Friday, September 01, 2006

Kinky Friedman—singer, writer, governor?

From The Economist print edition, for those who think I am the real Kinky Freedman...

A joke-spinning candidate with serious consequences

YOUR typical American politician will wriggle and duck to avoid saying anything that might conceivably offend anyone. Kinky Friedman is not your typical politician. With his country band, the Texas Jewboys, he used to belt out ballads such as “They ain't makin' Jews like Jesus any more” and “Get your biscuits in the oven and your buns in the bed”. His lyrics upset every Christian, feminist and racial-sensitivity-watchdog foolish enough to take him seriously. To the many fans of his music and comic mystery novels, however, Mr Friedman is one of the funniest men in America. He is certainly the most amusing candidate for governor of Texas.

Admittedly, the competition is not fierce. His opponents' slogans are dull to the point of self-parody: “I'm proud of Texas” (Rick Perry, the Republican incumbent) and “Think big” (Chris Bell, the Democratic challenger). Mr Friedman's are: “Why the hell not?” and “How hard could it be?”

His platform is a medley of populist tunes and one-liners. He calls himself a “compassionate redneck”. His heroes are “teachers, firefighters, cops and cowboys”. His education policy is “No teacher left behind”—higher pay, fewer standardised tests and a big infusion of cash for schools, which he will raise by legalising casino gambling (“Slots for tots”). He will also slap an extra tax on oil firms (boo, hiss) to raise salaries for firefighters, cops and teachers. Perhaps because his parents were teachers, he is especially sensitive to their plight.

Mr Friedman is also a big fan of alternative energy. He wants Texas to get 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2020. He favours tax breaks for biodiesel, which would “stop the Saudis from playing the jukebox and the rest of us dancing to the tune”. He has even suggested appointing as energy czar his friend Willie Nelson, a green country singer who fuels his tour bus with biodiesel and sells the stuff at petrol stations in Texas. Mr Friedman will soon unveil a health policy loosely based on the system in Minnesota, where another maverick, Jesse “The Body” Ventura, a professional wrestler, actually won the governorship in 1998. “The Kinkster” draws inspiration from The Body's victory, and is taking advice from Dean Barkley, Mr Ventura's top strategist.

Mr Friedman's opponents dismiss his campaign as a joke and whisper that he is running only to provide material for another bestselling book. But Mr Friedman appears to take himself seriously, and so do a surprising number of Texans. A poll of likely voters by SurveyUSA put him in second place, with 21%, behind Mr Perry's 35% and a horse-hair ahead of Mr Bell (20%) and another independent, Carole Keeton Strayhorn (19%).

Most Texans are disillusioned with politics. Only 29% of the voting-age population bothered to vote at the last gubernatorial election. Lexington's chats with random Texans about the candidates revealed near-universal support for “I don't much care for any of 'em.” Mr Friedman's strategy is to fish for the apathetic 71% and try to reel them into the voting booths. If the turnout in November remains below a third, Rick Perry will be re-elected, says Laura Stromberg, Mr Friedman's spokeswoman. But if it is over 40%, “we guarantee [Mr Friedman] will win.”

On the trail in his trademark black cowboy gear, sucking on a Cuban cigar and volleying his best jokes at audiences who have not heard them before, Mr Friedman is proving an effective campaigner. For every sceptical query, he has a quotable answer. Isn't his candidacy a bit of a long shot? “I don't know how many supporters I have, but they all carry guns.” Doesn't his utter lack of relevant experience disqualify him for the job? “Politics is the only field in which the more experience you have, the worse you get.” Unlike all those career politicians, Mr Friedman is as clean as a pair of shiny new spurs and has no cronies clinging to the tails of his “preachin' coat”. True, but—unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example—he has no heavyweight policy advisers either. His assurance that “I'm a Jew; I'll hire good people” is not entirely persuasive.

When his seriousness is questioned, Mr Friedman points out that all the “serious” politicians talk in one-liners and sound-bites too—only theirs are not funny. He adds that several of the serious politicians' policies are a joke. The Texas House last year passed a “booty bill” against sexy cheerleading. And in 1971 it unanimously passed a motion honouring the Boston Strangler, which a playful member had sponsored to demonstrate that his colleagues passed bills without reading them.

Friedman's just another word for nothing left to lose

Fair enough, but the reason sober observers think Mr Friedman would make an awful governor has nothing to do with his playfulness, his past drug use, his bachelorhood (“I'm not against marriage. I'm against my marriage”) or any of the other minor quirks his opponents will doubtless use against him. The trouble with Mr Friedman is that he appears never to have applied himself to anything complex and dull. That is fine if you are an entertainer, but not if you want to sort out a creaking school system, clogged highways or a precarious budget. Those who know him say Mr Friedman has the attention span of a hyperactive schoolboy. Ms Stromberg admits that, were he to become governor, his briefings would have to be very brief.

It is unlikely to come to that. Mr Friedman has no party behind him, unlike Mr Ventura, who used the old organisation of Ross Perot, another maverick Texan. So his chances of winning are slim. But he will probably divide the disgruntled vote enough to let Mr Perry mosey effortlessly to re-election. For Texans who like the governor's menu of tax cuts, tort reform and muscular Christianity, that is good news. But for those who agree with Mr Friedman that politics-as-usual should stop, it will be disappointing, to say the least.