Hooray for Kinky Friedman

It's not whether he wins or loses--it's how he derails the game

Pity the aging Gen Xer. Like a geriatric hippie desperately seeking signs that the '60s are returning, I'm condemned to celebrate anything that smacks of a '90s revival. In that spirit, I offer three cheers for Kinky Friedman and his campaign to be governor of Texas. The singer/novelist/comedian is unclassifiable politically, he appeals to both urban ironists and back-country militia types, he tells dirty jokes without worrying about the FCC, and he plays alt-country music. He even has Jesse Ventura campaigning for him. He's a walking, belching flashback to that happier, simpler decade, a time before America lost its innocence to Janet Jackson or Osama bin Laden, I can't remember which.

Politically, Brother Kinky comes from that eccentric populist territory that cuts across not just the traditional left/right divide but the libertarian/statist spectrum as well. He's for gay marriage, school prayer, alternative energy, border control, lower taxes, lower spending, and higher teacher salaries. There's a bunch of issues that he doesn't seem to have any opinion on at all, and half the opinions he does express don't sound like you're supposed to take them literally. He likes to wind people up, and right now he's winding up his home state's earnest political establishment. It's great fun to watch.

As I write, he's probably preparing for tonight's debate with fellow candidates Chris Bell, Carole Keeton Strayhorn, and Gov. Rick Perry. (Then again, he might just be planning to wing it.) He's doing moderately well in the polls—well enough, at any rate, that his rivals have started to do opposition research on him. Friedman's drug use and dirty talk are already part of the public record, so to find something fresh the smearbund had tried to paint him as a racist, zeroing in on a reference to the "crackheads and thugs" among Houston's Katrina refugees. The problem is that he didn't say that blacks are all crackheads and thugs, nor that crackheads and thugs are all blacks. Indeed, he didn't say anything about blacks at all—it was his critics who dragged race into it. Who exactly is the bigot here?

That approach proving unpersuasive, the Kinkyphobes dusted off some older quotes. The alleged smoking gun is something he said in a stand-up routine in 1980:

Then I come down to Houston, I went to a bowling alley. I couldn't go bowling, there were no bowling balls. The people here throw 'em all in the sea—they thought they were nigger eggs.

Now, it doesn't take sophisticated reading comprehension skills to understand that racists are the target, not the audience, of that joke. It isn't hard to imagine Richard Pryor telling the exact same story. But it set the press aflutter, and it might have cost Friedman a few votes in Austin. In Houston too, if they got the joke.

The more credible criticism of Friedman is that he doesn't know a thing about public policy and doesn't have anything to offer but wisecracks. I concede the point. If you're backing the lead singer of a band called the Texas Jewboys because you expect him to fix the state, then yes, you're setting yourself up for a disappointment—and not just because Texas' odd system gives more power to the lieutenant governor than to the nominal chief exec.

This is always a problem when the populist resentments that fuel such quirky campaigns actually put someone in office. Consider the Lone Star pol who most resembles Friedman: the western-swing bandleader Pappy O'Daniel, governor from 1939 to 1941, whose term in office was so erratic that some of the state's most prominent businessmen helped him land a seat in the Senate just to get him out of Texas. Better yet, consider my all-time favorite politician in the entire world, Hilario C. Moncado, Cebu Island's representative in the Philippine Constitutional Convention of 1934. According to a presentation at the 1995 conference of the Association of Asian Studies, Moncado

boasted—among his qualifications for drafting a constitution for this new nation—a low golf handicap, the power to heal the sick, and an ability to fly. To restrain the potential embarrassment of his messianic outbursts, the elite politicians in charge appointed Moncado as the Convention's "Official Time Keeper" and seated him beside a large clock whose black sweep hands against a white face seemed the very symbol of modernity, precision, and power. Taking his office seriously, Moncado attended every session in utter silence until a speaker exceeded his time and then, invested with the power of his office, cut the miscreant off mid sentence, no matter how prominent or powerful. Whatever contribution Moncado may have made to the Constitution's punctuality, the burden of office restrained him from making any input into the social or ethical concerns of the impoverished Cebuano constituents who worshipped him as prophet and elected him to express their hopes for social justice.

As governor, Friedman won't be silent, but beyond the jokes he probably won't do much more than mark time.

But so what? Friedman isn't going to solve Texas' problems, but neither is any other politician. The whole premise of his campaign is to mock the process—as his slogan goes, "How hard can it be?" I don't care if he wins, and I'm not sure he does either; I'm just glad to see him sharing the stage with his rivals on C-Span tonight.

Remember how dull and mendacious the Bush-Kerry debates were? Wouldn't it have been satisfying if Harpo Marx could have been on stage as well, making mayhem while the "serious" candidates tried to pretend that they had anything more than mayhem to offer? Tonight, Richard F. Friedman gets to play the Harpo role. Go get 'em, Kinky.

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