Is Joe Straus too cool? Is Ted Cruz too cold?

What are you enthusiastic about, other than getting out of here at 9 o’clock?

Good day Austin:

Evan Smith’s interview with House Speaker Joe Straus was fine.

Of campus carry, Straus said, “I think the way we did it was fine.”

Of using A to F letter grades to evaluate schools, “I’m fine with it.”

“Not a top priority of yours?”

“Not really.”

Of his relationship with Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, “I worked with him fine.”

And, of Greg Abbott’s first session as governor, “I think he did fine.”

“Again with the fine,” said the mildly exasperated Smith.

“OK, he did well,” Straus said.

“Mr. Speaker, I could go down the list of issues here, what I’m struck  by is your standard, stock, low highs, high lows, even-keeled response, `It’s fine,’ `It’s fine.’ What are you enthusiastic about – other than getting out of here by 9 o’clock? Yes it’s OK, we’ve all looked at our watches in cases like this. It’s fine.”

What are you enthusiastic about, other than getting out of here at 9 o'clock?

“What are you enthusiastic about?” Smith asked Straus.

Said Straus, “I’m excited about the culture of the Texas House. How we work together.”

I think I know the problem here.

Straus exasperated Smith the way I’m sure he exasperates Michael Quinn Sullivan and tea party folks who thinks he is what’s wrong with Texas politics. Joe Straus is simply imperturbable, unbothered – and, for all the brickbats thrown his way –  unruffled and utterly relaxed.

He is the Perry Como of Texas politics.

From Como’s New York Times obit:

Mr. Como has developed relaxation to a high art. Although his movements consist of little more than an occasional hand gesture or a subtle rhythmic switching of a foot, he conveys a sense of vitality and involvement merely though the glimmer in his eyes and a little lifting quirk in his smile. He keeps his voice at a subdued, intimate level and in a low register most of the time.

Better than that, here is Eugene Levy as Perry Como in a classic Second City parody.

Here is the Texas Tribune’s Ross Ramsey on Smith’s Straus interview:

Straus: A Cautious, Conservative Session

Texas House Speaker Joe Straus on Tuesday pronounced the just-ended legislative session a success — and said one indicator of that was dissatisfaction from some of the people on the liberal and conservative fringes.

In a wide-ranging interview with The Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith, Straus touted the new state budget, franchise tax cuts and the Legislature’s slow but steady pace this year.

“We were careful, cautious in policy-making,” he said at one point. Later, he added, “I’m cautious by nature. We used to call that conservative.”

We used to call that conservative.

We used to call that conservative.

Despite Straus’s Como-esque personae, Smith’s interview did elicit some interesting scenes.

I'm gonna live forever. I'm gonna learn how to fly.

I’m gonna live forever. I’m gonna learn how to fly.

There was the Twilight Zone scene from early last year.

I’ll tell you a little story. Back when, I guess it was during his primary and I was traveling the state and it was just a small world incident. I was taking the last flight to San Antonio from Love Field and Lt. Gov. Patrick was taking the last flight to Houston from Love Field. I was sitting at the bar, watching a Spurs game, waiting for my flight, and the only other person in the airport was Dan Patrick. He walked up and sat with me and we had a very nice visit.

 

The only other person in the airport was Dan Patrick.

The only other person in the airport was Dan Patrick.

Straus is especially hard to figure because he does not seem the least bit driven by his next job, or some other ambition, and he is conspicuous in not displaying the way he exercises power.

 

I Will Survive

I Will Survive

Here is the writeup on Straus from last session’s Texas Monthly Best List

Though at times Straus was criticized (as usual) for not exercising a stronger hand, he earned the loyalty of his members by letting them drive the train, so long as they remained on the track. It is one of the great ironies of Texas politics that at a moment when the House chamber is a roiling cauldron of tea partiers, ultraconservatives, and clueless freshmen determined to undo the sins of the Obama administration from their offices in the Capitol Extension, the body has as its leader one of the more genteel and thoughtful Speakers in recent memory. Straus’s greatest assets are his intelligence and his temperament. Time after time, when a crisis arose, he remained unflappable. When the bill to fund the water plan failed in late April—the first hiccup of the session—Straus and his lieutenants averted a meltdown. The House at work is not a thing of beauty, more Jackson Pollock than Claude Monet, but the final package passed, even though it came down to the wire. An hour after the gavel fell on the session, Straus reflected contentedly on the events of the past 140 days: “We did what we said we were going to do.”

 

Screen Shot 2015-06-09 at 8.46.56 PM

Celebrate good times, come on!

In other words, he is more concealed carry than open carry in his leadership style.

But then, during the discussion of campus carry, Straus offered the revelation that “I had a gun with me when I went to college out of state.”

I had a gun with me when I went to college out of state.

I had a gun with me when I went to college out of state.

Really? At Vanderbilt.

OK. Fine. Recalibrating my sense of Straus, I imagine him as kind of a James West dude – the Vandy Dandy, with an elegant little Derringer.

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Derringer 9mm by Cobra Firearms

Derringer 9mm by Cobra Firearms

But maybe, since the Straus family were wholesale distributors for Remington guns and ammunition, it was the sweet XP-100 with the scope for drawing a bead on any armed malefactor raining bullets down from the Kirkland Clock Tower.

remington

After Straus mentioned that the one thing that did excite him was the climate of the House, Smith pointed to the announcement this week by State Rep. Patricia Harless, R-Spring, that she was going to call it quits after five terms.

“I’m just really disappointed in the way the Republicans act in the Texas House,” she said. “People need to know that consensus and moderation and working across the aisle is not a bad thing.”

“I’m sick that she’s leaving,” Straus said. But he said that was a decision Harless had been contemplating for a while, and perhaps she should have paused before making her announcement.

But, he said, “At the end of 140 days when you’ve been followed around by these unattractive people with their hidden cameras, especially for women being tracked around like that,  being asked inappropriate questions, maybe you’re not going to leave with the same attitude I have.”

 

I Love the Nightlife

I Love the Nightlife

 

That, of course, was a reference to the work being done by the American Phoenix Foundation, amassing what are apparently hundreds of hours of video of legislators and other Capitol denizens, both under the dome and at various other more relaxed Austin locations, that they say will shed new light on the ways of the House and Senate.

What I Did For Love

What I Did For Love

But, none of their work has been released yet.

Until now.

Here, then, the first work product from the American Phoenix Foundation, provided to me free of charge by one of their photographers, who thought I might have use for this photo of Rep. Harold Dutton, D-Houston, taken from the House Gallery. It captures the moment when Dutton dropped to the floor during the open carry debate to demonstrate how police would deal with a legally licensed black man open carrying a handgun, absent his amendment to bar police from approaching an individual open carrying simply to see if that person was legally licensed. (Dutton said that without the amendment, the law is a license for police to racially profile.)

 

Rep. Harold Dutton illustrates a point. (Photo courtesy American Phoenix Foundation)

Rep. Harold Dutton illustrates a point.
(Photo courtesy American Phoenix Foundation)

The amendment was stripped in conference.

Meanwhile, here is shot of Dutton I took a few days later, standing upright with House doorkeeper Alana Hays.

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From Cool to Cold

Perhaps the best reason for the incredibly long and grueling process we have for choosing a president is that somewhere along that tortured route, a candidate reveals something fundamental about his or her character that we would want to know before electing that person president.

Here then, from last week, is Sen. Ted Cruz on the campaign trail in Michigan.

Ken Herman wrote about it in today’s Statesman;

Which brings us to last Wednesday, when our senator’s road show took him to Howell, Mich., for a Livingston County GOP dinner. Cruz, as usual, was a hit as he trotted out some of the better lines from his arsenal. One line, however, drew what the Detroit News’ Chad Livengood said in a tweet was “faint laughter” among the 650 folks at the banquet hall.

It came after he mentioned Biden and followed with this:

“You know the nice thing? You don’t need a punchline. I promise you it works. The next party you’re at, just walk up to someone and say, ‘Vice President Joe Biden’ and just close your mouth

“They will crack up laughing,” Cruz said, both arms gesturing to emphasize the point.

Some in the audience laughed and applauded.

After the speech, Cruz told Livengood that Beau Biden’s death was “heartbreaking and tragic” and a “tragedy no one should have to endure” and that his prayers were with the Bidens.

Livengood then asked Cruz the right question, one with no right answer: “Why’d you tell a joke about the vice president tonight?”

Cruz looked down, walked away and did not respond.

Not long later, Cruz apologized. For some reason, he got a lot of credit for apologizing – and that’s fine – but I’m not sure what choice he had.

And I’m still not sure how this could happen.

I have heard him deliver the Biden line before.

Fine.

But how could he possibly deliver that line again, and go on at some length, without something going off in his head that maybe this was not the time for a Joe Biden joke, that maybe that joke needed to be stricken, perhaps forever, from his standard patter?

And also, I wondered, why didn’t someone in his audience groan or even boo such border-crossing boorishness?

What makes it all the more puzzling is that when, a moment later, Cruz is asked about the tragedy that has befallen Biden, he says all the right things. But then when he’s asked why he still made the joke, he turns away with a look that I read as – “Come on. Don’t you understand how this game works? There is no inconsistency between expressing empathy for Biden even as I mock him for meager political advantage.”

My friend and former colleague, John McQuaid, posted this about it on his Facebook page:

Most politicians appear to have some humanity under the veneer. Ted Cruz is biologically human, I think, but still you have to have to wonder. He treats politics as entirely transactional, a means of self-advancement. This may account for the weird behavior here, in which he floats a tired Joe Biden joke during a time when everyone is united in sympathy for the VP. Then, when asked about Biden – a clear invitation to say oh, really sorry about that joke, he expresses sympathy formulaically, not mentioning the joke. Then, when asked why he told the joke, he turns and walks away. Then a prepared statement of apology is released (repeating the formulaic language used previously). This is not recognizably human behavior.

In and of itself, this may have just been a bad moment by a tired candidate.

I was talking with Ken Herman about this on our drive up to Dallas last week to cover Rick Perry’s announcement for president.

As everyone knows, Perry is still living down his “oops moment,” an embarrassing mind lapse by a tired candidate getting little sleep while recovering from back surgery.

No one doubts Cruz’s smarts. No oops moments for him, right?

But, if Cruz clearly has a higher IQ than Perry, Perry clearly has a higher EQ than Cruz.

It is impossible for me to imagine Perry delivering that Biden joke.

I have seen Perry at ceremonial functions, like the Star of Texas Award, given to police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical first responders who are seriously injured or killed in the line of duty, and he was  masterful in the way he greeted and consoled each and every family member, with a touch, a word, a gesture, that they would remember for the rest of their lives, that made them feel better.

Over the years, the president of the United States has emerged not just as commander-in-chief but consoler-in-chief. Some of the very most memorable moments of recent presidencies have been President Reagan’s speech after the Challenger disaster, President Clinton’s speech in Oklahoma City after the bombing, President George W. Bush’s remarks amid the rubble at the World Trade Center, and President Obama’s eulogy for Beau Biden.

I know if I ever need consoling, I’d rather Rick Perry – or Bill Clinton or George W. Bush or Barack Obama – than Ted Cruz had the job of doing the consoling.

I don’t mean to suggest that this one incident is the be-all and end-all.

But, if a few other things happen that feed the same narrative, it can become, for the public and the press, a defining character trait that’s hard to shake.

And, just as Rick Perry has little margin for error for another intellectual “oops” moment, I think Ted Cruz has little margin of error for another emotional “oops” moment.

Early on, after Cruz’s arrival in the Senate, Chris Matthews and others sought to liken Cruz to Sen. Joseph McCarthy. I thought that was overwrought and simply wrong.

But McCarthy’s demise does offer a cautionary tale.

From the United States Senate website, an account of what happened to McCarthy on June 9, 1954. (I count this as a formative, pre-conscious memory – I was three days old.)

In the spring of 1954, McCarthy picked a fight with the U.S. Army, charging lax security at a top-secret army facility. The army responded that the senator had sought preferential treatment for a recently drafted subcommittee aide. Amidst this controversy, McCarthy temporarily stepped down as chairman for the duration of the three-month nationally televised spectacle known to history as the Army-McCarthy hearings.

The army hired Boston lawyer Joseph Welch to make its case. At a session on June 9, 1954, McCarthy charged that one of Welch’s attorneys had ties to a Communist organization. As an amazed television audience looked on, Welch responded with the immortal lines that ultimately ended McCarthy’s career: “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness.” When McCarthy tried to continue his attack, Welch angrily interrupted, “Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?”

Overnight, McCarthy’s immense national popularity evaporated. Censured by his Senate colleagues, ostracized by his party, and ignored by the press, McCarthy died three years later, 48 years old and a broken man.

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