A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Why put a funnyman in the guv’s mansion? Intentionally, that is.
By REYNA GOBEL
Back in the 1920s and ’30s, Will Rogers had a plan for everything from fixin’ the national debt to staying out of whatever war came along. The Oklahoma humorist and writer, who made Fort Worth a hub for his philanthropic efforts, never really ran for public office. Sure, he held the honorary title of mayor of Beverly Hills and once ran a fake campaign for president in a national magazine. But he never seriously wanted to be a politician. He was having too much fun.
Over at the 8.0 Restaurant in Sundance Square, at a few ticks after midnight on Tuesday, hours after this newspaper was put to bed, another popular humorist and writer was set to launch a critical part of a very real political campaign. Kinky Friedman, former Texas Monthly humor columnist, author of 17 mystery novels, and devotee of Will Rogers, was set to start gathering the 45,540 voters’ signatures he needs to get his name on the ballot to run for governor.
“Tarrant is one of our most active counties,” said Laura Stromberg, spokeswoman for the Kinkster’s campaign. Fort Worth was chosen as one of five cities where those who “Saved Themselves for Kinky” (i.e., didn’t vote in the primary) could go to celebrate and maybe sign their names to the critical petition (a runoff in the gubernatorial primary would delay the sign-up’s start). Independent candidates — including State Comptroller Carole Keeton Strayhorn, another would-be-guv — have until May 11 to gather the required signatures. Kinky plans “Road Shows” where volunteers, such as the 350 expected in Fort Worth, will go door-to-door to collect signatures and then meet him at a thank-you party at night. Of course, his new show on CMT, Go Kinky, doesn’t hurt in the publicity department either.
His campaign slogan is pithy: “Kinky Friedman — why the hell not?”
Well, that kinda answers the question of why people might want to vote for him. But it doesn’t even touch the tougher question: Why in blue blazes would he want them to?
Until now, Kinky has followed in Will Rogers’ path. He had one of the greatest gigs in the world, writing about whatever he wanted for Texas Monthly. He could smoke all the cigars he wanted, wherever he wanted. He and Willie Nelson are already buddies. Both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton invited him to stay at the White House (“I’m the only man alive who’s slept under two presidents,” he says.) He already owns a ranch. Heck, he could probably get a town or two — at least a highway — named after himself just by callin some ol’ highway department fella on the blower. Why trade all that for a job where you have to make football bets with Arnold Schwarzenegger, keep a straight face when talking to legislators, and are seriously expected to help untangle Texas school finance? Even his mythical detective would blanch at that one.
A few weeks ago, I rented a Dodge Neon and drove down to his ranch outside Kerrville to find the answer.
After stopping at a peach stand to ask for directions, I finally found the tiny wooden sign for Echo Hill Ranch. I felt a sense of accomplishment already — I’m a Gen-X’er raised by New York parents who didn’t believe there was a place in the world not pinpointed on Yahoo Maps. I found the exception.
I wasn’t the only one there, of course. Dogs and tv crews wandered about. While I waited in Kinky’s little white cabin, a writer from The New Yorker brought me a glass of water — wow.
Kinky put on his cowboy hat — apparently, he figured my keen interrogation would make his head sweat. And sure enough, he tried tossing off the “why run?” question with a joke. Since he had to quit writing his Texas Monthly column, he said, “I don’t have a job. ... So I have to win.”
He also said he needed to win because it would give him a place to live, but he immediately took that back. True, he’s not homeless, but he said that a life of touring with the band made him, for years, the oldest living Jew in Texas not to own real estate.
Then he talked about who’d live in the governor’s mansion with him. He’s not married, but, “There still might be a first lady by the time the election rolls around.” If not, then Perky, formerly his dad’s dog, will get the title. Kinky plans on installing doggie doors throughout the mansion and assigning a state trooper to play catch with Mr. Magoo, his largest dog, who held a tennis ball in his mouth throughout the interview.
Hey, this wasn’t my first rodeo. (Actually I’ve never been to a rodeo. But it wasn’t my first Tough Interview.) I refused to be sidetracked. As he autographed a barf bag for a flight attendant, I asked again: Why give up writing for politics?
He said he asks himself, at every turn, what would Will Rogers do? (Can WWWRD bracelets be far off?) “I think I’m in touch with Texans, with real Texans, more than any politician,” he said. “Just to start with, I come from a family of educators. I’ve traveled the state as an author and as a singer in a way the politicians never to get meet them.” He doesn’t pretend to have an instant answer for every question, the way politicians do, he said. But he has a weapon. “Humor is a weapon,” he said. “Will Rogers used it as a weapon. So did Mark Twain. So did Voltaire and a lot of writers.”
A weapon, but not a reason. Metaphorically, I turned the light full in his face. (Reality: We were outside at a picnic table, and the sun came out.) Finally, he answered my basic question.
“I’ve said it before — that I’ve achieved all my dreams and I want to help other people, especially young Texans, to achieve some of theirs,” he said. Besides, he said, he’s running because a Will Rogers brand of common sense needs to be brought into Texas politics.
Comedians in public office are no rarity here. But common sense in Texas politics? Now that’s humor.
Reyna Gobel is a freelance writer and journalism graduate student at the University of North Texas.
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