I’m sitting in a small room in the visitors locker room at the multi-school Berry Center athletic facility, out in the right-wing ‘burbs of Houston, typing about the slickest political spectacle seen in Texas this election year: the much-ballyhooed Palin-Perry rally. This is the filing room the Perry people cooked up for the press, a fitting symbol of their abiding respect and admiration for the Fifth Estate.
Last night I found myself fantasizing about the only thing that could make the trip truly worthwhile: armed lawmen storming onto the stage to arrest the Frick and Frack of faux-tea-partyism for corruption and crimes against their respective states. I dreampt of Rick and Sarah being led off in cuffs, screeching “careful with the hair!” and “take care of Piper!” as the stunned throng hastily organized posses of minivans to convoy to Washington and make a mass citizens’ arrest of Chairman Obama for his socialist crackdown on these fine and selfless public servants.
But there is no justice in Texas or America, not if you’re rich and well-coiffed and the only people you’ve ripped off and conned are taxpayers and voters and gullible tea-party types.
So without incident, Perry and Palin strode out shortly after 3 p.m. to wild cheers from the half-full 9,000-seat arena, with the former Alaska governor decked out magnificently in a long, gleaming black-velvet frock and suede red boots and a turquoise necklace with a dangling cross. With Palin having said earlier in the day that she would not rule out a run for president, it looked like a terrifying preview of what could be the next GOP ticket: “Rogues in Boots 2012.”
Most of the white suburbanites had been there for more than an hour, waiting patiently for the proceedings to begin as a brass band called Gulf Coast Sound hoo-umphed patriotic tunes with clanging dissonance. (Oh, the horn section!) The press, required to show up an hour-and-a-half before showtime for “security reasons,” had been hanging around even longer, staring at the big Texas-flag backdrop and idly scribbling notes about the “homemade” banners and signs the campaign had helpfully strewn around the arena: “Texas is Succeeding,” “Texas Values/Proven Leadership,” “Woman for Perry,” “Homescholers for Perry” (yes, the second “o” was missing). We watched as a group of early-arriving volunteers, perched just behind the stage, was drilled on exactly how to hold up their scripted signs on cue, with a harried-looking young man conducting them like an orchestra.
It was Republican political spectacle at its empty, synthetic best, and a fitting bookend for Palin’s weekend. The night before, of course, Palin had keynoted the ultimate in artificial tea-party gatherings, holding forth for the “angry mob” in a chandaliered ballroom at a 5-star Nashville resort. The Christian Science Monitor, among others, speculated that she might be positioning herself as the de facto leader of the tea party “movement.” Certainly, her speech had done nothing to challenge that notion: She said absolutely nothing for nearly an hour, televised live on CNN, punctuated by cheers of “Run, Sarah, Run!”
So run she did, down to Texas, to campaign for another mainstream Republican trying to manipulate anti-Washington animus into political capital for a corporatist agenda.
Dan Patrick, the local state senator who’s doing everything but lick Perry’s boots (as far as we know) to get himself a U.S. Senate appointment, served as host and introduced the anti-Washington theme, wisecracking, “If five more people showed up, we’d have as many czars as Obama has in Washington.”
It was an afternoon filled with the kind of faux-Americana Roger Ailes perfected long ago for Ronald Reagan’s GOP: “patriotic country” music from twinky young Texas crooner Granger Smith, Cub Scouts marching in the colors, Ted Nugent defiling Jimi Hendrix’s anti-war instrumental version of “The Star-Spangled Banner” as the suburbanites whooped, and the right-wing Rev. C.L. Jackson of Michigan praying for God to bless these two fine leaders and remind Him that those who challenge Rick Perry “have paled into utter insignificance.”
At 3:09, Palin and Perry entered together to the strains of the George Strait tune, “Sing a Song about the Heartland.” “Realtors for Perry” signs bobbed enthusiastically near the stage.
“Oh, it is a Super Sunday or what?” Perry hollered in his trademark syntax when he reached the microphone. The governor, wearing a blue jacket with an open light-blue shirt, was more animated by the spectacle than he’s been at most campaign stops, flapping his arms and prowling the stage as he preached his anti-Washington, anti-Kay Bailey, ain’t-Texas-great gospel.
“Do you want a leader who loves Texas and all it stands for?” he asked. “Or do you want a creature of Washington who tears down Texas at every turn?”
“Fact is, Texas is better off than might near any state I can think of. … I hope that Texans will vote for leadership that is willing to tell Washington D.C. no!”
“Who agrees with me that Washington is out of control?” he asked the crowd—or, more accurately, the stage props for campaign commercials to come.
Would you believe? They cheered on cue.
And how ’bout this puzzler: “Who knows that Washington is not the answer to every problem we have in this country?”
“Who thinks the answer is less Washington and more Texas?”
The governor did allow that “Texas hasn’t been immune to this global economic crisis. But I think you have to be really deliberate about how you create jobs and hope for the future.” Nobody cried out, “How deliberate do you have to be?”
Palin’s little girl, standing next to Ted Nugent (who arranged that?) looked a tad bit frightened as the governor waved and bellowed. But soon enough, it was time for mommy to read her Perry campaign script, as the governor introduced her in gushing terms:
“We are privileged to welcome a true conservative superstar to Texas. I doubt there is a political figure in our country who gives liberals a bigger case of hives.” The folks were just delighted by this. “If Keith Olbermann were here today, I bet his head would explode,” Perry said, chuckling merrily at his own violent fantasy. “I’m sorry—that image just really tickles me.”
As Palin took the podium, flashbulbs exploded around the arena; there was stomping in the stands. And there was no doubt about which one of these two would be at the top of that Nightmare Ticket in 2012.
After a few obligatory nods to Texas (“I was just telling Piper, we’re here in Alaska’s little-sister state. … You have two seasons: football and spring football.”), Palin rattled off the eerie similarities between the two biggest-ass states, including the very most important and laudable: “We will proudly cling to our guns and religion.” She recalled how Perry “teased” her as she hastily exited the Republican Governors’ conference to hop a plane and deliver her last baby, Trig, back home on the range.
And then, in a more serious vein, came the cliches, which she rattled off perfunctorily: “The stakes are so high in America today. … And who better to lead than the successes we already see here in Texas?”
Perry’s re-election, she said, would “send Washington a message about how things can be done right.” The choice is between “the Texas way or the Washington way,” she said, not directly referencing Sen. Hutchison but making it clear enough. “Rick is looking out for you,” she said. “On March 2, you have a clear choice. What’s it going to be: The way they operate in D.C. or the way y’all get things done in Texas?”
And then, a fine line indeed for those upcoming commercials: “When Washington came calling, he told ‘em thanks but no thanks,” Palin said, referring to the stimulus money that Perry protested but, for the most part, gratefully accepted and used to balance the state budget temporarily.
This was more than a little like that “Bridge to Nowhere” that Palin dishonestly debuted at the ’08 Republican convention. It was also quite a thing for Palin to say, now there evidence has resurfaced of not only Perry’s initial support for the bank bailout, but Palin’s stimulus support as well.
One intentionally funny moment broke out when Palin made reference to news reports last year that Perry wanted Texas to secede from the Union. The crowd cheered wildly at the word “secede.” But that wasn’t supposed to be Palin’s punchline. Watching the reports, she said, “I said, ‘I don’t think so: Texas is succeeding.’ ” There was only perfunctory applause for that.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” was Palin’s advice to Texans. “Why would you wanna change? If you want more of Texas and less of Washington, send him back to Austin.”
Aside from the multicolored rock-concert confetti shooting up from the front of the stage, and Perry’s making Palin an “honorary Texan” (a designation he’s reserved only for the highest of dignitaries, such as Rush Limbaugh), that was just about that. As Perry gave the crowd a final exhortation, folks were already filing out as fast as their feet would take them, off to Super Bowl parties and a whole ‘nother dose of plastic Americana.
Afterward, the Perry people seemed well-pleased, and why not? Nothing untoward had been said by the Thrilla from Wasilla, and thousands had turned out to cheer empty slogans and mindless patriotism and a false “Washington-versus-Texas” dichotomy like a Price Is Right studio audience. Some reporters trooped dutifully back to the visitors locker room, where such people belong, to bat out their stories so that every conservative in the state would know: Sarah’s with Rick! Thousands came out on Super Sunday to cheer the Rogue Twins!
And now I must wrap this up. The cleaning crew is coming around, asking, “Anybody in here?” It’s just them and a few reporters left in the Berry Center now, doing our jobs, polishing up the remains of the big blast of giddy, self-congratulatory, deceptive smaltz that just went down.