Angry White Male
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.
Latif said he'd driven up from Houston "to tell the truth about Phil Gramm," and, an hour and a half before Gramm de-scended the steps of the administration building to the strains of the Fightin' Aggie Band, Latif had a captive media audience.
"Phil Gramm," he shouted, drawing even more reporters and cameras, "has no brain! Phil Gramm has no heart! All he can do is take orders from Wall Street bankers!" The attention being paid to the lone protester mobilized a phalanx of snarling Aggies from the campus Young Republicans chapter, who quickly encircled Latif and his media attendants.
"Don't let him talk!" hollered one particularly agitated Aggie, who in addition to his slim appreciation for the First Amendment possessed a walkie-talkie that indicated some low-level responsibility for crowd control. But the impromptu chant of "Gramm! Gramm! Gramm!" couldn't stop Latif from exercising his right of free speech. And besides, the media was a far less threatening target than the towering black man. "Look at that -- the media in action!" sneered one Aggie at the several reporters dutifully recording the opinions of Ahmad Abdul Latif.
He had a point. There was a bit of pathetic desperation about the scene, and it was still early in the morning. Then again, even the most nerve-deadened hack journalist can interview only so many smug, overprivileged 20-year-old college students with a vast knowledge of the way the world works (yeah, it's funny how the '90s are so much like the '60s) before turning to somebody, anybody, with a divergent point of view.
Gradually, though, the reporters drifted away from Latif as the green began filling up with several thousand Aggies, a scattering of older people from off-campus, elementary school classes there to witness history and at least one handful of skeptical faculty members who could be overheard reminiscing about the reputation as a loudmouth and a whiner that Gramm had acquired shortly after arriving at A&M in the late '60s (a couple had Gramm signs, though).
Aggieland, where Gramm taught economics for 11 years before being elected to Congress, was the perfect public launching pad for his candidacy. The school, as was noted more than once that morning, is a "bastion of conservatism" and boasts the largest Young Republicans chapter in the known universe, 1,600 strong. The campus has been roiled in recent years by an unsuccessful and much-criticized attempt to impose required courses in multiculturalism, and more recently by a black student's refusal to honor tradition by removing his hat in the Memorial Student Center, which is dedicated to Aggies who've died in battle.
Some of the war-hardened Young Republicans who mustered for Gramm's announcement sported "Kicking Liberal Ass" T-shirts, a statement of purpose that seemed to sum up the prevailing sentiment of the crowd. Nevertheless, five female Aggies -- their numbers were small enough to actually count -- had the nerve to show up with pro-choice signs. Karen Mauthe, a 22-year-old civil engineering major, wandered through the crowd with a homemade sign of a coat hanger with slash through it. "Down with dry cleaning?" cracked one Aggie, one of the least hostile remarks directed at Mauthe. Once Mauthe settled in within television camera range for Gramm's speech, the Young Republican with the walkie-talkie moved into action, frantically relaying to another Young Republican with a walkie-talkie the dire news that "NOW members" had infiltrated the GrammFest.
"Ya'll should be more considerate," he admonished Mauthe and a friend as he waved a maroon and white A&M banner in front of Mauthe's sign.
"Cover up her face!" urged a member of the Cadet Corps.
The Anti-Clinton's announcement was disciplined and flawless and took just 25 minutes. His speech was mostly a reprise of his greatest hits, but Gramm has a knack for making the same stale lines he's repeated literally thousands of times sound fresh and convincing. His anti-welfare and anti-affirmative action lines drew the loudest applause. The line he seemed to relish most was the one about how he had vowed that Clinton's health plan would pass "over my cold, dead political body."
You could tell he really enjoyed working out on "cold" and "dead."
When Gramm recounted for maybe the 10,000th time how he failed third, seventh and ninth grades, Ahmad Abdul Latif was ready.
"We know!" he shouted.
Rick Perry and Kay Bailey Hutchison, the wedding cake couple of the Texas Republican Party, were on hand, as was Dicky Flatt, the printer from Mexia who Gramm's been using as his throw-down Everyman for going on two decades and whose coming fame should at least guarantee him his own 900-DICKY number for recommended budget cuts. Arizona Senator John McCain, a former POW, was also present and accounted for to provide cover for the draft-deferred war hawk.
Despite the precision-drill execution, the whole affair seemed flat and anti-climactic. Maybe that's what happens when you "announce" something you've already been doing non-stop for 15 years. Gramm's speech ended abruptly, the band struck up the "Aggie War Hymn" and the candidate was off and running back to New Hampshire, where the first primary votes are next year. On the network news shows that evening, the head-on camera angles made Gramm look even angrier than usual, as if he were biting off every word.
Maybe that's what he intended. But it probably didn't matter much either way, since the really important doings had gone down in Dallas the previous evening at a fundraiser which purportedly raised more than $4 million for Gramm (a figure that Rick Perry enthusiastically reported to the crowd was an all-time record for a single political event, as if Gramm had hit 62 homers).
The clumps of Young Republicans who lingered in Gramm's wake seemed more preoccupied with the effrontery of the half-dozen protesters who dared to show up than anything Gramm said. Ahmad Abdul Latif was hanging around, too, loudly debating economic policy with an A&M student in hiking boots.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Houston Press' biggest stories.