Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Drummer Man

Bob, my wife Cheryl and me

Christmas comes.  In some years for some officials, Black Peter brings the end of a political term.

This year, my friend of 28 years and client of 4, Bob Deuell, got such a lump in his sock.

This of course has been difficult for all of us.  Even the most mercenary among the rapidly dispersing Team Deuell privately admit there will be aspects about our defeat last spring we will never get over.  When we next meet up at CB’s, I’m sure we’ll still be wringing our hands about this or that part of the campaign.

But it’s not just the agonizingly thin 740 vote stumble in March and then the 300 fail in May that are hard to get over.  We have become mad that we can’t seem to get over it.  The grief process seems disturbed and unnatural in its flow, and it bothers us.  For me, my overdue thoughts here are meant to serve as a kind of analytical resolution.

Bob lost because of two incidents related to fiscal matters.  There were about a half-dozen policy positions that made our campaign difficult:  they were twisted and lied about by others, cutting edge and hard to explain, or there was honest disagreement.  All of these policy issues were plagued with their own intrinsic problems, and it’s fair enough to see how they would grind down support and harm a candidate’s brand.  But they as a group were not what ultimately did Bob in.  I place the blame on the government spending issue as the one category that was truly intractable.  Here is why.

The first incident, during 2011, was a hectic moment in Austin when Bob was cornered by a Texas Tribune video crew during the 82nd Legislature’s grueling budget cut situation, and on camera he said he was comfortable with spending the Rainy Day Fund and “other sources of revenue” to cover a big shortfall estimate.  Although he was frank, this was off beat with his caucus.

Unfortunately, those opposing him were more frank.  When the video went viral preceding the GOP Primary, it found some complementary white noise out in the election ether in the form of a single, dark money-funded Facebook ad created by Texans For Fiscal Responsibility, which was composed of a red grade F with a URL incorporating his senator title.  This was the second incident.

The F grade was based on the TFR scorecard, although the ad did not burrow down on that contrived index.  The simple, red F ad was seen by an estimated 10,000 new voters to the 2014 SD2 GOP Primary, on top of another 20,000 who only voted for the first time in 2012 – 30,000 voters who NEVER knew Deuell won his seat by beating a Democrat 12 years earlier (not even 50,000 people voted in the SD2 GOP Primary).  As a result, the TEA Party candidate got 19,000 votes while the third man in the March race, a complete unknown, got a staggering 6200 votes in protest, or almost 13% of the total.  Our internal polling gave the third man 4% max.

But the true damage was done when the video and F ad had an impact on another 20,000 regular GOP Primary voters.  According to a homemade, unscientific formula I created, I extrapolated that about 1000 or so otherwise loyal Bob Deuell voters switched and voted against him on March 4, specifically because of how they perceived him on fiscal matters, supported by the video and the F ad.  Switching is a phenomenon that rarely happens in elections.

This sub-set would have kept Bob in office against not one, but two opponents had they not switched in March.  Most of this group came back to Bob on May 27, but by then it was too late, as runoffs are notorious for lack of turnout.  NOTE:  Our campaign was able to get back 73% of the March total for the runoff (the statewide return was only 56% - that entire 17% were almost all votes for Deuell).

Why did this group of 1000 or so switch?  This subset are very conservative and conscientious citizens who knew Bob personally, but either they did not understand about state services, didn’t understand why Bob cared so much about them, or we did not get across why he did, and hence Bob’s positions on spending did not compute to them.  Its members have said to me consistently that they “wanted to send Bob a message” that he was not being strong fiscally.

So why did Senator Deuell appear unconservative on fiscal policy to this group -- that is, advocate for increased revenues and spending the Rainy Day Fund?  Because he didn’t think it was right for state services to be forced to endure cuts due to the 2011 shortfall (a shortfall we have since found out was miscalculated by the Comptroller in the first place, which is a cryin’ shame).

Bob thought and felt this, and he lost.

Why does Bob think and feel this?  Bob thinks and feels this way because he is against cuts to state services that try to help people, both the unfortunate and the freeloaders.  Dr. Deuell experiences the practical effects of Medicaid and CHIP every day when he treats an indigent patient based on a predetermined formula -- time spent at a loss to him and his colleagues financially.  He knows that public schools are in many cases a child’s only possible hope at bettering themselves.  Are Medicaid and public schools the best use of taxpayer dollars in terms of assistance and betterment?  Probably not.  Are they the best alternative we have for the cost?  Absolutely.

What’s truly lacking in today’s political discourse is a fundamental understanding of why we have public assistance.  We see the problems caused by the abusers and the weak, but we do not consider why we are committing tax dollars to the effort in the first place, politics and history aside.  Yes, it is pure socialism, but today’s public assistance infrastructure is not what it originally was in the 1960s and 70s.  Team Deuell tried and failed to guide the debate about using tax dollars and public policy to help others, and to sketch Texas’ success in doing so in a marvelously lean manner for a state our size.  An unwillingness to grapple with public assistance issues, the spending that goes with them, or to be hostile to them outright does not compute to Bob Deuell.

Bob wasn’t just practical about these issues.  He thought about them and felt about them as an expression of his Christian duty.

Christmas comes.  We sing familiar carols, including one composed in the 1950s, shortly after Dr. Deuell was born, about a boy drummer who offers his simple rhythm as a gift to the Lord Jesus, lying in the manger.

This is the legacy of Bob Deuell:  a public servant who gave the best that he had in honor of his King – be that God’s son or the people.

There is no honor in a conservatism that silences our drummer men and women.

God bless Bob Deuell.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Bernie Tiede and the Funniest Miscarriage of Justice in Texas History

Like the rest of our state’s urbane filmgoers, I hooted and howled when my wife and I went to Uptown’s Magnolia Theater and saw Richard Linklater’s Bernie.  The documentary-style black comedy was a limited release but became wildly popular across Texas on disc as it told a bizarre, under-the-radar true story from the 90s about Panola County mortician Bernie Tiede.  Mr. Tiede was was sentenced in 1998 of murdering his wealthy companion, 81-year-old widow Marjorie Nugent and hiding her body in a chest freezer.

I hooted and howled in spite of the fact that I was close friends with the victim’s family.

And I hooted and howled even though I found out the Governor’s Film Office had subsidized Linklater’s struggling project, even though Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey had been attached to it.  Based on existing provisions, the Film Office would have ended up giving the project an estimated $300,000 in taxpayer cash, not to mention additional sales tax exemptions provided by the Legislature.

Already filled with an uneasy shame over these facts, and because I had found myself laughing so hard at Linklater’s exploitation of my East Texas kinfolk (many of my ancestors and relatives are buried in Panola County; my mother was born in nearby Nacogdoches), I finally became sick when I heard last May that Mr. Tiede was going to get his sentencing reviewed and that he would be released from state prison where he was serving life.

The movie wasn’t funny any more.  I felt like a sucker, once again, to Hollywood razzle dazzle and the unholy alliance of West Coast-Austin propaganda.  Simultaneously, I began to privately agree with the vitriol of some in our Primary season this past spring that Texas was paying for things “we don’t want and don’t need.”  I thought the film office might be one of these things.

The justification for Mr. Tiede’s release and review goes to a Texas statute that allows for a commuted sentence if things like childhood abuse are not initially reported in the defense, which it was not in the Tiede trial (as were other key facts about Mrs. Nugent’s victimization).  Statute or not, the whole post-conviction appeal reeks of the same old tired, liberal, humanistic bromides that say “no one is really bad, they just had bad things happen to them as a child” and, “Aw shucks, Bernie wouldn’t have been driven to his crime of passion if he hadn’t been stuck in a such a sexually repressive situation.”

What Linklater’s movie completely glossed over was the knowledge in the community of Carthage that Mr. Tiede had active male relationships on the down-low and that he was reportedly giving them gifts out of Nugent’s fortune.  In no way was he this misunderstood, good-hearted, small town “closet homosexual” that McConaughey’s DA, Danny Buck Davidson, describes.

Another key fact about the murder itself that is omitted in the film entirely was that Mrs. Nugent was shot – in the back – by Mr. Tiede as they were going to the bank to discuss financial discrepancies – discrepancies caused by Mr. Tiede!!!  Motive, anyone? (According to DPS records, Mr. Tiede called the bank to cancel the appointment after the time of death).  Mr. Tiede and Mrs. Nugent WERE NOT innocently going to the Mexican food restaurant where Bernie would have to suffer through Mrs. Nugent’s over-chewing of her frijoles.

Earlier this week, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals (which is Texas’ version of the Supreme Court for criminal cases) has ruled Mr. Tiede could have a new hearing about his sentencing.  The real Panola County DA, Mr. Davidson, will then be able to decide if Mr. Teide must leave his movie-star release accommodations in Austin and return to prison, or if he can spend the rest of his life as the grand marshal of any number of gay pride parades.

Close observers of the case believe Mr. Davidson, relishing his newfound fame portrayed by none other than McConaughey, will likely sentence Mr. Tiede to time served.  Mr. Davidson just got reelected earlier this month, unopposed as a Republican.  If ever any officeholder needed a TEA Party challenger, Mr. Davidson might be one if he chooses to let the sensibilities of Tinseltown betray his duty to the law and the Nugent family.

But I think the real culprits in this case are those of us who took delight in the film and either failed to consider or flat-out ignored the human beings involved.  Even the filmmakers try to put a fig leaf on this sentiment during the opening scene of the film where Jack Black, demonstrating the proper way to seal a corpse’s lips from an accidental post-death smile, remarks, “We wouldn’t want to turn someone’s tragedy into comedy.”

But why would the filmmakers, enslaved to a liberal agenda, really want to cover their tracks at all? Could it because they were going to get taxpayer dollars for their project?

Regardless, the whole movie and its aftermath might represent the funniest miscarriage of justice in Texas history.  Funny because the joke is on all of us who bought a ticket or rented the Blu-ray.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The America First Virus

I am hereby making my break with Ann Coulter official.  I always only just tolerated her, because I’ve always thought of her as one of those conservatives who was deeply insecure about herself and just needed to be loud.  But as the result of her latest article attacking Dr. Kent Brantly for putting himself in harm’s way in Liberia, I feel convicted that I should no longer expose myself to her sanctimonious fits of rage in the name of conservatism.

But don’t misunderstand my break with Ms. Coulter as anything personal against her.  I also do not consider her a sister in Christ, so I don’t feel Jesus’ guidance on how to approach an offending member of the body applies here (the article I’m referencing uses language that makes it clear she is outside the community ofbelievers).  YES, I am judging.  The break is really a need for me, as a Christian whose journey has very much been one of leaving behind the heavy yoke of legalism and embracing a spirit of sacrificial compassion, to don the protective bio-suit from a more rampant disease infecting the church in the United States.

This disease – like all viruses – has always persisted on the countertops of our culture no matter how much disinfectant we may have at times tried to apply to it.  It is the bug of nativist, racist, and miserly ‘America First’ sentiment.  This concept of “taking care of Americans first,” or, as Ms. Coulter prioritized, “converting one Hollywood producer,” is 100% contradictory to the teachings of Scripture.

Ms. Coulter calls Dr. Brantly “idiotic” for going to Liberia and belittles him for not considering the needs first of the sick in Zavala County, Texas.  She tries to ridicule his work overseas and that of countless other American missions as vain “heroism.”  This is the EXACT SAME bitter, selfish attitude that has infested so much of the conservative movement today.  It is the same zombie-like animation that drives so-called Christians onto overpasses in protest of accommodating these Central American kids, gang members or not.

Christianity is call to complete and utter sacrifice on behalf of the destitute – the sinner in his misery.  We as Americans have a tendency to want to modify this call.  We believe we can address “root problems of poverty.”  We believe we can correct bad behavior with rules or more border patrol guards.  We believe we can motivate someone to change by demonstrating perceived rewards.

Ms. Coulter specifically calls foolish the idea that a $2 million plane flight home paid by a mission organization far exceeds any value Dr. Brantly may have given on its behalf.  This is hardcore “economic Christianity,” where service on behalf of Jesus is weighted.  It is a disgusting perversion of the cross.

In his powerful book, The Insanity of God, missionary Nik Ripken (a pseudonym he uses to protect Christians he knows in hostile nations) asks hard, gut-wrenching questions about how God works in countries that truly seem cut off from his grace.  Mr. Ripken saw this first hand as a relief director in Somalia during the mid-Nineties, experiencing not only the abject horror of life in that country after the world’s military and NGOs had abandoned it, but also the tragic death of his son.

After years of God’s work to rebuild his faith after leaving Somalia, Mr. Ripken was able to recall how he discovered the presence of Christ in a place given over to Satan and a deranged humanity.  He was walking through Mogadishu one day and heard intensely beautiful singing.  He zeroed in on the music and found a young woman leading a group of orphans in a crumbling building.  The young woman had lost her own children to starvation, but persisted in her love for Jesus by ministering to some lost children. 

A disease can't kill you if you’re already sacrificing yourself!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

In The Beginning

The 'more senior' members of the Bahm Family recently watched Darren Aronofsky's Noah on Blu-Ray.  I kept hearing mixed reviews and reactions to the movie, so I waited until its disc release when I could burn my rental store credits to see it for $1.25.  Plus, I wanted to see it in a more open environment with my 'senior' children so that the 'senior' adults could dialogue with them a little better about it.

I was actually surprised at the pace and craftsmanship of the film.  I was prepared for a sleep-rendering grind, something a'la the old Hollywood sand-and-sandal flops, but Aronofsky is a deft filmmaker.  Crowe was very good, although I was a little worried when he started to sing a lullaby per my previous experience with him crooning during Les Miz.  I was most concerned about the notorious "rock people" so many had ridiculed, especially having interpreted the legend of the Nephilim my own way in The Warrant.  But Aronofsky's "Watchers" were ok to his story if clunky.  I had already dismissed any literal adherence to the biblical account prior to the film (Noah and his family built the ark by themselves over a 120 year period, not ten with the help of the Watchers), so all the other plot devices didn't bother me.  Nor was I bugged by any of the heavy environmentalism of the script and Crowe's Noah's redemption from its radical conclusion; I can see that type of political dogma coming like a huge tidal wave.

But for two days now, something else has been vexing me about the film, and I just now put my finger on it.  In search of what might be troubling me, I did some web-surfing with my Google Ark last night.  I already knew of Aronofsky's cryptic comment prior to the film's initial release that Noah was the "least Biblical film ever made."  I was familiar with the Director's atheism.  I was aware of the face-off between Hollywood and the evangelical community over marketing:  the distributors desperately wanted the Passion of the Christ crowd segment to show up; evangelicals didn't want to help sell tickets by the inevitable and compulsory trashing of an unliteral interpretation, as happened with The Last Temptation of the Christ.  I was tuned in to the loud debate and criticism of the film by young earth creationists.  On the Internet, I found post-release condemnations that Noah was infused with Gnosticism, as well as wild, over-the-top claims that the movie was Illuminati-driven spirituality.  But, none of these controversies were really what were bothering me.

I found the source of what had been bothering me when I looked up Clint Mansell's soundtrack on Spotify.  The first score track is entitled, "In the Beginning There Was Nothing."  This is the line Russell Crowe uses to begin telling the story of creation to his family inside the ark at sea.

Well, that's not what the Bible says.  It says, "In the Beginning God created..." in Genesis and "In the Beginning was the Word" in John's gospel.  There has never been nothing, in other words.  And this is what bothers me the most about any work of art that purports a past point of nothingness:  it is contradictory and hypocritical.  It is pathetically dishonest, not to mention arrogant, for someone like this movie's creator to state that in fact, some time in the past, something was formed out of nothing.  Darren Aronofsky didn't make his movie out of nothing!

Anyway, felt I needed to get this out.  Now I can resume my blog again after my lengthy hiatus.  I was busy trying to win an election, but fell short.  Don't worry about me though; it was nothing.

Friday, January 10, 2014

The Winter Play

Wenceslas Square, Prauge, during the 1968 anti-Soviet uprising

First blog of 2014!

For the past several nights, my subconscious has been bubbling up old images and feelings of all the theater work I did in college.  It finally hit me early this morning after another brainwave performance why this was.

Winter primary season is always my busiest time.  One friend joked to me the other day, "Don't you only work two months every two years?"  It is a very stressful, intense but productive time of packed days and late nights followed by heavy but short sleep.  Joe Klein in Primary Colors describes these types of elections through one of the characters as there being "sleep, but no rest."

The workload and rhythms are strikingly similar to putting on a play.  I talk about this in an interview I recently gave to a career blog.  The muscle memory of my theater days has likely frothed back up due to a unique confluence of thoughts, themes, workload and...cold weather!  In particular, the deja'vu of a play I ran the light board for during the winter of 1991 comes to mind, Larry Shue's Wenceslas Square.

Briefly, Wenceslas Square is a simple arc of scenes about a theater professor from Indiana who returns to Prague a few years after the 1968 uprising against the Soviet Union in the hopes of finishing a book about the city's vibrant, counter-establishment drama community that subtly led the protests against Moscow previously.  Sadly, the professor goes about visiting his old, fellow dramatists only to discover they've either been forced into semi-exile or have become a part of the very propaganda-dishing establishment they tried to subvert.  The story is a serene yet tragic examination not necessarily of just tyranny or revolution but of what fear does to people, and whether or not those with the strongest convictions really have the courage to change and sacrifice.  The play ends with the professor and his student assistant sitting in the famous Square of Prague contemplating whether or not he still has something to write.

What makes the play great is its double-theme about dealing with government authority through story-telling. The actual Wenceslas Square in Prague is named for the early Medieval and canonized king named Wenceslas I, who is very much a Santa Claus-like figure.  His legend is that he came down from his position and braved the harsh winter to help the poor, and that when his protege faltered in the weather, Wenceslas instructed him to follow by stepping exactly where he stepped in the snow.  It's the old footsteps aphorism about being carried by God.

But whereas the fabled king was brave and undaunted in his mission, the professor in the play isn't so sure of himself, especially after he witnesses renewed communist oppression and the weakness of his once-admired friends.  Most troubling to the professor was when he got accosted in a Prague alley by one of the old dramatists who has lost his mind.  What seemed to shake the professor deepest was how the Madman's ideals drove him into insanity once the Soviets had denied him his outlet.  It was this core fear that the professor had to confront.

It's also the subconscious fear that all of us who work in politics for the greater good and in defense of our freedom must deal with.  Are we afraid of truly losing our liberty -- or of just losing our outlet?  In my opinion, most of what animates our country's political discourse today - across the spectrum - is the latter.  Many of us have decided that being heard is more important than what we say.  I am certainly guilty of this.  True liberty lies in the ability to recognize that freedom is a gift from God, empowered by God, and does not need anything external to thrive in a person's soul.  True, speaking out is a natural fruit of this inner freedom, but not if the speaking out is driven by the same fear of losing the ability to do so.  This is the freedom that I want to defend.

But the minute I drift into the dark side of defending form over content, I find myself in a nightmare of anxiety.  Worse, if I am successful in defending that form over freedom by means of fear, I find myself in, to quote another playwright, "the winter of my discontent."  And it didn't go well for that guy.