Monday, October 31, 2011

Meet The Cash & Carry Governor "Who Doesn't Believe In One Damn Thing"

This blogger is a sucker for clever snark that nails Governor Ricky Dumbass (R-TX) to the barn door. Gonzo Matt Taibbi has gone the extra mile with his latest political reportage for Rolling Stone. Somewhere, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson must be smiling. If this is a (fair & balanced) combination of "snide" and "remark," so be it.

[x RS]
Rick Perry: The Best Little Whore In Texas
By Matt Taibbi

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Early morning in a nearly filled corporate ballroom at the Cobb Energy Centre, a second-tier event stadium on the outskirts of Atlanta. It's late September, and a local conservative think tank is hosting a get-together with Rick Perry, whose front-runner comet at the time is still just slightly visible in the bottom of the sky. I've put away five cups of coffee trying to stay awake through a series of monotonous speeches about Georgia highway and port reform, waiting for my chance to lay eyes on the Next Big Thing in person.

By the time Perry shows up, I'm jazzed and ready for history. You always want to remember the first time you see the possible next president in person. But as every young person knows, the first time is not always a pleasant experience. Perry lumbers onstage looking exceedingly well-groomed, but also ashen and exhausted, like a funeral director with a hangover.

In a voice so subdued and halting that I think he must be sick, he launches into his speech, which consists of the following elements: a halfhearted football joke about Texas A&M that would have embarrassed a true fan like George W. Bush, worn bromides about liberals creating a nanny state, a few lines about jobs in Texas, and a promise to repeal "as much of Obamacare as I can" on his first day in the White House.

"I will try," he says, "to make Washington, D.C., as inconsequential in your life as I can."

Then he waves and walks offstage. The whole thing has taken barely 10 minutes.

I can't believe it, and neither can the assembled crowd of Georgia conservatives, who hesitate before breaking into polite applause. I feel like a high school cheerleader who just had her leg jizzed on in the back of a convertible. That's it? It's over? That was Rick Perry's stump speech?

"Low energy, low substance," sighs Justin Ryan, one of the conference attendees. "That's sort of the candidate in general."

But this is America, remember, where one should never underestimate shallow. And Rick Perry brings shallow to a new level. He is very gifted in that regard. He could be the Adolf Hitler of shallow.

Perry's campaign is still struggling to recover from the kind of spectacular, submarine-at-crush-depth collapse seldom seen before in the history of presidential politics. The governor went from presumptive front-runner to stammering talk-show punch line seemingly in the speed of a single tweet, rightly blasted for being too incompetent even to hold his own in televised debates with a half-bright pizza salesman like Herman Cain and a goggle-eyed megachurch Joan of Arc like Michele Bachmann. But such superficial criticisms of his weirdly erratic campaign demeanor don't even begin to get at the root of why we should all be terrified of Perry and what he represents. After all, you have to go pretty far to stand out as a whore and a sellout when you come from a state that has produced such luminaries in the history of political corruption as LBJ, Karl Rove and George W. Bush. But Rick Perry has managed to set a scary new low in the annals of opportunism, turning Texas into a swamp of political incest and backroom dealing on a scale not often seen this side of the Congo or Sierra Leone.

In an era when there's exponentially more money in politics than we've ever seen before, Perry is the candidate who is exponentially more willing than we've ever seen before to whore himself out for that money. On the human level he is a nonpersonality, an almost perfect cipher – a man whose only discernible passion is his extreme willingness to be whatever someone will pay him to be, or vote for him to be. Even scarier, the religious community around which he has chosen to pull his human chameleon act features some of the most extreme end-is-nigh nutcases in America, the last people you want influencing the man with the nuclear football. Perry is a human price tag – "Being There" meets Left Behind. And sometimes there's nothing more dangerous than nothing at all.

Perry shot into the race for the Republican presidential nomination like a rocket, which is to say, he jumped late into a historically underwhelming contest of bumblers, second-raters, extremists and religious loonies, and became the top dog by default simply by virtue of not looking obviously demented at first blush to the national media. At the time, the GOP's Tea Party base was splitting right down the middle, divided between the intellectual libertarians headed by fellow Texan and original Tea Partier Ron Paul, and the "values"-oriented sect steered by the Bible-thumping likes of Michele Bachmann and Rick Santorum. Despite Barack Obama's plummeting approval ratings, Republicans seemed to have little chance of success in 2012 unless someone emerged from the pack with the goods to pull off a seemingly impossible demographic trifecta: capturing enough of these two increasingly insurrectionary camps within the Tea Party to win the primary, while still retaining enough moderate cred to steal the middle from Obama in the general election.

Into this morass stepped Perry, a tall, perma-tanned, Bible-clutching Southerner with front-runner hair and the build of a retired underwear model, boasting 10 years of executive experience and a furious anti-government bestseller (Fed Up!) still sizzling on the nation's bookshelves. This was the magic-bullet candidate, with the End Times connections and born-again beatitude to out-Jesus Michele Bachmann, the CV full of arch-libertarian, anti-Fed ramblings pretentious enough to have been written by Ron Paul, and the eelish good looks to outshine robotic front-runner Mitt Romney. Perry just looked like the inevitable nominee, and it wasn't long before he was sitting atop the polls.

But as a presidential candidate, Perry has mainly distinguished himself with a kind of bipolar wildness in the debates: sullen and reserved one moment, strident and inarticulate the next. He sweats profusely. He can't stand still. When he does manage to get off a zinger, he cracks a smug grin, looking like he's just sewn up the blue ribbon in a frat-house dong-measuring contest. Parts of his record drive the Tea Party nuts, like his decision to pay for the kids of illegal immigrants to attend state colleges just like other students, or his executive order requiring all sixth-grade girls in Texas to be vaccinated against HPV, the human papillomavirus that causes cervical cancer in women.

Liliana Ros, a party committeewoman in Florida, shook Perry's hand during a commercial break at the Orlando debate and promptly finked on him to reporters, offering a pervy description that was missing only the open raincoat and the raging boner. "He grabbed my hand and held on to it," Ros said. "His hand was so cold, like ice. And he was sweating. He didn't seem well, like he was in pain or he was sick or something. I don't know what it was, but something was definitely wrong."

As soon as Perry became that most fragile of early-campaign life-forms, the "presumptive front-runner," opponents and reporters began scrambling to find the skeletons in his closet. The journalism world is abuzz with salacious whispers about his private life, while liberals have focused on his ties to the New Apostolic Reformation, an apocalyptic sect of loopy Christian fundamentalists who think Jesus is coming back soon to blow up the planet. But voters who want to know who Rick Perry really is would do well to remember the advice of noted political analyst Hannibal Lecter, who instructed Jodie Foster about the serial killer she was tracking in "The Silence of the Lambs." What does he do, Lecter asked, this man you seek? He kills women? No, that is incidental. Don't look at what the man does, look at what he is.

It's the same with Rick Perry.

Yes, Perry has deployed some of the campaign's most extreme anti-government rhetoric, denouncing Social Security as an "illegal Ponzi scheme," calling for the repeal of the federal income tax, even seeming to threaten Ben Bernanke with mob violence if he came to Texas. And yes, he hangs out with some of the weirdest religious nuts in America, keeping as allies a Texas evangelical who believes the Democrats are literally controlled by a Satanic demon called Jezebel, and another who believes that a recent Perry-led religious rally helped break an ancient curse laid down on Texas soil by Native American cannibals. And sure, yes, he promises to be a more-than-unusually obnoxious belligerent in the culture wars, having appointed three consecutive creationists to head the Texas State Board of Education, signed a law mandating that every woman who wants to get an abortion must first be forced "Clockwork Orange"-style to stare at a sonogram of the fetus, and executed more prisoners than any governor in modern times.

Yes, he has done all of those things, and more. But it's all incidental. When you ask what Perry's true nature is – the first and principal thing that defines him – there's just one answer: favors.

Favors are the one consistent thread running through Perry's political career. Throughout his time as governor, whenever his ideology or his religion comes into conflict with the need to give a handout to a major campaign donor, ideology and religion lose every single time.

Though 94 percent of schools in Texas teach a sex-ed curriculum based on abstinence-only – an approach that led one watchdog group to conclude that "shaming and fear-based instruction are the standard means of teaching students about sexuality" in Texas – Perry nonetheless signed an executive order mandating that those same girls subjected to those abstinence-only classes receive an STD vaccine. You can't talk about STDs to sixth-grade girls, but if it's worth $120 a shot to a pharmaceutical company like Merck, you can jam the birds-and-the-bees lesson right into their arms.

Those in Texas who have followed Perry most closely over the years have all come to the same conclusion about him. "He's a cash-and-carry governor," says Craig McDonald, director of Texans for Public Justice, a group that monitors campaign contributions in the state. "He has an extremely strong stomach for holding his nose and doing really dirty favors."

"He'll be whatever you want him to be," says one longtime political opponent. "He's all about greed."

"There's no line he won't cross," says another.

"This guy doesn't believe in one damn thing," says a third.

As for how this classic, big-government, machine politician – a man who made massive government stimulus routine at a time when Barack Obama was still shooting baskets in the Senate gymnasium – could run as a small-market conservative and Tea Party champion, many in Texas express bewilderment.

"If you tell a lie often enough, people believe it," says Debra Medina, a Tea Party Republican who ran against Perry in the gubernatorial primary last year. "That's Rick Perry."

It's just after midday, a Monday afternoon, and I'm barreling down a stretch of State Highway 176 in the deadest, hottest part of the Texas desert, a few miles shy of the New Mexico border and about an hour west of the rusted oil wells and Friday night lights of Odessa-Permian. Just before I get to New Mexico, I slow down, hang a right and roll down a dirt road, out of America and into a different country. Rick Perry Country. This is a land neither capitalist nor socialist, but somehow boasting the worst aspects of both systems.

The specific spot I'm looking for is a giant hole in the ground – one of the nation's largest repositories of nuclear waste. The facility is run by a company called Waste Control Specialists, the creature of a shadowy billionaire named Harold Simmons, who was one of the single largest financial backers of the Swift-boat campaign against John Kerry, donating more than $3 million.

Chew on that for a moment: The Kerry smear campaign was powered in large part by radioactive waste – or, more specifically, by the fat government contracts to store such waste that were swallowed up by Simmons, a supposedly "anti-government" extremist who, naturally, is one of Rick Perry's biggest supporters.

The Perry-Simmons nuclear landfill is surrounded by giant piles of red clay rising up out of the desert, flanked by huge manmade chasms designed to hold sand-covered drums of sizzling waste. A person entering its gates feels an irresistible urge to wear lead underpants. It's a terrifying sight, but it's even more disturbing as a symbol of Rick Perry's style of government. In Perry's Texas, state regulation doesn't work because regulatory seats can be bought, and the free market doesn't work because connections and influence matter more than competition and performance. The landfill run by Perry's pals at Waste Control Specialists represents an extreme example of both dysfunctional ends of the governor's approach to government, a taxpayer-financed hole in the ground that is as extremely unsafe as it is woefully uneconomic. "The WCS plant," says Lon Burnam, a Texas state representative, "is the ultimate example of Perry's crony capitalism."

Perry's great triumph as governor has been the construction of an elaborate political machine, one that operates according to its own separate dynamic, using donations, appointments and favors as currency. In fact, Texas is run much like a Soviet protectorate, with a party boss (Perry) and a Politburo of superconnected advisers to the governor who shuffle back and forth between the public and private spheres (Perry's chief of staff, Mike "The Knife" Toomey, for instance, jumped from the governor's office to a job lobbying for Merck prior to the HPV vaccination order), all backed by a somewhat larger Central Committee of big financial donors who are the real "representative" power in the state, much more than the actual state legislature.

Who's on that Central Committee? It's not that hard to figure out. Texas has no limit on individual donations to political candidates, which means the governor's best friends don't have to hide behind soft money and other back-door channels. In Texas, you can pay your tribute right out in the open.

"The total of hard-money donations to Perry's three gubernatorial campaigns is $102 million," says McDonald, who tracks the state's pay-for-play system on behalf of Texans for Public Justice. "Half of that, $51 million plus, came from just 204 donors."

Simmons, the billionaire owner of WCS, is near the top of that list of Perry's 204 super-insiders, having personally donated more than $1 million to Perry's three gubernatorial campaigns. If you add in his donations to the Republican Governors Association, which Perry was elected to lead last year, then Simmons and his company have donated $3 million to Perry-friendly causes in the past 10 years. That makes Simmons the second-biggest donor in Perry's camp, behind the homebuilding magnate Bob Perry (no relation), who has handed over an astonishing $13.7 million to Perry and the governors association.

The system of uncapped donations means that Perry's superinsiders effectively operate as mobsters who hold a chit on the state's government. "These are obscenely huge amounts," says McDonald. "You can give a politician $100 or $1,000 because you like his ideology. But when you start giving him $250,000 or $500,000, you gotta think you are getting something in return."

So what did Harold Simmons get for his money? A lot.

For starters, a group of Perry appointees on the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality gave Simmons a license to build his hazardous nuke dump, even after the TCEQ's own team of scientists agreed that the project was too risky, given how dangerously close it lies to the Ogalalla aquifer, which provides drinking water for seven states.

When I visit the site in September, it has just rained in the area for the first time in a year – really – and there is water all over the place. Rod Baltzer, the president of WCS, insists that the wastewater is being contained and disposed of in a safe, orderly fashion. But it's hard not to look beyond the dump to nearby Eunice, New Mexico, visible just a few miles away, and wonder about the wisdom of taking a private company's word that there is no contaminated water running underground to the nearby town. Especially since another of Simmons' companies, NL Industries, has already been caught leaking radioactive waste into an aquifer in Ohio. In a supremely ironic demonstration of how the modern system of payola capitalism works, Simmons is now being paid millions by taxpayers, via the federal Energy Department, to clean up his own mess, moving radioactive waste from his dump in Ohio to the one in Texas.

All of this is key to understanding Perry, because the WCS landfill so perfectly fits the business model of his key donors. The company leases the land for the dump, meaning that WCS keeps the lion's share of the profits, while the liability mostly stays with the state. There's no real regulation to speak of, and many of the state's decisions appear to have been greased by massive campaign contributions or other favors: The executive director of the state's environmental commission, for instance, received a job as a lobbyist for WCS not long after helping the firm get its license.

What's more, the company even got the government to pay for the landfill, lobbying the town of Andrews to float a $75 million bond issue to finance the construction of two new dump sites on the property. And in a final insult, WCS managed to negotiate a loophole exempting it from having to pay school taxes in Andrews. Instead, it offers a few small scholarships a year.

"When I was a kid, our high school was the first one in Texas to have carpets," says Melodye Pryor, a local resident and longtime opponent of the dump. "Now, our schools are falling apart."

Andrews is little more than a few crisscrossed roads in the middle of the desert, wrapped around a couple of gas stations and Mexican restaurants and populated by tough blue-collar workers hunkered down in modest little sun-cooked houses. If you can grasp this little working-class neck of Texas lending a Dallas billionaire $75 million so that he can keep 90 percent of the revenue from a dangerous nuclear-waste dump that runs without any real regulatory oversight, all while paying no school taxes, then you've begun to understand what Rick Perry's America might look like.

"It's the worst possible hybridization," says Medina, the Tea Party candidate who ran against Perry. "A private entity keeps the receipts. The state and the taxpayer own all the liability."

The descriptions of Perry's early political career all sound like the early chapters of true-crime books about serial killers, where nobody notices anything special about the protagonist until the bodies start piling up along the local riverbank. In Perry's case, those bodies didn't start showing up until 2000, when Bush became president and Perry assumed his seat as governor, turning the state government into a factory of obscene backroom deals. At first, like many of today's would-be Tea Party leaders, Perry started off trying to milk big government rather than dismantle it. In the late Eighties, when Michele Bachmann was training for her future as an anti-tax crusader by working for the IRS, Perry – who like Bush had a military pilot's background, but unlike Bush flew in the real Air Force for five years – was serving in the Texas state legislature, representing Haskell County, a dry little pocket of nowhere just north of Abilene and west of Dallas.

While Bush made a great political career pretending to be a hick Texas rancher, Perry started out as the real thing, a cotton farmer and cattle rancher who spent his early adulthood looking for a way out of life on his dad's farm. "He was ranching with his family," says Fred McClure, a former aide to Sen. John Tower who met Perry in 1978. Perry had come to Washington to observe the American Agricultural Movement, a grassroots campaign launched by farmers to get the federal government to raise farm subsidies. Though the movement was the ideological opposite of the Tea Party, begging for government handouts, Perry knew a political opportunity when he saw it. "This was an early indicator of his ability to evaluate politically what was going on," says McClure, who remains friends with Perry today. "The grassroots nature of the American Agricultural Movement was not unlike the grassroots nature of the Tea Party. He developed the skill set to read the political tea leaves." It was after watching the angry farmers descend on Washington that Perry decided to run for the state legislature. "I think part of it was that he was bored farming in Haskell," McClure says.

Perry's early political career was marked most particularly by a seeming lack of ambition to accomplish anything specific. After being elected to the Texas House in 1984, he told a newspaper in Abilene, "I had not one piece of legislation I planned to carry." When the state land commissioner asked him to sponsor a bill, Perry told the commissioner not to bother explaining it. "I wouldn't understand it anyway," Perry said.

Back then, the future global-warming denier was a Democrat, and even supported Al Gore for the presidency in 1988. But with Texas moving to the right, Perry switched parties the following year – not for ideological reasons, it appears, but because he could sense the wind shifting. "Perry is a really, really good politician," one Republican strategist later explained. "He understood where the state of Texas was going." The move also enabled Perry to defeat Jim Hightower, a popular Democrat, as agricultural commissioner, a powerful post in America's second-biggest farm state. During his two terms in the office, Perry demonstrated little ideological bent, even expressing support for Hillary Clinton's health care plan in the early Nineties. In 1998, Perry was elected lieutenant governor alongside George W. Bush, serving with the kind of distinction that made his boss look like Winston Churchill. Perry reportedly zoned out during a series of breakfast meetings that Bush held with top Texas politicians. "Sometimes, to pass the time, he would file his nails," The New Republic reported.

Bush and Perry reportedly had a chilly relationship, thanks in part to Bush's refusal to let Perry test the limits of political nepotism. In 1995, Perry wanted to nominate his brother-in-law, Joseph Thigpen, to the 11th Court of Appeals. Bush blocked the move, and legend has it that Perry blamed Karl Rove for the incident and never forgave either of them. This might help explain in part why Perry was so eager to start packing the state offices with cronies the moment Bush left for Washington.

Perry's prowess in building his political machine at the expense of taxpayers can be tied directly to his administration's almost mathematical precision in making government handouts match the campaign contribution. "There are a couple of things you need to do if you want to raise obscene amounts of money," says Andrew Wheat, research director at Texans for Public Justice. "One, you need to send the message that you're carefully counting who's giving how much, to create a competitive atmosphere. And two, you want to send not-so-subtle signals that there's going to be a return on the investment. And this governor has been a master of sending those signals."

How masterful has he been? According to Texans for Public Justice, Perry appointed 921 of his donors and their spouses to government posts over the past decade. All told, those appointees gave a staggering $17 million to his campaigns – 21 percent of the entire amount he raised during that time. To give an indication of just how completely for-sale public appointments became during his administration, Perry collected $6.1 million from the 155 people he appointed to be regents of state universities in Texas.

You can get a fairly decent summary of Perry's track record as governor just by going down the list of political favors that were granted to the 204 "Central Committee" members who collectively contributed half of his campaign money. Start at the top: Perry's biggest single donor, the homebuilder Bob Perry, was rewarded with his very own regulatory agency.

Back in the Nineties, Bob Perry made a fortune building cheap homes, and he had enormous success in circumventing regulation, taking advantage of arbitration clauses that prevented homeowners from suing in the event of leaks or faulty construction or other problems. But after he lost a high-profile arbitration case, he and other builders decided to go straight to the top. In 2003, his company's general counsel, John Krugh, served on a task force established to craft new legislation. The result was a bill creating the Texas Residential Construction Commission, which Gov. Perry signed into law that year. Not long after getting a $100,000 check from Bob Perry, the governor appointed Krugh to serve on the new nine-member commission.

The commission, which initially included four builders and not a single consumer advocate, was a masterpiece of deregulation – actually a kind of deregulation from within, in which builders created and ran a toothless regulatory agency to non-police themselves. The body forced homeowners to pay, at minimum, hundreds of dollars for an inspection fee before making any complaint against a builder. And though the commission frequently ruled in favor of ripped-off homeowners, it had no enforcement power at all – meaning homeowners rarely got their homes fixed.

Perry's entire career as governor is marked by a history of similar handouts to his top donors. In 2005, he signed an executive order to speed approval for 17 new coal-fired power plants that would drive the state's carbon footprint past that of Florida, California and New York combined. Eleven of the plants were slated to be built by TXU, a million-dollar donor. Then there was the chicken-farming king Lonnie Pilgrim, who once handed out $10,000 checks on the floor of the Texas legislature in advance of a bill; he gave more than $600,000 to the governor and his causes, and Perry repaid the favor by petitioning the EPA for a waiver of federal ethanol mandates, which had jacked up the price of corn feed for Pilgrim's business.

Perhaps the single most interesting favor that Perry doled out is one that directly violated his supposedly "conservative" Tea Party principles. One of his first big moves as governor was to back the Trans-Texas Corridor, a $175 billion project to privatize the state's highways. This was to be the mother of all public-works projects, a 4,000-mile highway network, at some points four football fields wide, that would also include commuter rails, freight rails and telecom pipelines. The TTC, in essence, was the ultimate Tea Party nightmare, a massive public boondoggle that would have created a huge network of new tolls and required a nearly unprecedented use of eminent domain to help the state seize nearly 500,000 acres of land from ranchers and farmers.

Though most of the project was shot down by the state legislature, Perry did manage to push through several parts of it, most notably a few stretches of new highway construction around Houston and Dallas. Some of the beneficiaries of those projects were American firms that had donated lots of money to Perry and the governors association, like Williams Brothers Construction ($621,000), Parsons Corporation ($410,000) and JP Morgan Chase ($191,000). But another beneficiary was a Spanish firm called Cintra, part of a consortium that won the development rights for the original TTC project.

Cintra's involvement was an obvious case of revolving-door politics. A Cintra consultant named Dan Shelley left private practice in 2004 and joined the Perry Politburo that same year, working as the governor's legislative liaison during the time Cintra was in line to win the multibillion-dollar project. A year later, Shelley went back to private practice, earning more than $50,000 in consulting fees from Cintra once he left "public" office.

Cintra ultimately received about $5 billion in contracts from the state to develop three major highway projects, one of which, a toll road in central Texas, is one of the few surviving remnants of the hated TTC. On another Cintra highway, the North Tarrant Express near Fort Worth, the state ponied up $570 million to subsidize the project and permitted Cintra to recoup its investment by building toll lanes for drivers who want to bypass the free lanes. That means future generations of Texans who are in a hurry to get somewhere will have the pleasure of being able to jump on a toll lane they already paid taxes to help build. It turns out you can mess with Texas after all.

That's if the road ever gets finished. Cintra received a similar contract to run a toll road in Indiana, but it soon ran into financial problems and had to jack up tolls to pay for the $3.8 billion project. In Texas, Cintra will have some latitude to raise rates on its roads, and if you don't like it, well, fuck you. "What are we going to do – go complain to a board in Spain?" says Terri Hall, founder of an advocacy group called Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom that fought the highway deal.

In addition to the highway contract with Cintra, Perry this year signed a bill written in part by a lobbyist for a British firm called Balfour Beatty, paving the way for the state to sell virtually everything that isn't nailed down to anyone – foreigners included. The bill, Hall says, allows "all public buildings, nursing homes, hospitals, schools, ports, mass transit projects, telecommunications, etc. to be sold off to corporations." Even more incredibly, the bill authorizes companies to borrow money from the state, which will also help secure their debt. In other words, Perry passed a bill under which a foreign company could theoretically borrow money from Texas taxpayers to buy the taxpayer's own state property back from him, at a discount!

But the most treasonous Perry deal of all came when he tried to do a macabre favor for his political hero, former senator Phil Gramm. Gramm gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to Perry's campaign, essentially emptying the remnants of his own campaign war chest into Perry's when he left public office and went to work for the Swiss bank UBS. In 2002, Gramm came to Perry's administration with a proposal that would allow the bank to take out life insurance policies on retired Texas teachers. Under the deal, UBS would collect on the policies of the teachers when they died, and reward the state with a small cut for arranging the wagers. Teachers who balked at letting UBS profit from their death were reportedly to be paid $100 to sign on the dotted line. The state insurance commissioner, a Perry appointee, approved a special waiver to allow the deal to go through, but the project collapsed after a media backlash.

To recap: Rick Perry sold the right to tax Texas highway drivers to Spanish billionaires, let a British firm write a law authorizing the sale of virtually all Texas state property to foreign corporations, and tried to literally sell the lives of retired Texas schoolteachers to a Swiss bank. Yet he's somehow built a reputation in the national media as a fist-shaking America-first nativist, with a Tea Partier's passion for small government. How Perry has managed to sell this fictional version of himself is a testament to the extraordinary power of marketing over reality in our modern political system. In fact, his entire career is a profound testament to our nagging collective inability, or perhaps unwillingness, to distinguish between what a politician says and what he actually does.

"People are like, 'He wears a red shirt, he must think like I do,'" says Medina, Perry's Tea Party opponent. "It's 'you're Christian, I'm Christian, we must believe the same.'"

For a long time, perry masterfully exploited this basic weakness of the American voter. As he prepared his run for the White House, he took loud and drastic steps to plant flags in both of the main camps of the Republican Party base, making sure there was an extensive record of Tea Party-friendly remarks attached to his name, as well as lots of file footage of him cozying up to prominent evangelicals. He accomplished the former task mainly through his book, Fed Up!, an impressively shameless volume of avalanching self-congratulatory horseshit that lays the indignant Tea Partyisms on so thick, one imagines Perry wearing a tricorner hat as he dictates to his ghost writer. "We are tired of being told how much salt we can put on our food, what windows we can buy for our house, what kind of cars we can drive," Perry writes. "We are fed up with bailout after bailout and stimulus after stimulus... the government picking winners and losers based on circumstance and luck."

Nowhere in the book, of course, does it mention that Perry, who famously refused Obama's stimulus money and blasted the administration for reckless borrowing and creating "zero jobs," greenlighted two gigantic stimulus programs of his own. Both the $200 million Emerging Technology Fund and the $363 million Texas Enterprise Fund were little more than crude vehicles for repaying campaign donors with state aid. The state has also given millions in handouts through the Texas Film Commission, paying for TV commercials for Fortune 500 firms like Walmart.

Perry, who consistently criticizes Obama for borrowing to pay for his stimulus, even paid for the Texas Enterprise Fund in part by borrowing $161 million from the state's unemployment insurance fund – meaning he took money from the paychecks of blue-collar workers and turned it into millions in welfare grants for companies like Lockheed Martin, Texas Instruments and Hewlett-Packard. Ironically, Texas is now running out of money to pay for unemployment claims – including those laid off by companies receiving grants from the Texas Enterprise Fund.

But despite the fact that Perry does a lot of exactly what he decries in his book, there are still plenty of Tea Partiers who profess fierce loyalty to him. The odd thing is that while being uncompromising and morally absolutist is normally one of the key features of the entire Tea Party movement, some of the same true believers who were willing to risk a national default rather than borrow one single dollar over the debt limit suddenly become long-view-taking pragmatists when it comes to Perry. "Ideology is wonderful in principle," says Toby Marie Walker, a Tea Party leader in Waco, sounding more like Barack Obama than John Birch. "But it's not practical in politics."

Walker says she gives Perry credit for changing course when there was a public outcry over some of his less-than-classically-conservative policies – including his use of eminent domain (he later signed a bill restricting it) and his HPV vaccine order (which he has since renounced as a "mistake"). Admitting your mistakes, says Walker, is "valuable to have in a leader."

When I point out that Perry essentially repeated the same "mistake" this year, signing a bill mandating shots of a meningitis vaccine (made by Novartis, a $700,000 donor) for every college freshman in the state, Walker suddenly changes tack and defends the move as good policy. "You can opt out of a shot – you cannot opt out of meningitis," says Walker, joking that I'm giving the governor a hard time for forcing people to avoid cancer. When I ask how that is any different from Obama forcing people to buy health insurance, she again points to the "optional" nature of Perry's executive orders. "I can't opt out of Barack Obama's health care plan," she says.

In point of fact, students can "opt out" of Perry's vaccines only if they obtain a conscientious-objection form from the Texas Department of State Health Services, and renew it every two years – which, if nothing else, is an entertainingly surrealist take on the Tea Party doctrine of limited government.

In any case, my discussion with Walker is predictably pointless. When I ask about Perry selling stretches of already-paid-for highway to foreigners, Walker replies, "We need another road." When I ask about Perry trying to force Texans to pay tolls to an unaccountable Spanish corporation, the answer is, "I don't have a problem paying for upkeep."

When you start hearing Tea Partiers say they don't mind paying taxes, you know the matter has exited the realm of the logical. Medina, who took an impressive 18 percent of the vote in her primary race against Perry, says some Republican voters are so focused on beating Barack Obama that they can't see the truth about a big-government machine politician like Perry.

"You have to want to know," she says. "And it's easier not to."

As befits any Texas politician, Perry has always been at least superficially religious, growing up in the same Methodist tradition as George W. Bush. But like his relatively late conversion to extreme anti-tax/Tea Party rhetoric, Perry's decision to throw in with the truly loony sect of evangelicals only came very recently, after a prayer meeting with two crazy-ass pastors, Tom Schlueter of Arlington and Bob Long of San Marcos, in his office in 2009. According to The Texas Observer, Schlueter had received a "prophetic message" the day before this visit from a local Christian soothsayer named Chuck Pierce, instructing him to "pray by lifting the hand of the one I show you that is in the place of civil rule." Meaning Perry, apparently.

The governor bought the act, paving the way for his impressive slate of primary-season pandering to evangelicals this year. The big ploy was an early-August stadium God-tacular called "The Response," in which Perry invited Christian leaders – featuring a heavy concentration of Rapture merchants and End Timers – to pack into Reliant Stadium in Houston to read the Good Book and "respond" to wayward America's departure from proper Christian values. Perry surely scored points with evangelicals everywhere by brazenly using state resources to promote the event, which his office unironically described as "a nondenominational, apolitical Christian prayer meeting." And his performance in front of the crowd of 30,000 evangelicals was strong stuff. He smiled through his perfect tan and repeatedly clasped his hands together for rhetorical emphasis as he read from the Book of Joel: "Return to me with all your heart, with fasting, weeping and mourning!"

The choice of reading was no accident, as the Book of Joel is very popular with the two preachers who shared the stage with Perry that night, Alice Patterson and C.J. Jackson, both bigwigs in the extremist movement known as the New Apostolic Reformation. In fact, followers of NAR sometimes refer to themselves as "Joel's Army." They believe Joel describes how God is coming back to set up a "kingdom on Earth" with a church that will be "organized more as a military force with an army, navy and air force," to dispense justice and set shit straight with all of us nonbelievers before the second coming of Jesus.

NAR literature dwells endlessly on the need to conquer the so-called "seven mountains" of earthly culture, including the media, Hollywood and Congress, so all the Democrats and relativist comics and other satanic forces can be purged on time before the Great End. These people are completely nuts, and quite obviously expect Perry to start filling the cattle cars for them as soon as he gets elected.

Watching Perry addressing the crowd, several questions naturally came to mind. One was, "Does he really believe this stuff?" But another one was, "Would it matter if he did?" After all, there are times in life when insanity is indistinguishable from cynicism. A man who will take money to greenlight a dangerous nuclear-waste dump that might blow up 30 years from now is not much different from the guy who doesn't balance his checkbook because he thinks Armageddon is coming before the end of the quarter. In both cases, the long view doesn't matter.

That is why Rick Perry is so dangerous. He represents the ultimate merger of nihilistic short-term corporate calculation and rightist apocalyptic extremism. He is a politician willing to do absolutely anything for a buck today, playing to a demographic of millions willing to walk off a cliff en masse tomorrow. In a Rick Perry White House, there will not be much planning for a rainy-day future.

Perry's run for the White House as a small-government Tea Party conservative is one of the all-time great marketing scams, a breathtaking high-wire act by a man who if nothing else certainly has the gigantic balls required for the most powerful job in the world. But it's an act that should have ended after just a few steps down the rope, when he slipped up in the Orlando debate and told the truth.

Among other attacks that night, Perry was taking criticism for his decision back in 2007 to order all sixth-grade girls in Texas to be inoculated against HPV – specifically, with three shots of Gardasil vaccine, a Merck product that sells for a tidy $120 a shot. Michele Bachmann, who not only hates the move as an intrusive use of state power but probably also because it interferes with God's ability to administer punitive cancers to dabblers in extramarital sex, blasted Perry for delivering such a blatant favor to his corporate buddies at Merck. "We cannot forget that in the midst of this executive order, there is a big drug company that made millions of dollars because of this mandate," she said, pointing out that Perry's former chief of staff was the chief lobbyist for Merck.

Perry's response was telling. "It was a $5,000 contribution that I had received from them," he said. "I raised about $30 million. And if you're saying that I can be bought for $5,000, I'm offended."

The Orlando crowd applauded nervously, not quite grasping what Perry had just said. Had the debate taken place in Austin, however, the crowd would have erupted in knowing laughter. Rick Perry, as any Texan knows, does not roll over for 5,000 measly dollars. He charges a hell of a lot more than that. The price tag varies, of course, depending on the favor. Based on the donations Perry has collected, it costs an average of $39,354 to buy a seat on the board of a state university. Landing a state road project runs about half a million, while creating an entire government commission specifically designed to protect your business interests will run you more than $13 million.

We thought Bush was the worst thing Texas ever gave to America. But if Rick Perry wins the White House, it won't be long before we're all remembering crazy-ass W. and his loony Iraq crusade with something like fondness. Bush, for all his flaws, actually believed in something, and was filled with humanity – negative humanity, mostly, but it was there all the same. Good ol' George, the ex-drunk who loved football, couldn't speak English, choked on his pretzels and sincerely wanted to save Iraq from itself!

There were lines even George Bush wouldn't cross, but we don't know any that exist for Rick Perry. Imagine what he could charge for abolishing the EPA, or selling Mount Rushmore to the Sultan of Brunei. And while he may have slipped in the polls, he's far from done. In this country, you never count out the lowest common denominator, especially when it knows how to raise money. Ω

[As Rolling Stone’s chief political reporter, Matt Taibbi's predecessors include the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O'Rourke. Taibbi has written Spanking the Donkey: On the Campaign Trail with the Democrats (2005); Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire (2007); The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics & Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire (2008); and Griftopia: A Story of Bankers, Politicians, and the Most Audacious Power Grab in American History (2011). Taibbi graduated from Bard College in 1991.]

Copyright © 2011 Rolling Stone

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Copyright © 2011 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

"Police Riot(s)" August 28, 1968, Redux

Occupy (insert city name here) is testing law enforcement coast-to-coast. In a tribute to Chicago and the origins of the Occupy Movement, those protesters can be visited here. If this is a (fair & balanced) look at policing in 2011, so be it.

[x This Modern World]
Officer Friendly
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

(Click to enlatge)

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow". His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Salon and Working for Change. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly.

Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002.

When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political weblog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001.]

Copyright © 2011 Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

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Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Original Odd Couple

This blogger has always admired Julius (Groucho) Marx. T. S. Eliot, not so much. However, it is ironic that Eliot was able to suppress his anti-Semitism when it came to Groucho Marx. Ethnic bigotry makes strange bedfellows. If this is (fair & balanced) tolerance, so be it.

[x Intelligent Life]
An Unexpected Alliance
By Lee Siegel

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The second volume of T.S. Eliot’s letters was recently published by Yale University Press, with new materials and previously unpublished missives. This is as good a time as any to reflect on Eliot’s most fascinating correspondent. Ezra Pound? Well, no. James Joyce? Hmm. No. Paul Valery. Non! I am referring to Groucho Marx. And no, this isn’t a joke. The letters between T.S. Eliot and Julius Henry Marx are among the strangest and most delightful epistles ever created.

Alas, the new volume only goes up to 1922, so it doesn’t include this remarkable correspondence, which began in 1961 and seems to have ended in 1964, shortly before Eliot’s death. I say “seems” because the complete set of letters has never, to my knowledge, been published. A handful of the letters appear in The Groucho Letters, a selection that came out in 1965. In his biography of Groucho, Stefan Kanfer quotes excerpts from letters that are not in the selection, so it can be assumed that at least a few unpublished gems are out there somewhere.

At this point, I should insert some boilerplate reflection, something along the lines of “Two more unlikely correspondents could not be conceived of”, etc. And on the surface, the two men certainly are a surpassingly odd couple. As Anthony Julius puts it in his book, T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form, Eliot was “able to place his anti-Semitism at the service of his art. Anti-Semitism supplied part of the material out of which he created poetry.” And not just his poetry. In polemics like After Strange Gods and The Idea of a Christian Society, Eliot elaborated his belief that Jews had no place in modern life.

Enter Groucho, whose wit was as uniquely Jewish as it was universally comic. Where Eliot was the famous defender of tradition, order and civilised taste, the crux of Groucho’s humour was flouting tradition, fomenting chaos and outraging taste. “I have had a perfectly wonderful evening,” he once said to a host, “but this wasn’t it.” And: “I remember the first time I had sex—I kept the receipt.” And: “The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” As for Groucho’s attitude toward Eliot’s exaltation of art and knowledge, he had this to say: “Well, Art is Art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now you tell me what you know.” What Eliot considered “the waste land” of modern life—the deracination, impudence and profane materialism—was mother’s milk to Groucho.

Yet one day in 1961 Groucho received in the mail a note from none other than Eliot himself. Expressing his admiration for the comedian, Eliot asked him for an autographed portrait. A shocked Groucho sent back a studio photograph of himself, only to receive a second note from the icon of modern poetry requesting instead a picture of the iconic Groucho, sporting a moustache and holding a cigar. A second photograph was sent out and a happy Eliot wrote to thank Groucho: “This is to let you know that your portrait has arrived and has given me great joy and will soon appear in its frame on my wall with other famous friends such as W.B. Yeats and Paul Valery.” Groucho had asked for a portrait of Eliot in return, and the latter happily enclosed one. Then the famously morose poet, characterised by Siefgried Sassoon as having “cold-storaged humanity” and by Ottoline Morrell as “the undertaker”, finished with a joke. “P.S.” he wrote. “I like cigars too but there isn’t any cigar in my portrait either.” Well, sort of a joke.

Eliot’s attraction to Groucho might come as a surprise—it certainly did to Groucho—but there had always been signs of his own buried antic disposition. For one thing, in his early expatriate days in London, he grew fond of wearing pale green powder on his face, occasionally accompanied by lipstick. For another, he expressed great enthusiasm for the defecation scene in “Ulysses” that had appalled Virginia Woolf. V.S. Pritchett described Eliot as “a company of actors inside one suit, each one twitting the others.” One thinks of the twitting Marx Brothers packed into that small stateroom in “A Night at the Opera”.

The St Louis-born American poet, who had transplanted himself to London for an extended impersonation of an Englishman, knew all about the suppressed comedy at the heart of role-play. Appalled by humourless modern ideologies like communism, Eliot might have been drawn to Groucho’s alternative mode of revolution. It seems he agreed with Irving Berlin that “the world would not be in such a snarl, had Marx been Groucho instead of Karl.” Eliot was also experiencing matrimonial happiness for the first time with his second wife, Esmé Valerie Fletcher, so much so that he had stopped writing poetry altogether. With sex, perhaps, came laughter.

As for Groucho, his love for books and culture was unabashed and unabated. “Outside of a dog,” he once proclaimed, “a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog it’s too dark to read.”

The precious handful of letters that have been published reveal mutual warmth and respect—on the surface. Underneath there is a mutual fascination and wariness. They speak of getting together for three years before Groucho and “Mrs Groucho”, as Eliot gamely calls her, arrive at the Eliots’ apartment in London for dinner one evening in 1964. Throughout their correspondence, Groucho is almost alarmingly provocative with Eliot. “I get away with saying some pretty insulting things,” he told one of his biographers. "People think I’m joking. I’m not.” In his new pen pal, Eliot might have recognised Thersites in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida, perhaps the most famous case of parrhesia—compulsive frankness—in literature. It seemed that simply being invited by Eliot into his club, as it were, incited Groucho not to want to be a full member.

Groucho cannot resist the compulsion to remind one of literature’s most famous expatriates of his origins: “Dear Tom…I think I read somewhere that your first name is the same as Tom Gibbons’, a prizefighter who once lived in St Paul.” He is quite open about his ignorance of the very public details of the poet’s life: “My best to you and your lovely wife, whoever she may be.” He pushes Eliot’s origins in his face. In another letter he calls him an “early American, (I don’t mean that you are an old piece of furniture, but you are a fugitive from St Louis)…” In the same letter he relays to Eliot that “the name Tom fits many things. There was once a famous Jewish actor named Thomashevsky. All male cats are named Tom—unless they have been fixed.” He concludes by assuring the famously buttoned-down author that “I would be interested in reading your views on sex, so don’t hesitate. Confide in me.”

Eliot’s well-known attitude towards Jews was something the Jewish provocateur could not leave alone. If the comparison of Eliot to Thomashevsky was not challenge enough, Groucho on another occasion promises Eliot that he will visit him “on my way back from Israel.” (He never does.) Eliot gamely rises to the occasion. “I envy you going to Israel,” he replies, “and I wish I could go there too if the winter climate is good as I have a keen admiration for that country.”

Yet the most intriguing of Groucho’s letters with regard to Eliot is not one that he sent to the poet, but a description of the dinner that finally did take place. Groucho wrote up an account of it for his brother Gummo.

Groucho writes that the week before the dinner, “I read Murder in the Cathedral twice; The Waste Land three times, and just in case of a conversational bottleneck, I brushed up on King Lear.” They begin with cocktails. A lull in the conversation prompts Groucho to “toss” in a quotation from The Waste Land.” Eliot “smiled faintly.” Feeling perhaps slighted by this über-goy, Groucho writes that he “took a whack at King Lear," arguing that the king was “an incredibly foolish old man”. But Eliot, whether annoyed or nonplussed, perhaps passive-aggressively ignores Groucho’s invitation to ponder Lear, preferring instead to discuss “Animal Crackers” and “A Night at the Opera”. “Now,” recounts Groucho triumphantly, “it was my turn to smile faintly.” Suddenly they are like two characters in a play co-written by Samuel Beckett and Neil Simon.

The conversation limps along, Groucho insisting that Lear was an idiot, while Eliot segues into an inquiry about “Duck Soup”. Dinner is then served, which “included good, solid English beef, very well prepared”. Groucho finishes on a note of sincerity: Eliot “is a dear man and a charming host”. Though a butler was present, Eliot had insisted on pouring the wine himself, “and no maitre d’ could have served it more graciously.”

Clearly the two men found a mesmerising bond in each other’s very alienness. That is not so surprising when you think about it. They had both, in their ways, spent their lives following Edgar’s brave, if dangerous, exhortation at the end of King Lear to: “Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.” Or as Groucho famously put it—and it could serve as an epigraph to The Waste Land—“Whatever it is, I’m against it.” It takes one strange god to know another. Ω

[Lee Siegel is a New York writer and cultural critic who has written for Harper's, The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Slate, and many other publications. Siegel is the author of a forthcoming book on Groucho Marx, to be published by Yale University Press. He received his BA, MA and M.Phil. from Columbia University.]

Copyright © 2011 The Economist Newspaper Limited

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

Coach-Killers & "Mall Cops"?

According to Thortein Veblen in 1899 — (The Theory of the Leisure Class) — the glorification of sports and gaming in general is a powerful leisure-class value that shapes and influences all social strata and encourages institutional conservatism. Veblen further notes that sports terminology often parallels that found in the military and in warfare. "To crush one's foe," for example, is a phrase used in both warfare and sports. Sports is used to indoctrinate young people into leisure-class values and is used to maintain the prevailing ideology of rough, cutthroat competition as being acceptable. Veblen taught at the University of Chicago, Stanford University, and the University of Missouri — all football powers in his day. If this is (fair & balanced) jock-raking, so be it.

[x CJR]
The Scandal Beat
By Daniel Libit

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In December, Ohio State University suspended five of its football players for violating the rules governing intercollegiate athletics by exchanging their Buckeye memorabilia for various forms of payment, including the handiwork of a local Columbus tattoo parlor. Over the next few months, the digging of media outlets near and far pried open a capacious vault of misdeeds: the “gear scheme,” as it came to be called, involved not just a few players during a single season, but dozens of players over the better part of a decade; in that time, a number of scholarship athletes had also received sweetheart deals at a local auto outlet; and head coach Jim Tressel had hidden incriminating evidence of these transgressions from his superiors for more than eight months.

Punishment ensued. Ohio State, a perennial power in college football for more than half a century, forfeited its entire 2010 Sugar Bowl championship season; Tressel, regarded by many as a paragon of coaching integrity, was forced to resign; and Terrelle Pryor, the team’s star quarterback who was at the center of the scandal, abruptly left school to try his luck in the National Football League.

In many ways, the chaos in Columbus is just the latest in a seemingly endless series of scandals in big-time college sports. Over the last three decades, investigative sports reporters have excavated dozens of episodes of rule-breaking in football and men’s basketball programs, from Southern Methodist University’s “Ponygate” affair in the 1980s to the pay-for-play shenanigans at the University of Washington in the 1990s to agent tampering at the University of Southern California in the aughts. As this issue went to press, Yahoo Sports blew the lid off the latest installment, at the University of Miami, which, based on initial reports, may eclipse all other scandals in terms of scale and audacity. Off-field trouble, once a side project of the beat, has become the defining story of college athletics. Anyone who doubts it need only scan the header of’s homepage, which on many days reads like the abstract of a criminal indictment.

The cumulative reportage of a relatively small group of sports journalists on what might be called the Scandal Beat constitutes a compelling case for the unenforceability of the NCAA’s bylaws. In the process of building that case, these reporters have delivered an impressive perp walk of bogeymen: scurrilous agents, meddling boosters, selfish teenage athletes, badly behaved coaches. In many ways it has been a wildly successful display of watchdog journalism, and it helped establish the idea that sports is something that can and should be subjected to the same journalistic scrutiny as other institutions in our society—and that the sports desk could be more than just the “Toy Department,” as it had been derisively tagged by newsroom colleagues.

But the success of this work also belies a deeper problem with the coverage of college sports. The Scandal Beat exists as a kind of closed loop: a report of rules violations, an investigation, sanctions, dismissals, vows to do better, and then on to the next case of corruption where the cycle is repeated. The reporting, intentionally or not, promotes the idea that the corruption that plagues the NCAA is the problem, rather than merely a symptom of a system that is fundamentally broken. The Scandal Beat, with its drama and spectacular falls from grace, is much less adept at managing the next step: a robust discussion, prominently and persistently conducted, of why these scandals keep happening and what can be done to prevent them.

Despite its familiar feel, the OSU implosion seemed to represent a significant milepost in the national conversation about big-time college sports—if not a moment of truth, then at least a moment for truth. The fact that the conflagration had claimed a member of college football royalty, combined with the contemporaneous cascade of other scandals—including those that currently smolder at Auburn, Oregon, Boise State, Tennessee, North Carolina, and Oklahoma—appears to have opened the door to the possibility of finally starting that deeper discussion. In August, a summit of university leaders, convened by NCAA President Mark Emmert, agreed to raise educational standards for incoming freshmen and streamline the association’s bloated rule book. Summit participants vowed to address in the coming months the issue of athletes’ financial needs, but Emmert reiterated his opposition to paying students. Meanwhile, a class-action lawsuit filed against the NCAA by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, which challenges the non-compensation of college athletes, is slated to go to trial in early 2013.

The sports commentariat has begun to question, more frequently and volubly, the very foundation of amateurism and higher education that the stakeholders in big-time college sports cling to. And even some of the stakeholders themselves are easing their grip: Mike Slive, the commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, which is widely considered to be the dominant football conference in the country, has advocated providing additional financial support for athletes, and in July confessed that the scandal headlines had cost major college sports the “benefit of the doubt.”

This moment may come to nothing. Given the NCAA’s history of fecklessness and the powerful financial interests aligned with the status quo, meaningful reform will be difficult. But it raises an interesting question for the future of sports coverage: Is the Scandal Beat, with its singular focus on busting rule-breakers, paving the way to reform or helping to block the way?

Sharecropper Economy

Even at its most righteous, college athletics—and I’m referring here to the so-called revenue sports, football and men’s basketball—is a multibillion-dollar enterprise based on an exploitive business model. Universities get gobs of money that helps float their entire athletic departments, and coaches and administrators are paid handsome salaries, all from the talent and effort of an essentially unpaid labor force of young athletes.

The NCAA’s 346 biggest athletic departments, which are classified as Division I, took in combined revenue of $8.7 billion last year. Ohio State’s budget alone topped $100 million; and Jim Tressel, prior to his resignation, was earning an annual salary of roughly $3.5 million. (It’s worth noting that Tressel was only the sixth-highest-paid college football coach in 2010; Alabama’s Nick Saban topped the list at $6 million.)

Meanwhile, the “compensation” for OSU’s football players, like all collegiate athletes, tops out at tuition, room, and board—but only for those on scholarship. This fact—that the kids get at least a shot at a free college degree—is what defenders of the system lean on when the matter of exploitation comes up. But even allowing for improved average graduation rates (which the NCAA trumpeted last year despite decidedly mixed results, especially at the more prominent sports schools), the idea that meaningful education is behind all of those diplomas is at least debatable, when one considers the number of “general studies” degrees and the evidence—turned up by the Scandal Beat—that classwork is not always handled by the athletes alone.

In any event, these “student-athletes” are prevented from earning any additional money that might be construed as related to their role as an athlete. Schools can sell the players’ jerseys and other memorabilia at stadium gift shops, they can put the players on billboards, feature them in television ads, and trot them out to impress the boosters, all without a dime going into the athletes’ pockets. In March, HBO’s “Real Sports” did the math and found that under the revenue-sharing model used by the NFL and National Basketball Association, where players get 57 percent of league revenues, members of the University of Texas’s 2009 football team were each worth $630,000 while those of last year’s national champion Duke University men’s basketball team were worth $1.2 million each. A USA Today story that same month calculated the median annual cost of an athlete’s grant-in-aid package: $27,923, a relative pittance.

It is a disjuncture of the market value that begs to be disobeyed, a fact that isn’t lost on the Scandal Beat reporters. “I once heard athletes described as sharecroppers, and I always thought that was pretty accurate,” says Charles Robinson, the senior investigative reporter for Yahoo Sports who has had a hand in breaking some of the biggest corruption scandals in recent years, including the latest out of Miami.

Robinson and his colleagues have captured the surface consequences of this perverse economy (the rampant cheating), but their work also has atomized a story fundamentally about economics into an endless cat-and-mouse game of rules violations.

Rise of the Scandal Beat

Reporters first began to seriously grapple with the chicanery in college sports in the 1940s, when a point-shaving scandal that began with City College of New York spread to six other universities. “Big-time college basketball, the commercialized, Madison Square Garden variety, got another brutal kick in the teeth,” read a Time magazine story from 1951, “the worst yet, in a game already punchy from its own scandals.”

In the 1960s, Jack Scott, a former Stanford sprinter who became athletic director at Oberlin College, set out to save college sports by crusading against its over-commercialization and over-authoritarian coaching culture. “Scott really gave voice to a lot of the ills underlying a lot of this stuff and he did it in a very smart and organized way,” says Sandy Padwe, who served two stints as Sports Illustrated’s senior editor in charge of investigations from the late 1970s to the mid-1990s. “Slowly, but surely, people began to realize that the only way to get at the root of this problem was do it investigatively.”

But it was in the 1980s that college sports ballooned into the sprawling, hype-besotted business we know today—and, not coincidentally, when the Scandal Beat really took root. A 1984 Supreme Court decision ruled that the NCAA’s television plan—which limited the number of televised football games and the opportunities for schools to negotiate their own terms—violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, paving the way for the explosion of modern college football broadcasting. In 1982, CBS began exclusively broadcasting the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, at a price of $16 million a season (it grew to $55 million by 1988). Last year, the NCAA grossed $680 million from fees on television and marketing rights.

As the money in the newly corporatized college sports world soared, and the NCAA’s rule book grew fatter and more nitpicky, so too did the incentives to break the rules. A post-Watergate zeal in the nation’s newsrooms and the failure of the NCAA’s enforcement arm to keep pace further crystallized the mission of the Scandal Beat. “College sports was fertile ground,” says Armen Keteyian, a former investigative reporter for Sports Illustrated who is now the chief investigative correspondent for CBS News. “It was like a hundred-to-one in terms of scandals to the number of NCAA investigators. They were naïve, and they didn’t have the depth of knowledge to do these kinds of investigations.”

Journalism did, however, and a handful of investigative pioneers on the sports desk built the template for the Scandal Beat, establishing the methods (hanging around parking lots to find out what cars athletes drove, for instance), the patois (“in violation of NCAA rules”), and the general disposition of the scrutiny. The work, done with great ingenuity and often at great risk—reporters faced death threats while their employers endured lawsuits and subscription cancellations— won its journalistic stripes. Within the decade, two mid-sized newspapers would win Pulitzers for their investigations of athletic departments: The Arizona Daily Star in 1981 and the Lexington (Kentucky) Herald Leader in 1986.

Still, one of the salient points of Jack Scott’s “radical athleticism” movement begun a generation earlier, that the rule-breaking that plagued college sports is intrinsically tied to the commercialization of the enterprise, tended over time to get lost in the cataclysm of corruption that toppled heroes and humbled great universities. “We operated under, ‘Here are the rules and if people are breaking those rules we’re going to report on that,’” says Elliott Almond, an investigative sports reporter for the Los Angeles Times back then who now covers Stanford for the San Jose Mercury News. “We were never entirely reflective.”

The Coach Killer

George Dohrmann’s career provides an instructive illustration of the Scandal Beat’s allure as well as its limitations. Dohrmann, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, started in 1996 as a part-timer answering phones on the Los Angeles Times’s sports investigative desk. Among his first story assignments was to co-author a series that explored the matrix of conflicted interests that suffuse elite amateur basketball in talent-rich Southern California.

While doing those stories, Dohrmann got a tip that Baron Davis, a highly-rated point guard who had recently committed to play at UCLA, was driving around in a suspicious car. Dohrmann went to Davis’s high school to poke around, where he spotted Davis pulling out of a parking lot in a black 1991 Chevy Blazer. As Dohrmann soon reported, the Blazer originally belonged UCLA coach Jim Harrick, who sold it to Davis’s sister two days after Davis signed his letter of intent with the school. Despite what seemed a clear violation of NCAA rules, the Pac-10 Conference (now the Pac-12), of which UCLA is a member, failed to find any wrongdoing on the part of the coach or the school, ultimately accepting their contorted explanation of how the transaction was aboveboard.

“That shaped everything that I have come to understand about how the NCAA works,” says Dohrmann. “We found something that anybody with healthy common sense would say was a quid pro quo and the school managed to explain it away.”

Nevertheless, a month later, Harrick was fired. The official explanation was that he had falsified expense reports to obscure the fact he had taken recruits out for dinner, but it is hard to believe that Dohrmann’s revelations had nothing to do with the decision.

Not long after, Dohrmann left the Times to cover the University of Minnesota for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. “You walk in and you assume that the school is cheating,” he says, describing his mindset at the time. In 1999, Dohrmann, then just twenty-six, found the dirt in the Golden Gophers’ athletic department, reporting a series of stories that detailed an academic fraud operation in the men’s basketball program. The revelations won Dohrmann a Pulitzer, and a job at Sports Illustrated, while the school was hit with serious sanctions and its coach, Clem Haskins, received a seven-year ban.

Ohio State’s Jim Tressel would be Dohrmann’s third scalp, though he had more than a little help in taking it.

In March of this year, three months after the press conference announcing the player suspensions at OSU, Yahoo’s Charles Robinson and Dan Wetzel broke the story that Tressel had known for months about the gear swapping by members of his team. This touched off a feeding frenzy by other outlets, notably the Columbus Dispatch, ESPN, and the OSU student newspaper, The Lantern.

By April, Dohrmann had become convinced that no other reporter was pushing the tattoo parlor angle far enough, so he flew to Columbus and began asking questions. On May 27, a Friday, Dohrmann phoned Ohio State with the allegations his reporting had turned up: that, going back to 2002, significantly more players than had been reported had traded memorabilia for tattoos, including nine who were currently on the team. On Sunday, the university responded to Dohrmann with a statement from athletic director Gene Smith that distanced the school from Tressel. The next day, Tressel resigned.

Dohrmann’s scoop earned him plaudits from the sports journalism community at large, but there were detractors. Deadspin’s Tommy Craggs and Fox Sports’s Jason Whitlock, both outspoken critics of the NCAA generally—Craggs has prophesied its ultimate demise—and of the Scandal Beat specifically, publicly attacked the SI exposé. Whitlock, fomenting on Twitter, called it a “typical slave-catcher investigation,” and mocked what he perceived to be Dohrmann’s and Sports Illustrated’s efforts to take credit for Tressel’s firing. Craggs, in a blog post, said Dohrmann represented a “passel of excellent journalists” who had “turned themselves once again into mall cops for the NCAA.”

Dohrmann doesn’t see it quite that way. “If he means we go get things the NCAA’s enforcement staff doesn’t, he is correct,” Dohrmann says. “If he feels that we are doing the NCAA’s job, this would be like saying The New York Times is the Justice Department’s mall cop.”

Still, Dohrmann has his own misgivings about the Scandal Beat. “Of course the NCAA can change and it does change slightly, and stories that show wrongdoing force small changes,” he says. “Now, every compliance arm in the country is dealing with tattoos. When I wrote about academic fraud in Minnesota, I am sure every school in the country tightened up its academic counseling department. Small changes occur because of the scandal. Are there macro changes, like paying athletes, because enough of these scandals get broken? It is possible. I just have no faith.”

Beyond the Scandal Beat

The paradox that Dohrmann describes—he both defends the work and acknowledges its limitations in getting at the underlying problems—came up time and again in my conversations with Scandal Beat writers.

Rick Telander, the Chicago Sun-Times sports columnist whose 1989 book, The Hundred Yard Lie, argued that big-time college football should remove its threadbare veil of amateurism, puts a finer point on the discrepancy, calling the rules violations the “crumbs of the problem.” He says: “The big muffin is right in front of us every day. We know it and accept it, so that’s where all the craziness starts. We accept the Big Lie, so we are dazzled and amazed by the little lies. I have found that completely self-defeating and really it hasn’t changed.”

In this way, the Scandal Beat sets its own trap. It produces important stories that fit into a celebrated tradition of muckraking and watchdog reporting. They are the kinds of stories that win prizes and generate traffic. Most of the reporters who do them have been reared in an industry whose professional code demands “objectivity,” a sort of bloodless presentation of the facts that, at its worst, can reduce an obvious injustice to a he said, she said cop-out. The result is straightforward coverage of the NCAA and its rules—and the inevitable violations of those rules—rather than coverage that challenges the validity of the rules themselves, and the system that upholds them.

There are journalistic efforts to come at the ills of college athletics from the less sensational but potentially more fruitful direction of economic justice. For about five years, the Indianapolis Star’s investigative reporter Mark Alesia covered the NCAA, which is based in Indianapolis, as a quasi-beat, tailoring his focus to the underlying economic issues, as opposed to matters of enforcement. In 2006, he wrote a series of stories that scrutinized the astounding fact that less than 1 percent of the NCAA’s athletes produce more than 90 percent of its revenue.

In 2008, Alesia moved to a news-side investigative beat and his work on the NCAA largely ended. These days, only USA Today follows the money of college sports as a matter of practice, annually updating a database of head coach salaries and athletic department budgets. The newspaper’s reporters mine the data for stories that probe the commerce of college sports. Other outlets have only occasionally delved into the economic-justice angle. Two years ago, espn’s investigative program "Outside the Lines" and jointly produced a month-long series, “Mixed Messages,” which dissected examples of the NCAA’s economic one-sidedness, including the contentions of the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit. In July, returned to the subject with a five-day series on athlete compensation called “Pay to Play.” And last March, during the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, PBS’s "Frontline" took a whack at the question of paying players. In one poignantly ticklish moment, correspondent Lowell Bergman challenged NCAA President Mark Emmert to reveal his salary on air, which Emmert huffily declined.

Tim Franklin, the former editor of both the Orlando Sentinel and The Baltimore Sun who recently stepped down as head of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University, talks of the need to broaden the sports beat, to bring other perspectives to the coverage. “It is critical for news organizations to have higher education reporters and metro desks looking at this,” Franklin says. “Reporters on financial desks should be reporting on the financial statements of athletic departments. There are thousands of stories in the data in those reports that aren’t being done.”

To the extent this more elemental coverage is being done, it is largely drowned out by the endless stream of titillating details pouring from the Scandal Beat. After thirty years of a Groundhog-Day-like chronicling of transgressions and punishments, a once sober journalistic enterprise has in many ways become a source of entertainment, parceling the failings of intercollegiate athletics into the simple, binary terms sports fans can appreciate: winners and losers, sinners and saints. And as Dohrmann says, “Fans actually give a shit about who is and isn’t breaking the rules.”

Just as the pioneers who built the Scandal Beat in the 1980s sought to bring the values of public-service journalism to the sports department, the beat’s current practitioners face the challenge of how to respond to the difficult truths that their work has helped to lay bare. Because what has become clear is that the most important story in college sports is no longer a sports story at all. Ω

[Daniel Libit is a freelance journalist who formerly reported for Politico. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.]

Copyright © 2011 Columbia Journalism Review

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2011 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves