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Book Review: Broad Influence, by Jay Newton-Small

Then-Texas Governor Rick Perry’s 2012 decision to inflict himself on the rest of America by running for President was not, generally speaking, a move that had a tremendous impact on the republic. He bombed. Oops.

However, one personally positive side-effect of Perry’s run, for me, was that national journalists from all over made pilgrimages to Austin, to learn more about the strange organisms called “Texans” and the oddity we had elected Governor. While in Austin, some of these reporters wanted to meet with and talk to me about Texas politics in general and about Perry more specifically.

That’s why I got a call from Time Magazine correspondent Jay Newton-Small in 2012, wanting to set up a meeting. And we did indeed meet one day, in the lobby of the W Hotel in Austin. We talked for quite a while, and within an hour I concluded that I had been lucky enough to get to know one of the sharpest and most interesting journalists in the nation. We’ve maintained our correspondence since, which has mainly consisted of her updates on what she’s working on, and me dreaming up and suggesting justifications for her to return to Austin on her publication’s dime so we can have drinks and talk more. None of my justifications have worked at all. So far.

It is in that context that I have been eagerly awaiting the release of her book, Broad influence; How Women Are Changing the Way America Works, now freshly for sale at a bookstore near either you or near your computer.

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I just love a good double entendre

Now that the book’s out, wow. I certainly wasn’t disappointed. In fact I just blew an entire Sunday, beautiful weather and all (in Austin, sorry blizzard people), because I couldn’t put the damn thing down.

What Newton-Small doesn’t invest a lot of time doing is convincing readers that improving professional opportunities for women is the right thing to do, from a human rights perspective. I mean, it is, but that book’s been written so many times that if you are, on general principles, still a gender equality denier in 2016, there’s probably not much anybody can say to convince you otherwise. You’re just being a jerk.

What she does is more ground-breaking, interesting, and quantitative than that. She takes readers through institutions both public and private, and makes the compelling case that women achieving critical mass in those institutions fundamentally changes dynamics, dramatically improves outcomes, and is an absolute economic imperative for the future.

Her argument for gender parity is compelling from every angle, offering up evidence against the tokenism of having “a woman” in the boardroom, instead making the case that for an institution, public or private, to enjoy the full benefit of gender diversity, the institution must reach a critical mass of women. She quantifies examples from the White House and Congress, to Wall Street board rooms, law enforcement, the military, and the judiciary.

Every corporate CEO who ever approved a gender diversity hiring initiative purely for public relations purposes should read this book, to learn why the PR motive doesn’t even make the top ten list as to why a critical mass of women at every level of an organization is a good idea.

Testosterone-filled lawmakers should read it to find out the answer as to why, last time they were involved in a big legislative showdown, their brinksmanship probably didn’t work out the way they’d hoped.

Politicos should read it to find out ways they may be alienating significantly more than half of the electorate, and may not have a clue as to how they’re managing to do that, or why it’s important that they cut that crap out.

And everybody else should read it because it’s a damn good story well-told.

Meanwhile, Jay, here’s another justification for getting back to Austin: you have a book signing to do. First round’s on me.

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Random thoughts after reading Jay Root’s book

Yesterday, I downloaded Oops!, Jay Root’s new book about Rick Perry’s presidential campaign. It’s a good, easy read, and is based on the diary Jay kept during his travels with Governor Perry’s RMS Titanic-like effort.

Here are my 11 take-aways after reading it:

1. Jay Root has apparently bought everybody in America except me a drink this year, and I’m somewhat bitter about that.

2. It’s really fascinating reading a book in which I know almost every character.

3. The smart, hard-working Carrie Dann of NBC news is every bit as worthy of my longstanding crush as I suspected. Also, if my “Women of the 2012 Presidential Republican Primary Press Bus” calendar idea ever takes off, she’ll be rich, rich, I tell you.

4. Jay Root really needs to see somebody about his persistent travel anxiety.

5. The longtime Perry folks, many of whom I know well, hardly ever agree with on policy, and genuinely like anyway (sorry Democrats – get over it) got screwed even harder than I suspected at the time.

6. Texas Tribune staff really should consider unionizing. Apparently Evan Smith is working them half to death.

7. Rick and Anita Perry probably learned a lot from the experience, which may make the Governor a more formidable candidate in the future.

8. And that worries me.

9. A lot.

10. Sleep apnea? Seriously? Are you sure there wasn’t some Restless Leg Syndrome going on too?

11. if you’re a political nerd like me, you should buy the book.

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The elephant in the room (book review)

Let’s set aside for now the potentially explosive allegations regarding Rick Perry which Glen Maxey lays out in his e-book Head Figure Head: The Search for the Hidden Life of Rick Perry, released earlier this week. They’re either true or they’re not, and those reading the book or resulting news stories can draw their own conclusions. I won’t repeat them here – you already know the material.

Let’s even set aside the massive hypocrisy it would represent if even one of the stories Maxey relates in the book were true. Perry’s “Strong” ad last week alone would make that clear enough.

And let’s for a moment set aside the relative credibility of the author, which is bound to come under serious scrutiny if mainstream media begin reporting on Maxey’s findings. I’ve known the man for 22 years. We’ve agreed a lot, and disagreed sometimes. In the years we’ve been friends, I have certainly not doubted his dedication to his causes. It’s a sure thing he is willing to take the heat – he certainly barged into the kitchen.

Rick Perry

Let’s set all of the above aside, long enough to have, in Rick Perry’s frequent words, a serious conversation, and mull over what’s next, if anything, and why.

Intelligent people can, and probably will, disagree about whether the book should have been published. But now that it is, what are serious journalists, who work at news organizations on the political beat whose job it is to inform the public, going to do about it?

It’s a bit of a stretch to imagine absolutely nothing happening – Maxey has taken years worth of rumors and attached (partial) names, details, and sheer bulk which covers much important new ground. The subject material is a sitting Governor of a major state who is running for President.

News media even provided coverage a couple of months ago when a man paid for an ad in the Austin Chronicle merely asking the questions that Maxey attempts to provide answers to in the book. How can asking the questions be more news-worthy than providing some answers?

Glen Maxey

After reading the book Wednesday, I could frankly see why “the national news outlet,” as Maxey mysteriously terms it but which practically everybody in town can identify, ultimately took a pass on printing the story, to Maxey’s clear frustration. What Maxey lays out is sheer volume of circumstantial evidence. But among this mass of evidence, what he lacks – and he’s not at all misleading about this – is closing the loop on the smoking gun story. The golden example – named and on the record, laid out on a silver platter to conveniently take all worrisome close judgement calls off the collective conscience of editors, and make it abundantly clear that the story is solidly publishable, and true – is missing. It’s the deal that ultimately couldn’t be closed.

And fair enough – a lot of stories which rely on circumstantial evidence don’t get printed, and shouldn’t be. But some are, and should be.

Something Maxey barely touches on in his book, in my view, could have been the central thesis of the entire work: the possible double standards involved here. Discussing his frustration at being unable to convince a publication to run with his evidence, he writes:

“…on October 30, I saw that broke the story about Herman Cain harassing a woman while he worked for the National Restaurant Association. Politico ran the entire story—and based it almost entirely on anonymous sources. Where were the on-the-record quotes I was required to have? Why didn’t they need to have two dozen people speaking openly about what they’d heard or known??

To refresh your memory, in late October, Politico broke the Herman Cain sexual harassment story which ultimately proved to be  the beginning of the end of Cain’s Presidential aspirations.

The story neither named nor otherwise identified Cain’s accusers/victims and didn’t quote them, nor did the story name sources used to back the claims. It didn’t even describe any of the specific behavior of which Cain had been accused.

But Politico ran with it.

For whatever Maxey doesn’t have, he apparently has more about Perry than Politico printed about Cain. Granted, it’s entirely possible that Politico had much more evidence than they printed, which gave comfort to the editors ultimately approving the story. That would certainly be a defense from a possible journalistic double standard.

But what did Politico have, but not print? And what did Maxey’s “national news outlet” need in order to print, but not have? Do those two data sets match up, or is there really a double standard?

And what of other possible double standards, related to gender, or sexual orientation? As difficult as it must be for a woman to come forward and disclose an improper relationship with a man, how much more difficult would it be for a man to do so? The negative stigma attached to those situations is perpetuated by politicians like Rick Perry himself, and others in his Party, who have long had gay Americans on their list of people they cynically scapegoat for the sake of a few more votes.

Has Rick Perry himself created the very media standards paradox which protects him? Has he scapegoated people so effectively that there is no way they can possibly step forward and verify Perry’s hypocrisy to the satisfaction of long-established journalistic standards?

These are, hopefully, the ethical issues being debated among reporters, editors, and publishers, as they grapple with what, if anything, to do with Maxey’s book, or any other evidence of base cynical hypocrisy among those who would lead governments.

On the other hand, here is the conclusion I hope they’re not going to reach: that it’s a legitimate story, but that they’re not going to bother with it, because of an editorial judgement call that Perry is a washed-out Presidential candidate who will soon drop out of the race.

Even if that happens, which seems likely, Rick Perry will still be the sitting Governor of the second most populous state in the Union, who presides over, and claims credit for, the second largest economy in the nation. And he will remain that for at least the next couple of years, and perhaps the next six. He has either done the things Maxey discusses in the book, or he hasn’t. Perry is either a hypocrite of the highest order based on this evidence, or he is not.

At a bare minimum, there are more than 25 million Texans whose judgments regarding their Governor are important to them, who should know the truth, if the truth is, indeed, demonstrable.

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Molly Ivins can’t cook that, can she? (book review)

I have a personal longstanding theory that the only real difference between a great journalistic news story, and a great bar story, is that one should never let accuracy get in the way of a great bar story. Otherwise, well done journalism is the same thing – just damn good story telling.

Ellen Sweets has managed to exceed both thresholds in her new book about Molly Ivins. It’s both a fair accounting of Ivins, and a great extended bar story very well-told.

Stirring it up with Molly Ivins – A Memoir with Recipes by Ellen Sweets (foreword by Lou Dubose) is the most recent look into the life and times of a woman who is already well-documented, and Sweets tackles the topic from a unique angle – food. Anybody who knew Molly already knew she was a bit of a foodie, but when Sweets described to me a year ago her book idea of setting her Molly memoir in the kitchen, it frankly seemed like a bit of an odd, yet interesting idea.

But after reading the book it makes perfect sense, and it’s a great read.

Admittedly, I have a sky-high number of conflicts of interest here: Molly Ivins was a close friend of mine. Ellen Sweets is a close friend of mine. And Ellen included me in the book. But precisely because of all of the above, I can tell you with high confidence that if you ever spent evenings with Molly, reading Ellen’s book will give you the gift of spending one more. Even better, if you never got to spend that evening with Molly, you’re in luck – after reading the book, you’ll feel just like you did.

This is not your standard-issue cookbook, although it has a ton of recipes that I can’t wait to try. But if your singular goal is life is to continue to avoid finding out first-hand whether the stove in your kitchen actually works, you’ll still enjoy the book, assuming you love a good bar story about a fascinating, rowdy, complicated, and – at least to progressives and First Amendment advocates – inspiring Texas woman.

I loved Molly Ivins, and I loved this book. The last of it made me cry, the rest of it made me laugh, and the entirety of it made me hungry.

If you want a small taste (sorry) of Ellen’s writing, courtesy of The University of Texas Press, here’s one chapter near and dear to my heart, since it’s about Molly and me. And after you read the excerpt, don’t be a cheap-ass – buy the book.

Westward Ho, Ho, Ho

Molly and I had lots of plans, some sillier than others. One was to eventually relocate to Marathon, a little town in West Texas, and open a pseudo greasy spoon that would serve wonderful food. No white linen, no stemware, maybe not even matching plates and flatware. Just tables filled with pecan-crusted catfish, smothered chicken in onion gravy, perfectly roasted chickens, fresh-picked vegetables, cloud-soft biscuits doused with butter churned from the milk of local cows.

We would come up with menu ideas. My daughter, Hannah the Chef, would execute them, and I would greet guests pleasantly or otherwise stay out of the way. One sure offering would be coq au vin.

Close by our dream café Molly and I would pool our resources–hers substantial, mine meager–and plant a double-wide (hers) and a yurt (mine) on a patch of West Texas real estate in Marathon, where she did in fact buy a double lot. When her health took its final turn south, she ended up selling it to political strategist Harold Cook, a friend who, like a handful of other Austin renegades, was doing his part to Democratize that arid neck of the woods, as in “Let’s turn Brewster County blue.” In the best Molly tradition, it was the kind of sale ranchers probably did a century ago with a smile and a handshake. Like a lot of other friendships, this one evolved from a meal a long time ago.

Molly and me, unfortunately near the end

Cook was working at the time for Representative Debra Danburg, arguably the most liberal snuff-dipping Democrat in the Texas Legislature at the time. Molly, who was writing for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, stopped by the office to chase down some story or another. She and Harold struck up a conversation. One thing led to another and the two began to hang out, a coalition built on mutual political interests–solidifed, naturally enough, at a political event.

But let him tell it: “Debra had been scheduled to participate in roasting Glen Maxey [the first openly gay member of the Texas Legislature] at a fund-raising dinner for the Lesbian Gay Rights Lobby at Scholz Garten, but Debra had to cancel at the last minute, so I filled in. Molly was emcee for the event, and she introduced me as a legislative aide for Debra Danburg, which, she said, was “just like being Murphy Brown’s secretary.” (This popular and sometimes controversial 1990s sitcom was set in a newsroom where investigative reporter Murphy Brown was plagued by a string of hilariously inept secretaries, often portrayed by high-profile celebrities.)

“I started my speech by reading a mock letter from Danburg, which she’d supposedly written and which started out, ‘Dear Glen, I hate it that I couldn’t be with you and LGRL tonight. I would have been there if I could, but I got another offer that sounded like more fun, so fuck you.’ Molly decided that anybody who would say the f-word in public was A-OK in her book, so we stayed late, got drunk, and after that I was a regular.”

The friendship grew. Cook even made chili in Molly’s kitchen, having learned to cook out of desperation and self-defense while a student at the University of Houston. Too broke to eat out and too proud to scrounge meals at his parents’ house, he taught himself, delving into the kitchen bible of the \’50s and \’60s–the red plaid Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book. He particularly remembers an evening when he made chili for her.

“She kept standing over my shoulder and tasting stuff, suggesting more of this or more of that. I told her I don’t like backseat drivers and to leave me the hell alone and let me cook my chili.”

Over the years the two spent time together in Marathon. She enjoyed piddling around, clearing cactus and moving rocks from point A to point B to make parking space. He became a piddling-around pal, primarily helping with the heavy lifting. Molly told Cook about wanting to build a writer’s shack on the property, but acknowledged that because of her illness, the six-hour drive from Austin was just too much and she wouldn’t use the house as much as she would have liked.

She decided instead to pool resources with her brother, Andy, for a place in the Hill Country village of London, only three hours away. They planned to have a few chickens, maybe a cow or two, and a vineyard, the results of which would be an insouciant Chardonnay bottled under the label “Château Bubba.”

Molly offered to sell her piece of Marathon property to Cook because she felt he understood the spirit of the place and would care for it as she would have wanted. It would have been just like Molly to give it to him had Jan Demetri, her accountant, not intervened. Instead she sold it for the same sum she had paid for it several years before. Who knows how much it’s worth now. But, once again, that was Molly.

Cook ponied up the cash, but they didn’t even do a formal sale for at least another year or so–it was essentially a handshake deal in the best Texas tradition. There’s an excellent chance that neither of them bothered with details long enough to find a notary public. Instead Molly insisted on a formal ceremony transferring “moral and spiritual responsibility for her property.” This not-so-solemn rite was performed up the road, at the home of Ty and Kate Fain. It was originally scheduled to take place at the actual property, but the peripatetic West Texas weather refused to cooperate. Instead, at a New Year’s Eve gathering Harold placed his left hand on a Texas State Directory and pledged to take care of the place and continue the frivolity and ridiculousness Molly had initiated.

As it’s turned out, he has indeed built the writer’s shack that Molly envisioned. The porch is almost as big as the cabin–to accommodate a crowd of friends sitting around talking politics, laughing and telling lies, just as Molly would have wanted.

(Excerpted from Stirring it up with Molly Ivins: A Memoir With Recipes by Ellen Sweets, Copyright ©  2011. Courtesy of the University of Texas Press)

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