The Alamo. A great place to make a stand. Or take a stand, which is exactly what Richard "Kinky" Friedman did earlier this year when he kicked off his campaign for the 2006 Texas governor's race. No doubt the overwhelming odds that faced the Alamo's defenders served as a fitting reminder to Friedman of his own chances in next year's election.
But political suicide was not a concern of the crowd gathered at the cradle of Texas liberty that February day as Friedman announced his candidacy. They weren't just family or friends or staffers or shills, but people interested in hearing the man that CBS News touts as having "a mouth like a sailor, a wardrobe like Johnny Cash and a cigar like Winston Churchill." Others were there, too, fans of Friedman's music and his writings who hope this political outsider will soon become the ultimate insider. What they got then and since is a series of position statements and campaign platforms whose insight and wit tell us as much about America as they do of the man dishing them out.
Of course Friedman rails against the status quo, labeling Democrats and Republicans "decaf or regular, paper or plastic." He's just as cynical about Gov. Rick Perry, a man whose principal decision on a daily basis, according to Friedman, is "whether or not he should wear French cuffs." Yet Friedman is also willing to take on tough topics, the ones political hacks prefer to eye from a distance. Let's start with school prayer:
"When I'm governor, it'll be legal for schoolkids to pray to the god of their choice. What's wrong with having a kid believe in something?" he asks. It's the sort of comment that draws appreciative nods and brings new believers into the fold.
He's also just as likely to dismiss issues he considers superfluous to the political realm. Would he have used his gubernatorial powers to intervene on behalf of Terri Schiavo? "I'm running for governor, not God," he responds.
One secret of Friedman's success and a key reason his campaign appearances draw large crowds is that at the precise moment you begin to take him too seriously, he lets go with a patented one-liner, such as this observation on one of the most contentious topics in politics today:
"I support gay marriage 'cause I believe they have a right to be just as miserable as the rest of us."
Another standby is his pat description of his skill set: "I'm a 60-year-old with the reading level of a 62-year-old." Most audiences are easy pickings after such self-deprecation.
However, you don't win statewide office in Texas using a laugh meter. It takes a checkbook -- a fat one. Politics is big business in the Lone Star State, a phenomenon that dates back to the early days of LBJ and his political foes, Pappy O'Daniel and Coke Stevenson. The last governor's race cost the candidates' backers more than $100 million, a sum far beyond the means of most political neophytes (Ross Perot and Michael Bloomberg excepted). One thing is for sure: neither political party will look kindly on anyone who costs its respective candidate votes, money or airtime.
"The powers that be are going to try to tear you to pieces," Bill O'Reilly warned Friedman during an appearance on "The O'Reilly Factor" in March.
"Absolutely," said Friedman.
But no matter how he fares or how much he's outspent, Friedman will leave a distinctive mark on Texas politics because of his already classic campaign slogan: "Kinky Friedman. Why the hell not?" It may not rank up there with "I like Ike" or "A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage," but it's a quantum leap forward compared to Friedman's last electioneering attempt, an ill-fated run two decades ago for justice of the peace in his hometown of Kerrville, Texas. By comparison, that effort seems positively backwoods due in part to a slogan that went something like "Elect Kinky Friedman the first Jewish justice of the peace in Kerrville, and I'll reduce the speed limit to 54.95."
Yet the candidate insists his maiden political venture was not for naught. He's quick to point out that "George W. [Bush] lost his first election [for the House of Representatives, in 1978], and look where he is today."
Given his eclectic background -- singer, songwriter, novelist -- the political arena might well be a perfect fit for Friedman. A graduate of the University of Texas at Austin, he joined the Peace Corps right out of college and was promptly shipped off to Borneo. His assignment? "To show people who'd been farming successfully for more than two thousand years how to improve their agricultural methods," he says.
That two-year stint may have been when he began developing his distaste for politics as usual. Four decades later, it's a full-blown vendetta and the hallmark of his campaign. "When somebody from Washington comes to your state and asks, 'How can I help,' there's only one response: run. As fast as you can. Forget politicians. What Texas needs is to elect a musician. Or a beautician," he says.
One of the positive offshoots of his Borneo years was ample free time. Friedman made good use of this by meticulously planning his next scheme: a country band he would christen Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys. In due order, Friedman returned to Texas, and the Jewboys took shape. Audiences were soon tapping their toes to the likes of "They Ain't Makin' Jews Like Jesus Anymore" and that anthem of male chauvinistic pigs everywhere, "Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed."
But this bandleader does more than pen lyrics; he's also a talented author. The musical iconoclast soon began churning out mystery novels with catchy names: Greenwich Killing Time, The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover, A Case of Lone Star, Roadkill, Meanwhile Back at the Ranch and Armadillos & Old Lace. In a candid outburst at a crowded book signing this year, he revealed the secret of his literary prowess:
"With regards to my most recent book, Ten Little New Yorkers, as always I have to give the disclaimer that I didn't really write this book. This was ghostwritten by Mary Higgins Clark. She ghostwrites all my work," he told several hundred book buyers in a well-honed deadpan. Many of those in line sported "Get Kinky 2006" gimme caps. All burst into laughter.
Ten Little New Yorkers was Friedman's last murder mystery, at least for a while; he'll be on the campaign trail from now till November 2006. The popularity of his novels led to countless appearances on talk shows and who knows how many other promotional appearances. In one respect he's achieved the sort of exalted status typically reserved for Pulitzer Prize winners and Nobel laureates. He's become a White House regular. In this regard, Friedman views himself as continuing the esteemed tradition of such Oval Office frequent flyers as Billy Graham and Jesse Jackson.
Although others might crow about having slept in the Lincoln Bedroom, the high point of Friedman's visits to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue has always been lighting up in the same environs as his cigar-smoking predecessors, men such as Andrew Jackson, Ulysses S. Grant and John F. Kennedy. On one of his more recent visits, an enthusiastic White House staffer saw fit to inform Friedman that Hillary Clinton's brother also belonged to this storied tradition of smokers.
"Somehow Hughie Rodham wasn't quite the historical predecessor I was hoping for," Friedman recalls.
Yet despite the best efforts of several of our country's chief executives, the Kinkster has failed to cash in on his White House kitchen pass and score a cushy job or choice appointment. This may well be his own doing. His self-destructive tendencies are revealed in one of his favorite presidential anecdotes concerning an evening soiree a few years ago:
"Back when Bill Clinton was president," he says, "I was invited to this wonderful dinner. Clearly my reputation had preceded me because I was seated at the president's table. Turns out the woman seated next to me was Sherry Lansing, who at the time was in charge of Paramount Pictures. Now, the president had been telling Sherry about my mystery novels, how they featured a transplanted Texan who lives in New York, someone remarkably similar to myself who in fact also happens to share my name. The next thing you know, I've got the head of Paramount Pictures talking to me about a movie project based on a character named Kinky Friedman. 'Who do you think should portray the Kinkster?' she asks. 'That's easy,' I said. 'Lionel Richie.' She never said another word to me the rest of the night."
Last fall, on his most recent visit to the White House, Friedman tried to finagle a deft political sleight of hand when he caucused with former Texas Gov. Bush and informed president No. 43 of his gubernatorial ambitions. A presidential endorsement was not forthcoming.
"The president's hands are tied," Friedman admits. "He's the leader of the Republican Party. He's got a Republican governor in office here in Texas. So he can't really come out and campaign for me or endorse me. He has to be careful. That's why I appreciate his offer to be a one-man focus group."
The Republican stranglehold on the Texas Legislature, however, combined with the GOP's occupation of every major statewide office, may actually benefit Friedman as well as other outsiders in the next elections. A storm is brewing across Texas, one fueled by voter discontent. At the conclusion of this year's legislative session, no progress had been made on voters' top priority: education spending. As this editorial in June from one Texas newspaper, the Lufkin Daily News, demonstrates, citizens and opinion makers are incensed:
"Gov. Rick Perry and members of the state House and Senate knew going in that their mandate was to find a fair and effective way to replace a public school finance system that absolutely everyone agrees is broken. They couldn't do it."
Friedman is already on the attack. Education reform is his campaign's top priority, and he's considering every option to the ineffective system in place today. At a campaign stop in Galveston, he suggested eliminating public funding of school sports. His novel solution? Have school athletic programs underwritten by corporate sponsors such as Nike or Wilson.
This sort of outside-the-box thinking is typical of his untraditional campaign. The candidate has already been in contact with like-minded Texans, individuals who could possibly serve in an upcoming Friedman administration, including fellow musician Billy Joe Shaver for Texas poet laureate, artist Bob "Daddy-O" Wade to head up the Texas Arts Commission, and Ray Benson, "the world's tallest living Jew" and the lead singer for Texas swing band Asleep at the Wheel, as culture minister.
"Willie Nelson has already agreed to come on as my energy adviser," Friedman announces. "Look at oil prices: over $50 a barrel. Ten years from now, it'll be a dollar a drop and the Saudis will be playing the jukebox. The answer is bio-diesel. Truckers love it. Environmentalists love it. And Texas, which led the country in oil production for decades, needs to take the lead in this as well. No one has supported America's farmers like Willie has. He kept thousands of family-owned farms in business with Farm Aid. And he's going to do it again with bio-diesel."
Ever the populist, Nelson sees his friend's candidacy as more than just a blow for energy independence. In a telephone interview from somewhere in California on board his bus, the Honeysuckle Rose III, Nelson sounds off on the state of American politics. "Some people say that for Kinky to run as an independent isn't a good idea. I disagree. Look at [Jesse] Ventura in Minnesota. Or [Arnold] Schwarzenegger in California. People are fed up with politics as usual. Put an honest, upright guy in the race, and there's a good chance that the millions of people who've been staying out of politics and not showing up at the polls might get interested again. What have they got to lose?"
The combination of Friedman's larger-than-life personality and his maverick approach has generated a flurry of press, far more than most third-party candidates could ever hope for. In addition to "The O'Reilly Factor," Friedman has been featured in numerous articles statewide and nationally. He's been profiled on CBS's "Sunday Morning" and sat in with Don Imus on MSNBC's "Imus in the Morning."
He'll need all the press he can get. Election laws in Texas are not kind to independents. To get his name listed on next year's ballot, the Friedman campaign will have to collect almost 50,000 signatures from registered voters who do not vote in either the Republican or the Democratic primaries. It's no small task.
"That's nothing," the candidate says. "Go to KinkyFriedman.com. We've already got almost 10,000 volunteers signed up. Getting 50,000 signatures will be a piece of cake. We'll start with the fine folks at your cigar smoker," he adds, mentioning a gathering I host in Austin at the Saveur Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival.
Some years we sample single malts. More often than not it's high-end Tequilas, which, given the Texas setting, prove the most popular, especially when the Kinkster shows up and takes the mike. He'll talk about anyone and anything. When listening to him, however, it takes a finely tuned ear to discern the truth from a good one-liner. Like the time a few years back when he told all of us that he was getting into politics. Not as a candidate, of course, but in support of one. He had put himself in charge of a new political action committee, Gay Texans for Phil Gramm. Who knows what sort of conniptions the former senior senator from Texas and his minions had to endure as they distanced themselves from Friedman's antics.
Put the 60-year-old on stage in a smoke-filled room, and he tends to wax lyrically about his heroes, those larger-than-life characters whose cigar consumption borders on prodigious. Among his favorites are Winston Churchill, a leader of men, Friedman is wont to point out, who almost never was seen without a cigar during the Second World War; Mark Twain, who smoked up to 40 cigars a day and uttered one of Friedman's favorite quotes, "If smoking is not allowed in heaven, I shall not go"; and Thomas Edison, who, according to Friedman, lived to be 84 by "blowing smoke at people who ridiculed his inventions."
Friedman claims he took up cigar smoking for health reasons. "Cigar smokers live longer," he says, singling out octogenarians such as Sigmund Freud and Edison and, of course, Churchill, who lived to be 90. Friedman generally smokes eight cigars a day, though he says 12 is more typical when he's writing. He admits to a particular fixation for Montecristo No. 2s. Lately he's been smoking Bolivars. In typical fashion, he explains his atypical rationale. "Simon Bolivar is the only person in history to be exiled from a country named after him," he says.
Not surprisingly, the candidate is adamant about rolling back any and all smoking bans if he's elected governor. It's the sort of approach he plans to use to distance himself from his only announced opponent, Govenor Perry, whom Friedman derides as "a career politician." Oddly enough, the sole experience that Friedman thinks served Perry well was his years at Texas A&M as a collegiate cheerleader.
"Hell, George Bush was a cheerleader," Friedman says. "And Kay Bailey Hutchison was one as well, and she can probably kick both of their asses. But the one thing you've got to remember is this: They're all going to be cheering for me. 'Cause after next year's election, I'm the one who's going to be carrying the ball."
Texas-based Eric O'Keefe has profiled a variety of entertainment and political figures, including Russell Crowe, Tommy Lee Jones, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.