YES, THAT’S GUBERNATORIAL CANDIDATE Kinky Friedman—four words I’ve yet to utter with a straight face—on our cover this month, dressed somewhat less outlandishly than in the past. The last time (July 2004), you’ll recall, he was elegantly done up like the queen of England, as feminine as a swarthy man with a Star of David dangling in his chest hair could ever hope to be. The time before that (January 2002), he played the dutiful daughter to Willie Nelson’s farmer in the classic American Gothic tableau. Future historians will note with amusement that the latter cover wasn’t our first choice. Originally we wanted both Willie and Kinky to pose in drag, but Willie nixed the idea; just Kinky in drag, however, sounded funny to him. And it was.

There’s nothing funny, by contrast, about Kinky’s independent bid to return Rick Perry to the private sector—and I’m not talking about the mind-numbing staleness of his one-liners. What began as a quixotic, Pat Paulsen—like campaign has turned into something … well, not exactly serious, but much more serious than anyone ever would have thought. Including me. I edited most of the 48 columns he wrote for the back page of Texas Monthly—three of which (“Oaf of Office,” March 2003; “See Kinky Run,” February 2004; “Dome Improvement,” January 2005) can fairly be credited with planting the seeds for this race, as well as christening what now seems like the perfect slogan for our apathetic age: “Why the Hell Not?” All the while, despite his bluster, I imagined he would pull up short of running. Why would an irritating, do-nothing attention seeker want to get into politics? I dismissed him publicly as a joke candidate, which made him mad. In mid-May the polls had him right there in the thick of things, with nearly the same percentage of the vote as Chris Bell and Carole Keeton Strayhorn. Joke’s on me.

What’s in it for him? That’s what I and others keep wondering, as it becomes clearer and clearer (to us) that the only endgame is a guaranteed front-page obituary in every Texas paper the day after he kicks. He is not, as senior executive editor Paul Burka explains in “Capture the Flag”, going to be governor under any circumstances. For that to happen, an asteroid would have to crush his opponents, leaving only him on the ballot. In fairness to the Kinkster, his candidacy has been not just entertaining (his one-liners really are funny, no matter how much I gig him) but useful: By tweaking the permanent state of polarization we find ourselves in (“I’m not pro-life. I’m not pro-choice. I’m pro-football”), he points the way to the sensible center. But even in the most generous scenario, he is, at best, a stalking horse—presumably for Strayhorn, if, to the great dismay of Perry’s capos, she doesn’t disqualify herself by boarding the bus to Crazytown.

Cynics will say that this was always about selling books and getting his Country Music Television reality show on the air. Check and check; the guy is a brand without peer. Those of us who know him well (or better) understand there’s a bit more to it than that. His massive ego—how else to describe it?—always needs to be fed and stroked, and never has it been so lavishly tended to as during this campaign; no starred Publishers Weekly review or Austin Music Hall sellout could ever hope to make him the cross-platform celebrity he undeniably is today.

And that’s why, in case you’re wondering, he’s on our cover for the third time: not because we’re endorsing him, not because we think he’s going to win, but because he’s a star. Because everyone loves him, even if everyone doesn’t plan to vote for him. Because he embodies the weirdness of the 2006 race. And because, when all this is over, he’ll once again be a Texas Monthly columnist. If you think it’s too early to start promoting his return—well, why the hell not?

Next Month

Charles Whitman, the blurry line between church and state, amazing things to do for free, a corrupt sheriff, a dedicated rancher, and Sarah Bird’s kid behind the wheel.