February 5, 2019
State of the Circus
Trump Arch Enemy Shreds Chance to Seize on Handshake Rejection
in Grandstanding Duel that Steals Pivotal Texas Governor Race Scene
President Donald Trump did a dandy Claytie Williams impersonation on a much larger stage when he gave U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the ultimate cold shoulder before the State of the Union speech on Tuesday night.
But Trump won't be worried about the kind of campaign-crippling backlash that the Republican nominee for governor in Texas triggered 30 years ago when he refused to shake Democrat Ann Richards' hand at a joint appearance in Dallas near the end of the wildest political fight in state history.
Trump ran the risk of offending female voters who were still on the fence or planning to vote for him while holding their noses when he snubbed Pelosi's attempt at a perfunctory show of etiquette with a handshake that would have been a meaningless formality.
But Pelosi might have defused the potential for outrage among the women electorate when she attempted to out-punk Trump by ripping up a copy of his speech after standing for the obligatory ovation at the end of his address to Congress and the nation last night.
The antics that the nation's two most powerful leaders displayed before a national viewing audience would have made for entertaining theater if they'd been working off an Aaron Sorkin script for a Hollywood political epic. The writers at Saturday Night Live will have a field day with this sort of once-in-a-lifetime material.
But the Trump rebuff of a token gesture and Pelosi's showboating response to it has to leave any of the remaining Americans who haven't been poisoned by partisanship nervous about their nation's stability at a time when Washington has degenerated into a three-ring circus on both sides of the aisle.
It unlocked some very rich memories for me and others who were following Texas politics back in 1990 when Williams had been leading Richards in the polls in the closing stages of an open race for governor. I had been standing a few feet away in my role as a political reporter for the Houston Post when Williams turned down Richards attempt to shake his hand before a joint appearance in a ballroom at the hotel near downtown Dallas that's known now as the Hilton Anatole.
I had traveled with the Richards campaign for more than a year before switching to Williams bus as the battle headed into the stretch. That gave me a front-row seat inside the frontrunner's Lear Jet for the most astonishing collapse in the history of politics in Texas and beyond.
But Williams had appeared to survive a joke about rape that he shared with several male reporters at a campfire during a dog-and-pony show at his ranch while a couple of female journalists were off using the restroom. A West Texas oil and gas tycoon who had a swimming pool shaped like a cowboy boot at his Fort Stockton residence, Williams had been staggered shortly after the attempt at humor's exposure by a report by a Houston Post colleague who had him on tape confessing to Mexican bordertown brothel trips as a college student.
Williams had been down but far from out as the summer ended with him still up on Richards in surveys on the race that had become a national media obsession with all the ingredients that reinforced every comical stereotype of the Lone Star State.
The Clayton Williams nose dive didn't really get under way in earnest until the handshake spurning that television crews captured and broadcast on the news at 6 and 10 that night. Williams - a political novice who'd buried several seasoned GOP primary rivals under an avalanche of personal funds - had no clue about the concept of damage control despite a team of top-level advisors.
The candidate who never showed up in public without his boots and cowboy sealed his demise with a series of mind-boggling gaffes in final week of the fight before voters sent him off into the sunset with a stinging defeat and silver-platter upset for the Democrat who won in spite of her own flaws and floundering.
Williams had run as an outsider who ended up as a victim of his own inexperience. He had a right to be angry with Richards when he turned the handshake down as a spontaneous reaction to her unsubstantiated attempts to portray him as a crook like she'd done with a pair of major primary rivals including a former governor.
But Trump is no longer the outsider that he'd been in his first race for the White House in 2016. The president knows that he can do no wrong with his loyal base of support that sees the impeachment process that Pelosi and the Democrats who control the U.S. House initiated as a campaign publicity gimmick sham.
The Democratic Party faithful might be cheering Pelosi's speech-shredding theatrics. The speaker might have squandered the opportunity to capitalize on Trump's disregard for superficial gentility, however, as a result of it.
Mike Hailey's column appears on a regular basis in Capitol Inside