An Inaugural Identity Crisis

I’m not one to stand on ceremony—heck, I even liked Ricky Gervais as the Golden Globes host—but I was surprised to see, on a rather cold and windy day, two teenage girls walking towards the State Inauguration in prom dresses. Well, not exactly wearing prom dresses, but metallic, low-cut numbers, complete with gem stones pasted to their eyelids. Michelle Smith, at 14 the older of the two, explained she was excited about “maybe meeting the governor” as he was sworn in for a third term. Further back in the rather small crowd, Kim Vandiver stayed warm in a full length “Canadian fox” fur coat. “They do eat my puppies,” she said of the animal-donors, “so that makes it okay.” She had decided to come randomly, since it was cheaper than the presidential inaugurations she’d been invited to. Another inaugural guest milling in the crowd, Nathaniel Booker, arrived in a complete 19-century soldier’s uniform, part of a “living history” exhibit on the black regulars in U.S. Army. He doesn’t even like Gov. Rick Perry, but he came to talk to people about history.

But if the dress code was haphazard, it was nothing compared to the weirdness of the ceremony itself. The state inauguration celebrates the swearing in of the governor and lieutenant governor. Simple enough, it would seem, but this year, both Perry and Lite Gov. David Dewhurst seemed to be making a few different speeches—to different audiences.

Just last week, Dewhurst announced he would investigate a bid for U.S. Senate, after current Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison said she would resign. His speech certainly seemed more concerned with national issues than the business of the state. He went over every basic GOP talking point—from cap-and-trade to ending “Obamacare.” He slammed Washington again and again. “We’re a fortress of economic freedom,” he said, “a lone bastion of opportunity in the midst of a global economic crisis.” He wasn’t afraid to ask Washington for things, however—for starters, he demanded the feds triple the number of border patrol agents on the border. “And if that doesn’t secure our borders then I’ll demand more people to be on our borders!” he said.

While Dewhurst promised limited government and no new taxes, he also pushed for “a quality education” for children and building a “world class transportation system.” With a gigantic budget shortfall—$27 billion if we want to maintain current state services—public schools are bracing for drastic cuts. Roads may be lucky to stay paved.

In Dewhurst’s speech, however, the contradictions took a back seat to the length and the generally boring delivery. The lieutenant governor has some trouble with applause lines, and even the obvious “we are Texas and we can do anything we set our minds to do” took a while to get some claps. As the speech went on and on, a Perry supporter turned to me. “Can you tell him to stop?” she exclaimed. “He’s not giving Perry any time to talk!”

Perry’s speech came soon enough, though—just as the weather started to warm up a bit. As ever, the governor wasn’t abashed in his contradictions. After he thanked veterans and noted problems for soldiers in Afghanistan, he turned to the budget:

“As Texans, we always take care of the least among our population—the frail, the young, the elderly. The people on fixed income. Those in situations of abuse and neglect. We’ve always done that. People whose needs are greater than the resources at their disposal. They can count on the people of Texas to be there for them. We’re going to protect them, support them, empower them. But we cannot risk the future of millions of taxpayers in the process. We must cut spending to keep our economic engine on track.”

Like I said, unabashed contradictions. The state cannot protect and empower the needy and cut spending. It will have to prioritize one over the other—in this case, choose between no new taxes and no new roads or schools (among other items). But by this point, much of the crowd had already started lining up to get some free barbecue and coleslaw.

Halfway through the governor’s speech, a well-meaning but ill-timed plane flew around the Capitol, carrying the banner “God Bless Texas.” It drowned out Perry and caused quite an uproar in the crowd. But I’d say the pilot wasn’t the only one confused.

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Published at 11:00 pm CST