on those ephemeral Ds slinking through the courthouse laughing under their breath and dancing in the rotunda or around tables at the Star Bar in Austin. He’s also making it his purpose to destroy the limping reputation of Rosemary Lehmberg, the D.A. he tried to force out of office after her DUI arrest.
It will be hard to sell himself as a hero if all you conquer is a wounded DA not running for reelection and Democrats who had nothing to do with his indictment. His current performance, though, is meant for new constituencies in Iowa and New Hampshire. He wants them to see a tough guy, presidential timber, unafraid of the evil monkey living in his closet. It’s not a bad show he’s putting on, either. It’s just too bad he doesn’t get to write the closing scene. That script responsibility belongs to the prosecutor and a jury. Of course, the appeals courts are loaded with Republican appointees so we can’t expect a binding conviction, if one comes. We’ll just get more entertainment.
We can always count on death and Texas.