The Almost Perfect Politician
How the age of television gave us Rick Perry. (And why Texas is broke.)
In The Last Hurrah, one of the great classics of American politics, Edwin O’Connor writes a lament for the demise of the great Boston Irish machine politicians. Modeled on Mayor James M. Curley, O’Connor’s main character is an amiable, corrupt, and highly effective ward-heeling rogue, played in the 1958 John Ford movie by Spencer Tracy. Running for re-election, the mayor finds himself playing defense against a telegenic cardboard candidate handpicked by the mayor’s many enemies for how he comes across in the new medium of television. O’Connor’s book is a meditation of sorts on how television—with its insistence on good looks, good hair, and good sound bites—diminished the art of politics.
The astonishing fact that Rick Perry is now the longest-serving governor in Texas history was what brought The Last Hurrah to mind. True, nobody will ever write a novel about Rick Perry. The governor is too clean-cut, too blow-dried, and too unburdened by complexity, and that alone is enough to make Edwin O’Connor seem a prophet. Even so, the governor deserves his due. The man is an almost perfect illustration of the politics of our age.
Consider the speech he gave in Washington in September. In particular, this passage leaped out as if it were printed in red ink: “Just three months ago, we wrapped up our biannual legislative session with a balanced budget, a tax cut for 40,000 small businesses, and a Rainy Day Fund that is projected to grow to $9 billion by 2011. Compare that to California’s $24 billion deficit and a federal deficit approaching $1.6 trillion.”
Nothing in those two sentences is a lie, yet everything about those two sentences is false. It is the artfulness in the selection of words, as carefully arranged as a craftsman’s tools, that caused me to wonder if the governor is too little appreciated for what he is.
Note in the first sentence how “we wrapped up…with a balanced budget.” He doesn’t claim we produced a balanced budget or that we achieved a balanced budget, which in these times would be something for a governor to brag about. No, we wrapped up with one. It sort of ended up that way, as if a balanced budget just mysteriously popped into being.
This circumlocution is beautifully designed to avoid the hard reality that Texas, under Rick Perry’s stewardship, is flat broke.
To be precise, Barack Obama saved Rick Perry’s neck. Without the president’s stimulus package and its quick $12 billion infusion into the state’s coffers, the governor would have had to either make $12 billion in cuts or spend that much-touted Rainy Day Fund and make an additional $3 billion in cuts—just a year before he’s up for re-election.
But the governor is not content with mere elision. Like a master, he dares to do more in the next sentence, where he compares Texas’ supposed fiscal rectitude with the wanton behavior of California and the federal government, which are—horror of horrors!—running deficits. Forget for a moment that Texas, thanks to our forebears, is constitutionally forbidden to run a deficit. It is the fact that our state, without the stimulus, is also operating in the red that makes his contrast so delicious.
Of course, Perry’s adroitness in matters rhetorical should come as no surprise. We all remember that he gained national attention by loudly rejecting $556 million in federal unemployment grants. Four months later, he had his bureaucrats slink back to Washington to ask for a $643 million loan instead.
This is the stuff of which our politics is made today. Larger-than-life politicians like Lyndon Johnson—model for another great political book, The Gay Place—no longer try by bullying and cajoling and judicious bribing to reshape the public will to fit their own. Rather, we live in a world of Rick Perrys, carefully coiffed for television, one finger to the wind to see which way the base is blowing, constantly rewriting the script to bolster the heroic narrative, a fiction as carefully constructed as any novel—if not quite as plausible.
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