Angry White Male

Kicking liberal ass in Aggieland with Professor Gramm

It was the late fall of 1984, and then-U.S. representative Phil Gramm was flying about Texas on the final leg of his near-manic pursuit of the U.S. Senate seat he now holds.

The stump speech Gramm was giving varied little from town to town, except that at most stops he'd drop in a line or two specifically for the home folks, promising to secure this federal grant or that federal project for the locality. In one town, it was a needed flood control project, in another an expanded military base, in another a grant for law enforcement or drug interdiction. In his own congressional district, one that then ran from just north of Houston all the way to Fort Worth, Gramm would never fail to remind constituents of the federal largesse he'd already obtained for them.

After a few days of that routine, it was apparent that the gulf between Phil Gramm, the budget-cutting co-author of the Gramm-Latta amendment early in the Reagan era, and Phil Gramm, the home-state campaigner, was as wide as, well, Texas. Finally, one of the reporters traveling with Gramm asked him, only half facetiously, if he would be changing his campaign slogan to "Bringing Home the Bacon."

Gramm, who usually enjoyed bantering with the media, turned stone-faced.
"Well," he said, his annoyance coming through as he leaned forward in his seat, "if there's gonna be bacon, I want to make sure Texas gets it."

Maybe that was just the politic reply, but when multiplied by 435 representatives and 100 senators from 50 states, it's one that goes at least a short way toward explaining the budget deficit. It also goes a long way toward explaining the political success of Phil Gramm, as well as the kid-like charm he manages to exude, in spite of himself. Even when he's casually revealed to be a shameless hypocrite, Gramm doesn't miss a beat. There's been no contradiction too large for him to plow over in his headlong pursuit of higher office. Lesser politicians might have awkwardly mumbled through some tortuous, unquotable explanation in an effort to reconcile the inconsistency, but Phil Gramm's never bothered.

Long before he ascended to the Senate, critics routinely pointed out that Gramm, despite his professed aversion to government, had rarely had his own lips at a remove from the public teat -- from the federal grants that paid for his college and post-graduate education to his stints as a professor at a state-supported school and an elected official on the federal payroll. Even his post-collegiate forays into the private sector were as a consultant to federal agencies.

Then there's the matter of the military draft, which Gramm, like a large percentage of males in his age cohort, managed to avoid. At the height of the Vietnam War, he obtained the draft deferments he was due as a graduate student and later an assistant professor. There's nothing embarrassing or even unusual about that, although Gramm's explanation earlier in his political career, an explanation he's refined somewhat since, is that he believed his academic pursuits were more vital to the national interest than killing communists. Yet somehow Gramm's experience has endowed him with the moral authority to criticize Bill Clinton for his draft-dodging, because Gramm, unlike Clinton, supported the war.

And it was less than a year ago that Gramm temporarily hoisted the Republican cudgel on Whitewater, declaring that if Clinton wanted "to serve out his term, he is going to have to begin leveling with the American people." Another senator who had repaid less than half of what amounted to an interest-free loan from a later-convicted S&L operator he'd once advised on regulatory matters might be expected to feel just a bit uncomfortable offering such a sound bite. But not Phil Gramm.

And maybe that means that Phil Gramm is the man for our talk-radio times, a perfect fit for the in-your-face Zeitgeist. As Gramm put it when he returned last week to the campus of Texas A&M to formally declare that he's running for president, "Unlike the current occupant of the White House, I know who I am and I know what I believe ...."

It's not a self-conceit. One thing Phil Gramm devoutly believes in is his conception of Phil Gramm. He's the Anti-Clinton, and not just because, as he himself always needlessly notes, he's bald and ugly. Whereas one of Clinton's small talents in 1992 was thought to be his empathy (or at least a talent for feigning empathy, while George Bush checked his watch), about the last thing Phil Gramm wants to do is feel your pain, and he probably thinks that anyone who does is a wuss. Of all the many political skills he possesses, listening is not one.

Gramm's the unsmiling face of conservatism without apology or false sentiment or the futuristic otherworldliness of Newt Gingrich. He's not giving anybody a laptop computer, and when he says he wants to kick welfare recipients off the dole, his tone suggests that he'd like to kick them in the ass, too, to make himself feel better about it.

Not only was Ahmad Abdul Latif a good half-foot taller than most of the people milling in front of the impressively massive administration building on the A&M campus, at that moment his was the only black face in a sea of young white ones. He also had the distinction of being one of the few people in the vicinity who wasn't outfitted with purchases from The Gap or Banana Republic.

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