On Saturday, the Austin American-Statesman published a piece by its humor columnist, John Kelso. For those who don’t know him, Kelso’s style is to be the cranky contrarian (his blog is called Kelso’s Cranky Corner) who likes to poke fun at politicians, football coaches, and just about anybody else. (Recently a column of his about Super Big Gulps was featured on the Colbert Report.) The subject of his Saturday column was Anita Perry’s facial expressions during her husband’s inauguration. That’s right. Her facial expressions. The column bore the headline, “Somebody ought to goose Anita Perry to get a smile out of her.” These are the first few paragraphs of the column (I’m not going to link to it; if you want to read it, you can find it easily on the Statesman’s web site):
Anita Perry doesn’t look real happy. She doesn’t look like she’s having a good time. I think I should invite her down to Giddy Ups beer joint near Manchaca and buy her a beer. I can make it all better for you, sweetheart. They have a jukebox AND a shuffleboard table. No, seriously, did you see that photo of Texas’ first lady on the front page of this newspaper on Wednesday? The photo was shot on Tuesday at Gov. Rick Perry’s inauguration. It shows the Perrys marching out under some swords held aloft by Texas A&M’s Ross Volunteers at the Palmer Events Center. Gov. Perry is smiling and doing kind of a one-handed queen’s wave, like a man who has just spent $41.7 million of somebody else’s money to get elected governor of a state that is so broke that schools are up for closure left and right. Meanwhile, Anita Perry, who is walking next to Rick, holding his hand, is glaring straight ahead, with a blank stare that hollers, “Get me out of here.”
I read the column, and it made me wince. And if the emails I’ve been receiving about it ever since (and the buzz about it on Twitter) are any indication, it also made just about everybody in the Capitol wince too. Statesman editor Fred Zipp reportedly received a number of angry emails about it. And he should have. Everyone who writes for a living knows that there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed. The location of these lines can be difficult to pinpoint (trust me, I know this from experience). But Kelso’s column didn’t just cross lines; it obliterated them. It was a bizarre attack on a politician’s spouse that felt mean and gratuitous. Kelso claimed to have understood the inner workings of the first lady’s mind by Googling photographs of her for the past decade. Based on her facial expressions in these photos, he mused on the state of Mrs. Perry’s personal happiness over the years. I see three things wrong with this. First, she’s a noncombatant. Spouses should be off limits, unless they involve themselves deeply in politics, which Mrs. Perry has not. She is entitled to her privacy. Second, the camera lies. Photographs reflect only an instant in time, and anyone can be made to look unattractive, unhappy, or really anything you want (this is a fact the celebrity tabloids learned a long time ago). Lastly, Kelso is trafficking in the worst kind of innuendo here, piggy-backing on a rumor that spread through Texas political circles in early 2004 about the Perrys’ marriage being on the rocks. So rampant were the rumors that Perry agreed to be interviewed by the Statesman’s Ken Herman on the subject. I refer to the rumor-mongering simply to make to make it clear that Kelso was piggybacking this column on six-year-old discredited gossip. (Googlers can find the story, “Perry speaks out on marital rumors,” dated March 5, 2004.) It’s the sort of thing that you expect from the less responsible corners of the blogosphere, not one of the state’s top newspapers. There are many things that Kelso and the state’s other columnists can and should criticize Rick Perry for (that line about spending $41.7 million to get elected governor of a state that’s broke was pretty good, in fact). He’s the longest-serving governor in state history. He deserves the attention of our toughest critics. But his wife does not. And she certainly did not deserve this. I received an e-mail from a friend who is close to the governor, which read: “I want to let you know that the Perry team is as agitated as I’ve ever seen them over the Sunday Kelso column. Apparently, Zipp responded to some private emails from Perry loyalists that he doesn’t understand the issue with the column and says he see nothing factually wrong with the column. I think this just added gas to the fire.” I’m not impressed by Mr. Zipp’s response. If this were an investigative story, the statement that there is nothing factually wrong would be relevant. This was a humor column. What are the facts? That the governor was on his way to his seat? There are no facts. The problem is the innuendo. Mr. Zipp and Mr. Kelso should publicly apologize to the governor and the first lady. Note to readers: The comments section of this blog post has been hijacked by a weirdo using the name “Jeff Connor’s Political Future. I have sent all of his comments to trash.