Texas' revenge on America

Why do we love Washington's most hated politician?

"I think it proves there is a God," said one Texas liberal of Senator Phil Gramm's presidential campaign, which is going nowhere fast.

Gloating is in violation of the liberal creed, which calls for compassion at all times, especially for those who are getting kicked around.

On the other hand, we are talking about Phil Gramm.
The New Republic pronounced him "profoundly amoral, committed only to his own political advancement, ruthless in getting his way, and untrustworthy in accounting for his actions."

That pretty much sums up the press reaction to our boy Phil so far. And we are not talking about "the liberal media" here. Mean, heartless, amoral, ruthless, and calculating are words that have appeared in profiles of Gramm across the board.

Public reaction, as measured in various polls, hovers around nine percent support from Republicans nationally. His presidential campaign is already a standard joke; there are several variations on "the candidate for those who think Bob Dole is not mean enough."

Of course, I would no more write off Phil Gramm at this point than I would get near a wounded rattler.

At one of his many extremely profitable money-raising soirŽes earlier this year, Gramm quoted Ben Franklin's line that a man can have but three reliable friends: an old wife, an old dog, and ready money. Gramm went on to say that he has a young wife, an old dog, and "Thanks to you and your support tonight, I have the most reliable friend that you can have in American politics, and that is ready money."

The dread words "John Connally" do occur, do they not? (For those who have forgotten, Connally, always a boardroom favorite, ran for president in 1980, spent $6 million, and got one delegate.)

Nevertheless, Gramm is sitting on one of the biggest campaign kitties in history, off to a flying start with $5 million "left over" from his Senate campaign and augmented by more millions collected since ($4.1 million at one event in February--a world record).

Gramm, twice the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, is familiar with almost every big giver in politics. He received more money from medical and insurance interests opposed to President Clinton's healthcare reforms than any other member of Congress.

With his characteristic kindness, he said of healthcare reform: "We have to blow up this train and the rails and trestle and kill everyone on board."

But Gramm's single largest special-interest donor group continues to be oil and gas. During a discussion of pending legislation, a reporter recently suggested to Gramm that the bill under discussion would help natural gas companies but hurt homeowners. Gramm replied, "Any policy has winners and losers."

One of the most telling things about Phil Gramm is that those who know him best like him least. One of the safest bets in Washington for years now has been who would win a secret Senate poll for Most Disliked Member. Gramm's in-evitable response is: "I didn't come to Washington to be loved, and I haven't been disappointed."

One member of Congress who has dealt with him describes him as "pond slime," which is pretty much the general reaction.

The word "grammstanding" comes from the man's notorious habit of claim- ing credit for work he didn't do; some lowly Texas lawmaker will toil away for months to get a post office or a factory or some modest piece of pork for his district, only to find that Gramm, who never helped and often hurt the effort, has sprung forth with a news release claiming credit for same.

So far, Gramm's presidential campaign has netted him: 1. publicity about an ill-fated 1974 investment in a dirty movie with his then brother-in-law (Gramm has denied knowledge of the nature of the film, although the ex-brother-in-law insists that he knew); 2. publicity about his own Willie Horton, an ex-drug dealer whom Gramm's office helped spring from prison with unhappy results (again, Gramm says he knew nothing of the episode, despite some evidence that he did); and 3. renewed publicity about the Jerry Stiles case.

Stiles was a savings and loan rip-off artist who cost the taxpayers $200 million. He was convicted last year on 11 counts of conspiracy, bank bribery, and misapplication of funds.

In 1987, Stiles advanced Gramm $117,000, interest-free, for renovation of Gramm's vacation home on the Eastern Shore. Three months after the work was finished, Stiles billed Gramm $63,433.

Gramm had been pushing legislation that would have helped Stiles' failing S&Ls. By 1989, when Stiles was in big trouble with federal regulators, Gramm urged the regulators to go gently on Stiles and to consider his pleas for help and waivers from federal rules.

Rather than gloating about Gramm's foundering campaign, I think we should consider some of the troubling questions that this raises about Texas politics and Texas voters. Why is it that we have elected and re-elected a man so unpleasant that his own colleagues can't stand him and whose record in politics disqualifies him for higher office?

The question is not what's wrong with Phil Gramm, but what's wrong with us.

Molly Ivins is a columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Copyright 1995 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

 
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