by Amy Davidson
Governor Rick Perry of Texas was indicted Friday on charges of abuse of his office and coercing a public official—that does not sound good, for a man positioning himself to run for President in 2016. Both of those charges are felonies; in Texas, that means that, if convicted, Perry would lose his right to vote during any time in prison, which, for the more serious count, could be five to ninety-nine years, according to the Dallas Morning News. There’s a version of the crime that sounds outrageous, too: that Perry withheld funds in order to gain control of the Public Integrity Unit in Travis County, which includes Austin, and force out a prosecutor, Rosemary Lehmberg, who was investigating his fellow Republicans. He will be fingerprinted; there will be a mug shot.
And yet, looking closer at the story, one feels almost sorry for Perry—really sorry, not just pitying in the way one did when he seemed to forget where he was during the Republican primary debates in 2012. Lehmberg’s office seems to have had some interesting cases; the Morning News mentioned one involving a grant to a company called Peloton Therapeutics, which had an investor who was also a Perry donor. But it might have been hard for her to concentrate on them. Last year, she was convicted of driving while intoxicated and received a forty-five-day sentence. There is a video of her at the police station, in which she repeatedly demands that the officers call “Greg,” the county sheriff; acknowledges that she was kicking before she was restrained; and sticks out her tongue at the officers. She also says that she wasn’t drunk; her blood alcohol level was close to triple the legal limit.
Perry vetoed her office’s budget when she wouldn’t resign while sitting in jail—prosecuting while incarcerated is no crime in Texas—or after getting out, either. The governor may not have been a statesman about it; he rarely is, as his ugly hysterics about migrant children in the past months have demonstrated. And it must be hard to govern Texas from the Iowa State Fair, where, on Tuesday, he gave a speech at the Des Moines Register‘s Soapbox. According to the paper, “When the Register’s moderator thanked him as he came off the stage, Perry said: ‘You’re welcome. I’m awesome!’ ” But Perry, in this case, seems to have been the lesser absurdist.
“I wholeheartedly and unequivocally stand behind my veto,” Perry said on Saturday, adding that he wouldn’t resign. (There are only about five months left in his term anyway.) He called the prosecution a “farce.” Perry is a man who knows farces intimately, and he may be on to something here. One of the strange things about this prosecution is that the acts were so open and so much a part of normal politics, if there is any normality in American politics anymore. It is a strange complaint at a time when hidden exchanges of money are protected by the Supreme Court. In that, it bears a certain resemblance to the congressional Republicans’ lawsuit against President Barack Obama. (A number of commentators have suggested that, if Perry overreached, impeachment would be a more appropriate response than criminal charges.)
Before deciding that Perry’s prosecution is disqualifying, one should look, too, at his likely competitors. Would it, for example, be more damaging for him than the Bridgegate scandal will be for Chris Christie? In Perry’s case, the alleged victim of his bullying was arrested in her church parking lot with an open bottle of vodka in her car; the police came looking for her after someone called 911 to report a driver weaving into oncoming traffic. In Christie’s, his aides engineered a massive, politically motivated traffic jam; they then sent texts joking about stranded school buses carrying the children of Democratic voters. Christie himself hasn’t been indicted, but there are still state and federal investigations. (Christie’s quick attacks on his own aides, one of whom, he said at a press conference, was not the sort of guy he’d have hung out with in high school, were also not attractive.) No one likes a drunk driver on the road; no one likes being being stuck on the road, either. Like so much else, the Perry-Christie question could come down to Americans’ relationship with their cars. Where will Rand Paul and Ted Cruz drive us next? We are all bracing for more 2016 candidates to come careening into the race.