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Mess With Texas

Paul Stekler’s documentary delves into the machinations behind a small-town election—smartly enough, but with a dash too much sociology.

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Campaign flyers for Green and Rose.  

Molly Ivins doesn’t show up often enough to elevate Last Man Standing: Politics Texas Style (Tuesday, July 20; 10 to 11 p.m.; Channel 13) from the merely interesting to the genuinely indispensable. To be sure, documentarian Paul Stekler guessed right for one of P.O.V.’s election specials when he chose to follow two candidates for five months in 2002 as they campaigned for the Texas State Legislature. Although the Republicans won every statewide office in a landslide, Rick Green, a young Christian conservative incumbent, actually lost his legislative seat to an even younger Democrat, Patrick Rose, by 333 votes. On questions like school prayer and gun control, there wasn’t much choice. But the fact that Green was accused of taking money from a crook at a parole-board hearing may have tipped the balance. Green, naturally, is furious and quotes angry Scripture against his opponent. He isn’t supposed to lose. It’s amazing, really, just how entitled these young men feel about their powers and their perks. But Green and Rose were competing for a spot in the very legislature Ivins has so ridiculed in her newspaper column—“It’s illegal to be gay in Texas again,” she explained in Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She? “They reinstated our sodomy statute, so people can legally screw pigs in public, but not each other in private”—as if to refresh the meaning of the phrase “confederacy of dunces.” Why would anyone want to serve in such a ludicrous body, where lobbyists buy laws by the bushel, and exceptions to them, too? Not that New York’s State Legislature, where the need for a new budget always comes as a thundering surprise, at all resembles Plato’s Republic. But from Ivins herself, we have heard these Texas politicians characterized as so slow, “if his IQ slips any lower, we’ll have to water him twice a day”; so mean, “he wouldn’t spit in your ear if your brains were on fire”; so dumb, “if you put his brains in a bee, it would fly backwards”; and so ugly “that when he was a little boy his momma had to tie a pork chop around his neck before the dog would play with him.”

And yet here Ivins is as solemn about campaigning in Texas as her old friend the ex-governor Ann Richards, and the Bush strategist Karl Rove, and the Clinton consultant Paul Begala, and filmmaker Stekler himself. Last Man Standing, while trying to say something earnest about fund-raising, local politics, ethical issues, the Elvis factor, and the Hispanic vote, is too much sociology and not enough anthropology and could have used some scathing stand-up. But having said that, I am now embarrassed and apologetic—because, compared with the sound bites that pass for coverage on the networks, and the yaps that pass for analysis on the primal-scream cable shows, this flying visit to a small election towers like De Tocqueville.


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