fresh voices from the front lines of change







When somebody you think pretty highly of does something that seems crazy, the fairest thing you can do is ask them “Why the hell did you do that?” Kinky Friedman’s somebody I’ve followed for years, first as the bandleader of the Texas Jewboys and then as an independent candidate for Governor of Texas. So when he seemed to endorse Rick Perry for President this week. I asked him why the hell he did that. We spoke by phone after his plane trip was cancelled by Hurricane Irene.

“Well, now, hold on,” he says. “I don’t exactly endorse people. I mean, I’m not some Tammany Hall boss.” The next day he called me to clarify. “Did I ‘endorse’ him? We don’t need to get all Talmudic here. We’re taking a chance whoevever gets elected.” Kinky’s erudite and passionate, and disappointed enough in both parties to ask, “Where do you go to give up?”

“Politics is the most corrupt it’s ever been. Apathy is a killer. And there’s no Harry Truman to lead us. Roosevelt’s people wouldn’t even stand when Truman entered the room. But he made the tough decisions anyway. This President is always behind the curve, waiting so see how it’s going to turn out before he acts.”

Those remarks echo the President’s approval ratings among independents like Kinky, which have fallen to 39% from a high of 63% in 2009 and 52% earlier this year.[1] The more the President tries to attract them with compromise, the more he seems to lose them. Kinky Friedman speaks for an idealistic, wounded strain of American independent voters. Like him or not — and I like him a lot — Democrats ignore voices like his at their own peril.

Unacknowledged Pollsters

So what kind of Texas politico drops the word “Talmudic” into a conversation? Kinky Friedman’s been a songwriter, singer, humorist, Peace Corps volunteer, surf rocker, novelist, animal rescuer, cigar dealer, and candidate for Governor of Texas. That may be more lives than a cat. But some people don’t think he landed on his feet with those Rick Perry comments.

I’m not willing to dismiss him. Maybe that’s because I feel a kinship with all guitar strummers, songwriters, and honky-tonk-haunting preachers. Or maybe I’m just an old romantic who thinks singing in any joint with a liquor license is a theological vocation, a ministering to the heartbroken masses by taking on their pain. Or maybe I just like Kinky Friedman.

Not everybody agrees that country singers are barroom Bodhisattvas. Not everybody thinks songwriters are today’s version of the poets who Shelley (Percy Bysshe, not Fabares or Winters) said were “hierophants of an unapprehended inspiration; mirrors of the gigantic shadows which futurity casts upon the present … unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Legislators? Songwriters can barely collect their royalties nowadays.

But they do give a voice to the voiceless. That’s why we thought it was important back in April 2009 when right-wing and Republican country singer John Rich wrote his song about bank bailouts and unemployment and got Mickey Rourke and lefty hero Kris Kristofferson to act in the video. A lot of people were issuing similar warnings back then, too – that if the Administration appears to ally itself with Summers, Geithner, and Wall Street instead of the jobless and underearning people on Main Street, there would be hell to pay. Then the Tea Party came along, Democrats lost Congress, and everything changed.

Is it time to listen yet?

Looking For Love …

Things got a little heated between Friedman and Perry back in 2010, when Kinky was polling at 23% (as much as the Democrat) and Perry was at 35%. Back in 2009 Kinky said that “Exhibit A for term limits is Rick Perry.” He also said that his dog could run Texas better. (I say it depends on the breed. Australian shepherds are smart, but if it’s a collie I’m gonna have to stick with Rick.)

But in a Daily Beast piece this week headlined “Kinky For Perry” (he didn’t pick that title) Kinky wrote that Perry’s a “good, kind-hearted man” who called him three days after the election (which Kinky initially refused to concede) and gave him “a gracious little pep talk.” Kinky also wrote that Perry “once sat in on drums with ZZ Top,” a fact which I’ll confess caused me to waver for a moment in my own feelings about the Governor.

Kinky gives Perry a lot more economic credit than I do. “Could Rick Perry fix the economy?” he writes. “Hell, yes! ” Texas is pretty much in the middle of the pack on employment rates, and a lot of that was accomplished with $6 billion in bailout money. Surging oil prices made up most of the difference. But Perrynomics isn’t the real story here. There’s more of a lesson in Kinky’s disappointment than in his hopes. It’s easy to say that anyone who turns to a Republican is, in the words of the old song, looking for love in all the wrong places. But why aren’t they getting that love at home?

Polls give us quantitative data. But only people tell stories. I want to know know where this story came from.

Interview With the Kinkster

The man who wrote “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Anymore” is soft spoken, erudite, and thoughtful. But he opens with a one-liner from his Daily Beast piece: “I’ve already said that when I die I want to be cremated and the ashes scattered in Rick Perry’s hair.” I’m tempted to point out that this could bring back some of Perry’s mysteriously vanished gray, or that you could hide a whole corpse in there. But Kinky’s speaking from genuine idealism – and genuine hurt – so I restrain myself.

I ask if he voted for Obama in 2008. He did. He says of Perry, “We were bitter rivals. But there’s the Lincoln/Churchill tradition. Lincoln said he would act ‘with charity toward all and malice toward none’ and formed the Team of Rivals. And Churchill brought his lifelong rival into the cabine when he finally became Prime Minister at sixty-five, after everybody had written him off.”

(Kinky’s sixty-six, but says he ‘reads at a 67-year-old level.’)

“I believe there’s something in Rick that’s waiting to be brought out.” Friedman also speaks warmly of Bill Clinton and has kind things to say about the Bushes. I tell him that I worry less when Republicans and Democrats disagree than I do when they agree, as with the Deficit Commission and cutting Social Security. “That’s a point,” he says.

“Politics is the only profession where corruption is legal. There are only three guys in Washington who aren’t corrupt: Bernie Sanders, Ron Paul, and Dennis Kucinich.”

Perry vs. Obama

So who would Kinky vote for today in a Perry/Obama race?

“I don’t know,” he says. “I have to ask God before any big decision like that. But I have some insight about people. Churchill was the only one who knew you can’t negotiate with Hitler. And like Thomas Edison and Bill Cosby both said, the surest route to failure is by trying to keep everybody happy. At some point you’ve got to get out from behind the curve. You’ve got to make some courageous or unpopular decisions and stand by them.”

“I don’t know,” he says. “In many ways Rick Perry and Barack Obama are the same person, admiring each other’s reflection in the mirror. They’re both great campaigners, and they’ve both been groomed for this for a long, long time. I don’t know if Rick Perry has greatness in him, but he might.”

Because he’s a nice guy?

“More than that. Because he’s a decent guy. And I’m afraid that in three years Obama’s showed us that he has the soul of a Harvard law instructor. I think he’s proved he’s never going to be a leader or a statesman. He’s a great candidate, but when you see somebody perpetually behind the curve, waiting to see what happens, that’s the mark of a true politician.

“With the Iranian revolution I thought, what would JFK or Churchill have done? You’ve got to inspire people at those times. I know about being inspired. JFK inspired me to join the Peace Corps, where I spent two years in Borneo earning eleven cents an hour and loving it.”

OK, we say. You’re unhappy with the President. But why Perry? “Maybe he won’t be any better,” Kinky answers, “but maybe if he’s elected President he’ll have the epiphany Obama never had, that he’s now walking with destiny, to use Churchill’s words. He has to represent all the people. I think Perry has a quiet strength about him.”

“I’ve always said about politics, it’s the only profession where the more experience you have, the worse you get.”

We’re still not getting the Perry attraction, so we try an analogy: You know, we say, when you go to a bar to hear a new guitar player and he’s really good technically, but he doesn’t have the feel. Is that what you’re saying? The President is like some flashy studio guy and Perry’s rough and sloppy, like Keith Richards on a bad night, but like Keith he’s got the feel?

Kinky laughs. “No. They’re both studio guys. I always say people who go into politics started life as hall monitors, and Perry and Obama both have that. I’m not sure Rick would be that much better, but he has possibility. The problem is the two parties. They’re the Crips and the Bloods, and polticians are essentially devious and deceitful. It really is demoralizing.”

Spiritual Integrity

Well, we say, let’s not get demoralized. Who in this country, politician or not, would be a great inspirational leader? “Musicians,” he says, “but you gotta go to the ones that are damned near 70. You go to a Levon Helm concert, you know you’ve seen something real. Merle Haggard, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson.”

Kinky’s a serial entrepreneur. “We have a new brand of tequila coming out. ‘Kinky Friedman’s Man in Black Tequila.’ It’s dedicated to Zorro, Paladin, and Johnny Cash.” Is this product placement time? “Oh, I was just thinkin’ if we had guys with that kind of spiritual integrity running our country we’d be in a lot better shape.”

We mention that Richard Boone (who played Paladin) was ugly as hell. “Hey,” Kinky says, “Don’t say that! People say I look like him.” My point, I say, is that he’d never get a job in Hollywood today with head shots that look like that. Isn’t that what’s wrong with politics, too? That leads us into an entirely different discussion – about the soullessness of modern music and movies, about Billy Bob Thornton, and other non-political topics. I hope we can continue that talk someday. But today’s subject is politics.

Wakeup Call

It’s striking when an independent politician who keeps invoking the Lincoln/Churchill spirit of reconciliation – which is supposed to be Obama’s specialty – expresses such disappointment. It goes along with something I’ve been saying for a long time: Independents want conciliatory leadership, but only after it stands for something first. Even the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in South Africa asked people to acknowledge the difference between right and wrong before granting their foregiveness. The Democratic Party has blurred its own sense of what’s right and wrong these days.

“There needs to be a wakeup call to Democrats,” Kinky says, “of whom I used to be one. And I find all this mockery of the Tea Party unseemly.” (We once reached out to Tea Party leaders in the hope we could find common ground on Social Security.)

“To people like me, the Tea Party kinda has that spirit. It’s of the people, by the people, and for the people. It’s been effective because it does what Democrats used to do, which is stand up for the people. Democrats used to be people like Barbara Jordan – the Constitution was her secular bible — Harry Truman, Ann Richards, Sam Rayburn, Barbara Jordan, Molly Ivins.”

“But they’re gone and it shows.”

A Demographic of One

Kinky Friedman public persona is that of a particularly smart and cynical barroom philosopher, a cigar-smoking wiseass with a brain. But he also runs a shelter for animals, interviewed celebrities about their pets, and wrote a book about childhood heroes like John Wayne and Barbara Jordan. So I take his comments as the sign of a broken heart, not a cynical mind.

I may disagree with Kinky about some things. But I share his idealism, his frustration, and the heroes he loves. He’s giving a voice to widespread disaffection among smart, compassionate people. You could say that he’s so unique that he’s a demographic of one. As Kinky goes, so goes … well, Kinky. But he’s an capital-“I” independent, which makes him the Holy Grail of Presidential politics. And he’s a disaffected Democrat like the ones that stayed at home in 2010 and may again in 2012.

RIck Perry may be just a place-holder for a lost sense of political integrity and vision. But if he can play that role for Kinky Friedman, he can play it for others. Kinky’s disappointment in Obama and other Democrats expresses the woundedness of swing voters. Winning them back will take courage, decisiveness, and a clear expression of values.

I tell him I think Perry’s nuts when he talks about economics or Social Security, but I’d be curious to sit down and try to get a bead on his character. “Well, maybe we’re getting somewhere,” he says.

Soul and Inspiration

How do we get the soul, the heart, the inspiration back into our politics? There’s a long pause on the other end of the line. “We have to ask the Lord.”

As a spiritually-bent person myself – whose Higher Power may on any given day be either scientific and logical or mystical and inexpressible – I’m struck silent for a second. Then I allow that yes, sometimes you have to plead your case in a Higher Court. Kinky recycles another line: “The Lord will tell Rick Perry what to do, and Rick will tell me.”

If Rick Perry tells you, we ask him, will you pass the word? Because He won’t speak with us directly and I doubt Rick will tell people like me. “All I’m saying,” says Kinky,”is that we need somebody with the spiritual chops to lead. We need a President who will be the President for all the people in his heart.”

Then Kinky Friedman waits for the hurricane to pass so he catch a plane so he can play some songs and tell some stories somewhere in the great big broken heart of America. And the rest of us move one more day closer to the election of 2012.


[1] From the latest Pew Presidential Poll

(Kinky didn’t ask me to plug his Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch. I just feel like doing it. You can donate here. Think he’s nuts for saying those nice things about Rick Perry? Then donate even more than you would’ve otherwise. That’ll show him.)

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