Sid Miller is an old-school Texas politician — seemingly from a time not so long ago when people in public life were not afraid of their shadows.
He’s also a pretty good reminder of why so many politicians are afraid of their shadows.
Most of them are invisible — a stressful condition in a business that has more than its share of narcissists. But the only thing worse than everybody knowing your name is everybody knowing your name and disliking you.
As they rise on the political food chain, people grow accustomed to noise from the opposition. It’s hard to rise, after all, if nobody really knows who you are.
No risk, no reward.
Which brings us to Miller — the Donald Trump of Texas politics. The Texas commissioner of agriculture got your attention, didn’t he, with his principled stands on cupcakes and fried foods in schools and the latest — a Facebook post — now removed — with a picture of an atomic bomb blast in Japan and these words: “Japan has been at peace with the US since August 9, 1945. It’s time we made peace with the Muslim world.”
Was it religious discrimination? No question. Put another noun in the sentence in place of Muslim to see why it’s wince-worthy: Jew, for instance, or Christian. Like that frog in your high school biology lab, it doesn’t survive the analysis.
Even so, there is a real possibility that it didn’t cost Miller any of the support that put him into state office. Somewhere, there is a line between what his Republican voters will accept and what they won’t, and Miller doesn’t appear to have stepped over it yet.
One writer, Jonathan Tilove of the Austin American-Statesman, called him “the Slim Pickens of Texas politics” — a reference to the late actor who rode a hydrogen bomb into oblivion in Dr. Strangelove, yee-hawing and waving his cowboy hat all the way.
That’s not flattering, but it’s not coming from Miller’s base, either.
Look at the aftermath. Operating in the risk-averse world of state government, a Miller aide from the Department of Agriculture called the post “inappropriate” and said someone other than the commissioner had shared it on Facebook. Meanwhile, Todd Smith, Miller’s political adviser — operating in a world where simply getting noticed is sometimes more important than why you’re getting noticed — offered no apology.
He said Miller himself wasn’t responsible. He called the post “thought-provoking.” And he said nobody was going to get spanked for it. “I don’t know who did it, but I’m not going to start a witch hunt to find out who did.”
In an era of with-us-or-against-us polarity in the public square, Miller’s headline-grabbing capers are relatively safe. The people who are on his side aren’t shaken, and find some pleasure when he rattles their opposites.
Ultimately, he will have to produce some results that make his Yosemite Sam antics seem like harmless color. In another forum, Trump has to eventually talk about policy. When it works, it works: Voters will forgive a lot if they’re getting something more than entertainment.
Bob Bullock, the former lieutenant governor, state comptroller and legislator, was both a big personality and — in the early part of his career — an uncomfortably public alcoholic. The war stories from his era still come up among political people from time to time. He had some moments after he quit, too. One time he told state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, she would be more successful if she wore shorter skirts and higher heels. And he said it during a breakfast speech in a hotel ballroom full of business people — reporters, too.
He survived moments like that one, in part, because he was pretty good at his job — or at least powerful enough to avoid serious competition. And because, like Miller, he wasn’t offensive enough to faze the voters who elected him.
Miller is a long way from another election and the judgment that comes with it. He was installed in January for a four-year term. Voters have years to decide whether his regular news eruptions are embarrassing or merely colorful.
If the voters don’t mind, those headlines don’t matter.