Volume 81, Number 16 | September 15 - 21, 2011
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Talking Point

We’ve got an even bigger problem than Bachmann now

By JERRY TALLMER

Michelle Bachmann, where were you when we needed you?

Here I was, counting on you to cut this new gun from Texas down to size with a few well-chosen malapropostic inanities and irrelevancies, but lo! — just when you should have struck the knockout blow, you melted into the wallpaper and disappeared, mechanically uttering the same tired old warmed-over bilge as always.

Result?

The gun-slinging Rick Perry — the blackest of black hats among all those boring repetitive G.O.P.-nerds, the night of Great Debate I, knocked you not only out of the box but clean out of the game.

Now whom do we have to — God help us — protect us against this Jack Palance of politics? Miss Looney-Toons, Sarah Palin? Mr. Corporate Gasbag, Mitt Romney?

What kind of a name is Mitt anyway?

Some commentator the other day cleverly said he didn’t think the American people were going to elect Elmer Gantry as president of the United States — Elmer Gantry being the faith-healing quack evangelist of the stinging 1927 novel by Sinclair Lewis (and the 1960 movie starring Burt Lancaster).

I think there is a more exact prototype. That would be Willie Stark, the ambitious reckless populist hero/villain of an even more stinging novel, Robert Penn Warren’s 1946 “All the King’s Men” (and 1949 movie starring Broderick Crawford).

Willie Stark was closely based on the real-life Huey P. Long (1893-1935), the demagogic populist governor of Louisiana who had been assassinated a short decade before Robert Penn Warren started writing. The nationally ambitious Huey Long scared as many people as Rick Perry soon will scare in our own day, if he hasn’t already.

I can tell you he scares the bejezus out of me. Did you hear that carnivorous roar of applause, G.O.P. debate night, when he flatly upheld each and all of the two or three hundred executions he’d O.K.’d as governor, down there in Texas. Chilling.

I do not, however, think that Huey Long would have been so foolish — no, stubbornly wrongheaded — as to call and keep calling Social Security (then in its birth throes) “a Ponzi scheme” or a Bernie Madoff hustle that needs to be improved out of existence.

The thing about Rick Perry is: He’s an actor. He even has an actor-sounding name. All politicians are actors in one way or another, we know that. In some cases it’s not just obvious but glaringly obvious. This is one of those cases. Everything about Rick Perry is what we call actor-y, the diametric opposite of a man named Ronald Reagan who had actually earned his living as a self-effacing and not very interesting professional actor.

And this sham cowboy with the predatory grin of a fox or a wolf has the chutzpah, or the ignorance, or the weird (Bachmann-Palin style) total confusion to speak of himself in the same breath as Galileo Galilei, the great empirical astronomer-philosopher who was forced by the Roman Catholic Inquisition to recant his shocking assertion that the Earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa.

And global warming is bunk. So says oil-fed cowboy Galileo Perry, who, like his 16th-century compeer, is prepared to be “outvoted for a spell” by, well, by big bad science. It’s just that he’s got the heroism of it, and the logic, ass-backwards.

In Bertolt Brecht’s “Galileo” there is a famous scene — the essence of pure theater — in which a man who is pleasant and ordinary enough begins bit by bit to be helped into his formal garments, his vestments, and when the last touch is added (if I remember right, the red hat), he stands revealed as the overbearing, dictatorial Cardinal who is to try Galileo on charges of heresy.

Rick Perry, to me, is a lot more like that Cardinal, and a lot more dangerous, than any number of Galileos. I hope to God enough Americans come to realize that menacing truth.

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