By now you've probably already heard the news, as delivered by The New York Times: Rick Perry, the longest-serving governor in Texas history (who also put some time in before as that lieutenant governor), is an incompetent jackass who not only once wanted to shut down the very Department of Energy he will lead under President Trump, he didn't even know what it did when he accepted the job!
Here's the key paragraph from a story titled "'Learning Curve' as Rick Perry Pursues a Job He Initially Misunderstood":
"If you asked him on that first day he said yes, he would have said, 'I want to be an advocate for energy,'" said Michael McKenna, a Republican energy lobbyist who advised Mr. Perry's 2016 presidential campaign and worked on the Trump transition's Energy Department team in its early days. "If you asked him now, he'd say, 'I'm serious about the challenges facing the nuclear complex.' It's been a learning curve."
The Times' reporters, Coral Davenport and David E. Sanger, note that
Two-thirds of the agency's annual $30 billion budget is devoted to maintaining, refurbishing and keeping safe the nation's nuclear stockpile; thwarting nuclear proliferation; cleaning up and rebuilding an aging constellation of nuclear production facilities; and overseeing national laboratories that are considered the crown jewels of government science.
What's more, the current secretary and his immediate predecessor are eggheads' eggheads, the former being an MIT physicist and the latter being a Nobel Prize winner. Rick Perry? He's that Lone Star lunkhead who famously forgot in a 2011 GOP primary debate the third federal department he pledged to eliminate! Better yet, the department he forgot was Energy! He re-emerged from a stupendously awful run at the presidency the 2012 cycle with smart-guy glasses before going down the tubes again after calling eventual winner Donald Trump a "cancer" on conservatism and then appearing on Dancing With the Stars dressed like an underemployed ice cream scoop-monkey at Farrell's. Obviously, this guy is…what, exactly?
Here's three things to consider, not just about this particular New York Times story, but about legacy media in the age of Trump.
First, it should be noted that McKenna, who doesn't actually work for either the Trump transition anymore or for Perry, says the Times' mischaracterized his comments. Maybe that's just cover-your-ass stuff, right, but then again, Texas is a big state and Perry ran it pretty well (or at least competently) for a very long time.
Second, in a policy platform dating back to at least 2011 that he called "Uproot and Overhaul Washington," Perry clearly demonstrated an understanding of the core functions of the Department of Energy, which he notes, only came into being in 1977. However did the United States manage before this child of a passing energy crisis and Cold War politics evolved out of the Federal Energy Agency? Perry's message back then was pretty direct: Get rid of it and devolve its "key functions" to other departments. I kind of like the sound of that though I should point out that the former governor retracted that position at his confirmation hearings today. From his past policy paper:
The Department of Energy should be eliminated, with key functions transferred to other more appropriate departments.
…within the Department of Energy, the National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) and other key nuclear programs must be preserved and re-located to the Department of Defense. Our nuclear technology and capability (both civilian and military) are essential to U.S. national security, and must be preserved. The Department of Defense is a natural location for our nuclear programs, protecting our vital national security interests, and preserves the structure that supports our nuclear power system.
Third, despite the Times' focus on the two most-recent secretaries of Energy, the perch has often been a landing pad for political hacks. Recent appointees have included such luminaries as Bill Richardson, Federico Pena, Spencer Abraham, and Hazel O'Leary, who resigned from the Clinton administration after a scathing Government Accountability Office review dinged her for taking lavish trips with a giant entourage. Whatever else you can say about these folks, there's not a Nobel prize winner or a nuclear physicist among them, and yet somehow we survived.
None of this is to make a positive case about Perry, who lost my vote (such as it is) when he walked back his bold and eminently sensible plan to get rid of one more useless cabinet-level department and reassign its core functions. But the treatment of Perry by the legacy press—Twitter lit up like a Christmas tree yesterday with journalists and other media types hyping and amplifying the Times' story—is an object lesson in the urgent need for media literacy during the Trump presidency.
Simply put: Don't believe everything you read, especially if you basically agree with the outfit reporting it and want to believe whatever moral lesson is being imparted (this goes for Reason loyalists, too, of course). I write this not as a Trump supporter or even as a Trump apologist. I would rather that he not be president of the United States. But he is and much of the media despises him while a solid chunk will also explain all of his bullshit moves. In either case, caveat lector, friends: Let the reader beware. We are entering one of the least-expected and weirdest episodes in American history and I remain optimistic that what we are witnessing are the death throes of a post-war Leviathan that is ideologically exhausted, financially unsustainable, and wildly unpopular. Almost a year ago, as the GOP presidential debates got underway, the need for a new political and cultural operating system, one based one mass personalization, de-politicization of everyday life, and self-regulating systems was plain as day.
Does anyone doubt we need a new operating system for politics? Even amidst a bad-to-awful economy (caused in no small part to government action), the quality of lives are improving. We are able to live more like we choose, and we are more able to choose who we want to be. The world is never short of problems, but we have never been so rich with solutions and the ability to figure our ways out of the boxes we've built in our personal lives, our cultural lives, our work lives. As Edward Snowden recently told Reason, "The individual is more powerful today than they have ever been in the past." No wonder that Republican and Democratic candidates are so nervous, so jumpy, so mired in a past when politics controlled more of our lives and mattered more to us.
Donald Trump's presidency starts tomorrow, and the 21st century—and the Libertarian Moment that will define it—will start in earnest the minute we, the majority of Americans, anxious over Barack Obama's power grabs and now Trump's, assert our rights to get on with our lives on our own terms. Reading through the Vaseline-covered lens that is the legacy media is an essential element in blazing a path to the future.