Welcome to chapter infinity of “This Isn’t Normal,” a daily experiment in reality TV/surreality governance.
Today we’ll take a look at a Texas homeboy’s role in a recent episode.
First, a review of what used to be normal, including when I covered the portion of White House Cabinet meetings when journalists were brought in for photos and video and a question or two prior to the private session. From President George W. Bush’s first Cabinet meeting on Jan. 31, 2001:
“Thank you all for coming. In my first Cabinet meeting, we’re going to discuss a variety of topics today. I’m going to remind all of us it’s an honor to serve the country. I expect only one standard, and that’s the highest of ethical standards.”
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He ended with “I’ll be glad to answer a few questions.” And he did before the assembled journalists were ushered out.
That was then. This is now. That was old normal. This is the new abnormal.
On Monday, President Donald Trump held his first full Cabinet meeting. It was Trumpian. Instead of talking about the honor of serving the country, it was more about praising the president, including self-praise as he told us that “with few exceptions,” we’ve never been blessed to have a president who’s accomplished as much as he has in such a short period.
“I think we’ve been about as active as you can possibly be and at a just about record-setting pace,” he said, ignoring the fact that no major legislation has been passed under his leadership. “In just a very short time, we’ve seen amazing results.”
Trump spoke, largely about his wonderfulness, for about 12 minutes as the cameras rolled. And then each Cabinet member made statements, most opting to use their brief time to agree with the boss about how great he is.
Wherever the message came from that that would be appropriate, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, our ex-gov, got it as his turn came in a little play we’ll call, “Hail to the Chief. Really, Really Hail.”
“Mr. President, an honor to be on the team,” Perry told Trump, a man he branded as a “cancer on conservatism” when he ran against him for the GOP presidential nomination.
“This last week, I had the great privilege to represent America in China at the Green Energy Ministerial. Good timing. They needed to hear why America was stepping away from the Paris Accord and they did. And that America is not stepping back but we’re stepping into place and sending some messages that we’re still going to be leaders in the world when it comes to the climate, but we’re not going to be held hostage to some executive order that was ill thought out.”
His statement didn’t get much play in the network news montages of the Cabinet Room praisefest, probably because Perry’s words were mild compared to those of some of his colleagues.
“I can’t thank you enough for the privilege you’ve given me and the leadership you’ve shown,” Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price told Trump.
Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao told Trump “last week was a great week,” recalling the White House had declared it “infrastructure week.”
Most of us recall it as Comey Week, but Chao told Trump, “Thank you for coming over to the Department of Transportation. Hundreds and hundreds of people were just so thrilled hanging out, watching the whole ceremony.”
White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus told Trump, “On behalf of the entire senior staff around you, Mr. President, we thank you for the opportunity and blessing that you’ve given us to serve your agenda and the American people.”
For a Twitter-sized synopsis of this odd White House happening let’s look for an appropriately named tweeter: “Maybe a bit too ‘Dear Leader-ish,’” tweeted Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island.
If something can simultaneously be incongruous and not surprising, it’s Perry’s role in all of this. For whatever reasons, at this latter point in his public service career, he’s chosen to work for a guy he knows to be impulsive, compulsive and, at times, repulsive.
We continue to wish Perry well. As energy secretary, the twice unsuccessful presidential candidate is closer to the presidency than he’s ever been. He’s 14th in the presidential succession line that’s based on when each cabinet post was created.
And he’s actually lucky/unlucky 13, because Chao, just ahead of him in the succession line, is ineligible for the presidency because she was born in Taiwan.
Ken Herman is a columnist for the Austin American-Statesman.