Capitol Chronicle

Pride and Prejudice: Farewell to Phil Gramm -- the Journalist's Friend

Capitol Chronicle
Illustration By Doug Potter

With apologies to Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged (at least in the newspaper business) that what's good for the country is bad for journalism. Those of us who make a living as carpal-tunneled wretches are wearing black armbands for the torch-passing of Sen. Phil Gramm, who supplied more ready-made material over the years than any number of good-government types. Gramm's pending retirement from the Senate leaves the unhappy prospect that we'll all have to go back to work.

But for the moment, the Aggie Senator has gone right on churning out vainglorious nonsense to put in the paper, unretouched. At his retirement press conference, for example, he choked back tears while he thanked his wife and children "for not complaining about all the important events of their lives that I missed" -- simultaneously setting new standards for public sanctimony and hypocrisy. A few days later, the equal-opportunity offender defied his fellow Republicans over whether he would leave office early and allow Gov. Rick Perry to appoint a replacement who would gain the advantage of incumbency.

It's no surprise that Gramm would stiff his fellow Republicans: His guiding Phil-osophy has always been, What's good for Phil Gramm is good for the USA. The classic example is of course Gramm's military record: rather, his non-military record, which consisted of courageously beating the drums for empire, war, and military pork-barrel spending, while studiously avoiding military service himself. As William Saletan put it in the July 1995 Mother Jones, "After graduating from a military high school in 1961, [Gramm] used five consecutive student and teaching deferments to escape the Vietnam draft. He explained that he spent most of the war teaching at A&M because he 'preferred it' to joining the Army."

That particular hypocrisy is only a special case of Gramm's broader legislative record, which happily contributed to the Texas political lexicon the word "grammstanding." Grammstanding is taking public credit for some legislative action -- particularly some home-state spending program -- which you either directly opposed or else had nothing to do with. The speed with which Gramm's self-congratulatory press releases hit the wires following the passage of some expenditure he had in fact obstructed or ignored achieved legendary status among reporters: hence the honorific which, like "gerrymander," will survive him.

God, Guns, and Gays

During his various campaigns, Gramm made himself such a reputation for nasty mudslinging, venomous backstabbing, and distorting his opponents' records that he earned the legendary description "Even his friends don't like him." The most notorious instance was his 1984 Senate campaign against Lloyd Doggett, when Gramm relentlessly denounced Doggett's acceptance of contributions from gay organizations. It wasn't enough to attack Doggett's liberal positions; as Saletan put it, Gramm "conjured up the image [in his campaign ads] of Doggett's gay followers 'gathered in the dusky places where you and I don't go,' and claimed that gays were funneling money to Doggett to promulgate a 'new family image through heavy-television advertising.'"

Gramm bragged about that episode in gutter-politics, and it was representative. During his 1995-96 presidential campaign, Gramm enthusiastically joined a frenzy of gay bashing promoted by the so-called Christian Coalition. As Frank Rich reported in The New York Times, "Gramm joined a successful effort ... to oust a longtime Des Moines school board member because he was gay. (The campaign's target had to wear a bulletproof vest before the school board election was over.)" Gramm would later be embarrassed by the revelation that he had invested money in the production of a failed soft-porn film, Beauty Queens -- presumably intended for "the dusky places where you and I don't go."

This sort of blatant hypocrisy is first nature to Gramm, who spent his life denouncing "big government" while living on the dole. He loved to demonize welfare recipients as "wagon riders" -- not "wagon pullers" like his right-wing supporters. But as Molly Ivins recalled succinctly, "Phil Gramm had his health care covered by the government; Phil Gramm had his education paid for by the government right through his Ph.D. in economics; Phil Gramm has never worked for anybody but the government; Phil Gramm's mama is being taken care of by the government ... You show me someone who claims to be 'a self-made man,'" concluded Ivins, "and I'll show you an ungrateful toad."

The Last Refuge of a Scoundrel

There's more, of course. Recall Gramm's devoted service to his patrons in the oil and gas industry, to the bankers, and last but certainly not least to the National Rifle Association. (Gramm on gun control: "I own more shotguns than I need. But less shotguns than I want.") Consider his memorable attacks on social services, and on the poor themselves: "This is the only country in the world where all the poor people are fat." Remember his assaults on Social Security, and his tender justification for eliminating minimum benefits for the elderly: "They are 80-year-olds. Most people don't have the luxury of living to be 80 years old, so it's hard for me to feel sorry for them." Contemplate his (successful) response to health care and insurance reform: "We have to blow up this train and the rails and trestle and kill everyone on board."

In that dreary vein, only a few days ago, on the Senate floor Gramm was screaming for the "terrorists'" blood in biblical terms, because, he said, "the wages of sin is death." In most civilized cultures, there's a technical term for pretending to speak on God's behalf, especially of one's enemies: It's called blasphemy. For Phil Gramm, it's just business as usual. end story

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Jane Austen, Phil Gramm, Rick Perry, Mother Jones, William Saletan, Texas A&M, Grammstanding, Vietnam War, gerrymander, Lloyd Doggett, Christian Coalition, Frank Rich, The New York Times, Des Moines, Molly Ivins, Beauty Queens, National Rifle Association, Social Security

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