When does politics as usual amount to a crime?


Maybe Texas Governor Rick Perry should give John Street a call.

The former Philadelphia mayor could give Perry a few tips on how to turn the news that you’re being investigated for official corruption into an election bonanza.

Perry, as you may have heard, was indicted last week by a Texas grand jury.

Street, as you probably remember, surged from well behind in the polls to be re-elected mayor in a landslide in 2003 – but only after word came that the FBI had planted a bug in his office to investigate corruption.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

Perry, who wants to make a White House run while wiping away memories of his stumblebum 2012 fiasco, denounced his indictment as a smear, a bid to treat normal politics as a crime.

At issue is Perry’s line-item veto of some funding for the Travis County District Attorney’s Office. Perry said he wielded his veto because the Travis D.A., a Democrat, refused to step down after being convicted of drunken driving. Hmm, OK, plausible

National pundits eagerly stepped into line with this spin; everyone from The Washington Post to David Axelrod, Barack Obama’s political brain, declared the indictment flimsy and partisan.

In less time than it takes a Mo-ne Davis fastball to cross home plate, an Inside-the-Beltway consensus formed: The indictment would actually boost Perry’s presidential hopes, by enabling him to play martyr to the GOP base.

Shades of 2003. After word of that FBI bug emerged, Philly Democratic leaders locked arms behind the claim that this was a case of Karl Rove deploying the racist FBI to bring down a proud, powerful black man. Boy, did that bull work.

But here’s the thing: The probe was legit. It led to convictions for some of the sleazy folks Street allowed to operate around him.

I’ll admit, at first blush I, too, took the Perry indictment to be partisan overreach. But, as with the Street probe, the facts on the ground are more nuanced than they look through an Inside the Beltway telescope.

First, the special prosecutor in the case, and the judge who appointed him, are Republican stalwarts. Second, the job of the unit in the D.A.’s office for which Perry cut funding is to probe wrongdoing in state government. And what do you know, at that moment, it was investigating a bunch of Perry cronies.

Third, Perry never said a mumbling word about two Republican D.A.’s who didn’t step down after getting nailed for DWI.  (Maybe it’s a Lone Star State thing.)

Another point to ponder: Ordinary citizens tend to be far less tolerant of hardball politics than many political journalists, who flaunt their cynicism and adore good copy like a Perry comeback. Whether in Pennsylvania or Texas, when grand juries get a load of “politics as usual,” they almost always react: “Lord, this ought to be illegal!”

In this, perhaps they are wiser than your garden-variety pundits (including me).

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal