Perry’s indictment: Crime and punishment, Texas-style
It’s a big country, where states have their own legal peculiarities, political cultures and definitions of what makes a debilitating political scandal. Take Texas, for example, where the Republican governor, Rick Perry, has been indicted for abuse of office.
In the past 25 years, we’ve seen politicians and government officials increasingly treat scandal less as catastrophe and more as just another cost of doing business. Perry, however, has taken this to a completely new level: He is wearing his indictment as a badge of honor and has smoothly returned to his 2016 presidential campaign without missing a beat.
His is a compelling change of pace. Consider: It’s been a hell of a decade for scandal among state governors — and virtually all reacted with an advanced degree of alarm. In 2004, Democratic Governor Jim McGreevey of New Jersey, threatened with a lawsuit by another man, promptly held a press conference, revealed himself as a “gay American” and announced his impending resignation. In March 2008, news broke that New York’s Democratic governor, scourge-of-Wall-Street Elliot Spitzer, had patronized call girls. Another press conference, another resignation. Later that year, Illinois Democratic Governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested by federal agents and charged with corruption for his attempt to sell Barack Obama’s vacated Senate seat. Blagojevich launched an animated attempt to clear his name before he was impeached, removed from office, tried and sent to prison.
South Carolina Republican Governor Mark Sanford disappeared briefly in 2009 and was discovered in Argentina — where he had gone to be with his Latin mistress. He fought impeachment proceedings until the end of his term. When Republican Governor Bob McDonnell of Virginia was indicted last year for corruption and bribery, he apologized for bringing “embarrassment” to the state. He is now on trial. Meanwhile, Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin, involved in an investigation of improper fundraising during his 2012 recall campaign, has been vigorously fighting subpoenas.
So how did Perry respond to his recent indictment? Did he act the way we picture politicians behaving in such crises — dropping all other political business, huddling with advisers to plot alternative means of damage control, desperately phoning donors to keep them from jumping ship, lawyering up and hunkering down?
With the exception of lawyering up, Perry has done none of those things. He immediately announced his intention to fight the charges “with every fiber of my being.” He insisted not only that he had done the right thing, but would do it over again. His supporters launched an offensive against the prosecution, which they pronounced a prime example of the criminalization of politics.
Within days, Perry very publicly paraded to the courthouse for his booking, provided his mug shot and fingerprints, arranged to have the former widely distributed, and then went straight to a local emporium for an ice cream cone. He made a point of tweeting the whole episode to his followers.
Then, evidently invigorated, Perry left Texas for Washington and New Hampshire to campaign for the 2016 presidential election. In Washington, he made a speech at the Heritage Foundation, which has been playing a bigger political role since former Senator Jim DeMint, a longtime Tea Party mentor, took over. Perry was introduced by Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, who dismissed the “pathetic joke of an indictment” and asked the audience, “Have you ever seen anyone look as relaxed and happy in their mug shot as Rick Perry?”
How did we reach a point at which a politician treats a criminal indictment as a political plus and a fundraising tool? Indeed, as a veritable branding opportunity?
Parts of the answer are specific to Texas and its politics: the strange structure that gives a county prosecutor jurisdiction over allegations of corruption in state government but makes the prosecutor’s job subject to state funding; the widespread contempt for what is seen as liberal hypocrisy, and the state’s celebrated swaggering style.
As memorialized on YouTube, the story of Perry’s indictment began on the night of April 12, 2013, when Rosemary Lehmberg, the Democratic district attorney of Travis County, was arrested for drunk driving. She was videotaped — a hallmark of modern American policing — throughout. From her first encounter with a sheriff’s deputy to her booking at the county jail, her humiliation has been endlessly downloaded. We see her unable to walk a straight line. We see her in a jail holding cell, kicking at the door and yelling abusively at jail personnel. We see her in restraints, eyes ringed with smeared mascara,
It must have seemed like a safe move for Perry to demand Lehmberg’s resignation: Surely the public would recoil from seeing Lehmberg’s misbehavior in the pixelly flesh. When Lehmberg did not resign, Perry threatened to veto funds for her Public Integrity Unit, then made good on his threat. A liberal watchdog group filed a complaint against Perry, alleging abuse of office. After Travis County officials recused themselves, a regionally selected judge named a special prosecutor, who convened a grand jury, which handed up an indictment earlier this month.
Yet Perry’s calculation reflects not just Texas politics but broader trends over the past quarter century. It is hard to remember that a little more than 25 years ago, when Robert Bork’s nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court was defeated by a concerted campaign from the left, it seemed shocking that an otherwise distinguished jurist should be attacked not for his judicial ability but for his political morality. Just four years later, the accusations that arose from Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court nomination made the Bork debate look prissy and quaint. Not long after, the public learned about Monica Lewinsky’s stained blue dress, heard President Bill Clinton declare that he had not had sex with her, saw him impeached — and then watched the impeachment fail in the Senate.
If we have gotten used to sordidness, we have also learned to discount it. We have seen the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. We have watched the spiraling, beastly disorder that was announced with the beheading of Wall Street Journal correspondent Daniel Pearl in 2002 and punctuated with the beheading of James Foley this month. We have skirted financial disaster.
It no longer seems like the end of the world when the administration of New Jersey’s Republican Governor Chris Christie closes tolls lanes from the Fort Lee approach to the George Washington Bridge, creating a massive traffic jam in a city with a Democratic mayor. Or when New York’s Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo shuts down the anti-corruption commission he appointed after it has become too annoying to his office.
It seems increasingly plausible to dismiss an indictment like Perry’s, involving a political behavior as — well, just politics.
Perry’s indictment could pick up substance as it rolls along its legal course. If not, his Texas-style defiance may be a harbinger.
PHOTO (TOP): Texas Governor Rick Perry, a possible Republican candidate for the 2016 presidential race, answers questions from reporters following an appearance at a business leaders luncheon in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, August 22, 2014. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
PHOTO (INSERT 1): Supporters hold up a t-shirt with the word “Wanted” over a photograph of Texas Governor Rick Perry, a possible Republican candidate for the 2016 presidential race at a “NH GOP Victory Rally” in Stratham, New Hampshire, August 23, 2014. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
PHOTO (INSERT 2): Texas Governor Rick Perry is pictured in this booking photo courtesy of Travis County Sheriff’s Office, released on August 19, 2014. REUTERS/Travis County Sheriff?s Office/Handout
PHOTO (INSERT 3): Texas Governor Rick Perry, a possible Republican candidate for the 2016 presidential race, speaks at a “NH GOP Victory Rally” in Stratham, New Hampshire, August 23, 2014. REUTERS/Brian Snyder