In the relatively rational universe of TV sitcoms, jumping the shark is a kiss of death. When Henry Winkler’s aging Fonzie did it during the 785th season of Happy Days—literally water-skiing over a shark in a dreary three-part episode—it marked the moment when a mildly entertaining show morphed into an unwatchable embarrassment.
Ever since, everybody knows the rule: When a program jumps the shark, it becomes a sad self-parody. Its inherent emptiness and essential whorishness are unmasked. You can no longer publicly admit to watching the thing, much less enjoying it. And when that happens, people start tuning out in droves. A sucker might be born every minute, but even the most vacuous sucker knows how to change the channel.
But not if that sucker is a “conservative” voter in Texas (which is to say, most voters—for now). And not if the sitcom in question is The Rick Perry Show. The Lone Star State’s aspiring governor-for-life, that graying Fonzie of Lone Star Right-Wingery, has spent the last 14 months (I’m being generous here and not mentioning the previous nine years) repeatedly donning his own leather jacket, strapping on the skis, zooming up ever-steeper ramps and leaping into the void of lunacy. And every time he lands, arms akimbo, smirking with self-satisfaction, the audience cheers and the ratings soar.
Perry’s sitcom governorship was headed for cancellation, as you might recall, when he swaggered onto the Tea Party stage in downtown Austin on April 15, 2009, and delivered a cartoonish impersonation of civil-rights-era George Wallace, chanting, “States’ rights! States’ rights! States rights!”
The shark had surely been jumped; the governor’s emptiness had surely been unmasked. It was undeniable, after his Tea Party debut, that this man would, quite literally, say anything to anybody—racists, bigots, Birchers, birthers—to keep them from tuning him out.
I was there. And I have to admit: I was damn near certain that Gov. Perry would soon go the way of Fonzie. By January 2011, he’d be doing the political equivalent of late-night infomercials—pitching supply-side economics and hate-mongering Christianity on Fox News Saturday nights, following Huckabee.
But—heyyyy!—this isn’t TV Land; this is Texas. Gov. Fonzie’s ratings perked up the moment he leapt the shark and pandered to the neo-Confederate conspiranoids among us. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s once-invincible advantage in the governor’s race soon turned into an insurmountable deficit. And after several more episodes packed with cheesy special effects and hackneyed plotlines—this week, see Sarah Palin join our hero in challenging a black socialist president of uncertain national origin to a duel to the death!—he skidded triumphantly into a landslide primary victory and a near-certain four-year renewal of his prime-time slot.
You might have expected the shark-jumping to stop right there. Texas is still (for now) as red as Satan, after all, and Perry’s Democratic opponent in the general election is a former trial attorney, Clinton administration official and big-city mayor with a record of doing the thing that most offends Texas conservatives: governing thoughtfully and well. Perry has about as much chance of losing an election to Bill White as Ritchie Cunningham had of gay-marrying the Fonz in an hour-long special. So why bother with the Fonzie-like antics anymore?
But shark-jumping is apparently a highly addictive sport. Perry can’t quit. And let’s face it: Why should he? His lead over White only widened after he spun a cockamamie tale of murdering a coyote in broad daylight while jogging in his plush Austin neighborhood. His poll numbers continued to climb after he committed headline-grabbing blasphemy, wondering aloud whether the deadliest oil spill in U.S. history was an “act of God.”
So Perry’s latest shark-jump should surprise no one.
He is now strapping on the skis and preparing to loudly vault over that rapacious beast from Washington known as the Environmental Protection Agency. There is—at least for the moment—no more bloodthirsty tool of the devil lurking in the waters of socialist America. And the EPA’s maw is opening wide and preparing to devour everything that is righteous and holy about the great economic and environmental paradise that is Rick Perry’s Texas. That, folks, is your governor’s new plotline.
As the Observer‘s Forrest Wilder has documented (see this for starters) Perry’s polluter-friendly environmental agency, the ironically named Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, has begun to attract serious scrutiny from Obama’s EPA. All you need to know about the TCEQ’s modus operandi, to understand it perfectly well, is that while Texas has approved and built a mind-boggling number of coal-fired power plants in recent years, the TCEQ’s Perry-appointed “regulators” have never—not once—so much as blinked at rubber-stamping them. And that is only the tip of the air-infesting, water-infecting, big-money-worshipping iceberg that is Perry’s TCEQ. There is no polluter too filthy for Perry’s TCEQ to enable. And there is no concerned citizen with a benzene-soaked back yard that Perry’s TCEQ won’t ignore.
And so, when the EPA finally dipped a toe into Texas—blocking Perry’s TCEQ from rubber-stamping a permit for a refinery in Corpus Christi—Perry strapped on the skis again and let ‘er rip. In one of his favorite maneuvers, the governor had his grammatically challenged lackeys dash off a stern letter of disapproval and disinformation to President Obama.
The coyote-killing story looks like verifiable, documented, sober fact compared to Perry’s latest piece of Pennsylvania Avenue hate mail. (If you’re strong of stomach, you can read it yourself right here.) It’s the Big Lie on steroids. Karl Rove himself couldn’t have made this up—though he probably could have edited it into an approximation of English.
“Texas is improving air quality much faster than the nation as a whole,” Perry asserts. (Cue laugh track.) “The facts prove that Texas’ air quality permitting program is achieving significantly cleaner air while encouraging jobs and economic growth.” And then, for a kicker: “In the interest of protecting air quality gains, American jobs and domestic energy supplies, I respectfully and strongly request that you stop EPA’s efforts to take over the Texas air quality program already delegated to our state as was allowed for and contemplated in the Federal Clean Air Act.”
This time around, Perry is not just posturing for political gain against yet another fictional embodiment of that great Satan called Washington. He is also, in this instance, exposing what ought be his greatest weakness with voters in this supposedly independent-minded and anti-authoritarian state—the fact that he will say anything, do anything, to please the corporate puppet-masters who pull his strings and call his tunes.
I’d like to think that, at long last, Perry has jumped one too many sharks. Could anything be more obviously and patently ridiculous, even to the most dedicated of Ayn Rand libertarians and Tea Party Obama-haters, than the notion that Texas—Texas, mind you—is leading the universe in environmental quality? People: Have you visited Texas City lately?
But then again, I remember thinking that threatening secession was going to seem—I don’t know—a wee bit extreme. Or that asking President Obama to bail out Wall Street, as Perry did, and then railing against that bailout as “socialism” would seem—shall we say—a bit hypocritical. Or that pretending to have slain a coyote in broad daylight in an urban setting would strike Texans as—how to put this?—kind of far-fetched.
The Rick Perry Show would never have made it past the pilot episode on national TV. But here in Texas, it appears, the thirst for political shark-jumping is damn near unquenchable. And come November, if he keeps it up, Gov. Fonzie’s Neilsen ratings in the Lone Star State might even surpass the Moon Landing and “Who Shot J.R.” Just a few more jumps to go.