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Appeared in: Volume 1, Number 4
Published on: June 1, 2006
A Conversation with Kinky Friedman

Texas’ most renowned Jewish cowboy is busier than a horsefly on a chili dog running as an independent for Governor.

Kinky Friedman is a songwriter/musician and author/novelist who is running as an independent for Governor of Texas. AI editor Adam Garfinkle talked with the Kinkster last month about life, work, music and politics.

Adam Garfinkle: You were born up north; so how’d you become a Texan?

Kinky Friedman: I was born in Chicago, that’s right. I lived there six months, and I couldn’t find work—so I came down here to Texas. Of course, I haven’t worked since. Got into a cowboy life and, as we say, “Ain’t the easy way, but it’s the cowboy way.” Actually, the truth is that my folks wanted to start a camp for kids here, which they did, and they ran it for 52 years. My brother Roger still runs the place.

AG: You weren’t just doing cowboy stuff when you were a kid. I understand that you were pretty good at chess—that you once almost beat Samuel Reshevsky.

Kinky Friedman: My dad taught me chess, and I was a prodigy at seven. It’s been downhill from there but, yeah, I did play Samuel Reshevsky. He was playing fifty people at one time, of which I was the youngest. He beat everybody, but I did better than a lot of the other players, and he told my dad afterwards that he’s really got to watch it with this seven-year-old. If he were to lose to anybody under say, 12 or 13, it would make headlines; it could mean his career. But he was a very nice man.

AG: You still play chess?

Kinky Friedman: Yeah. In my last match I beat Willie Nelson, which I’m pretty proud of because he’s a fine player and he plays at a lightning speed.

AG: Did he cheat?

Kinky Friedman: You don’t know if he cheats because he plays a hundred miles an hour. For a guy who grew up playing dominos, Willie has probably come a lot further than I have.

AG: You spent some time in the Peace Corps— two years in Borneo, of all places. What’s stayed with you from that time?

Kinky Friedman: Oh, lots. Borneo is a very exciting place, and the people are great. The natives are former headhunters. The Kayan tribe are a very peaceful people these days, though. They like to fish. I went fishing with them a lot. Their word for fishing means “visiting the fish” because they never catch any; that’s because they’re usually drunk from a rice wine they make called tuoc. They light torches and go out on the river and have a good time, and they do what my father always advised me to do: Treat children like adults and adults like children. Their kids can drink or smoke or do whatever they want and stay up until they just totally crash and they’re great kids.

AG: What was your job in the Peace Corps?

Kinky Friedman: I was an agricultural extension worker. I like to say my job was to teach people who did farming professionally for more than two thousand years how to improve their methods.

AG: I’ve met a lot of people who worked in the Peace Corps, and they all claim they learned more from the people they went to help than the people they went to help learned from them.

Kinky Friedman: No question about that. And it’s also true that all of us have some little village in our hearts that we’ll probably never see again. Mine was Longlama. And it was way back in the “jolo”, the jungle. I think we not only learned a lot, but it was the best work any of us ever did.

AG: Tell me about how your band, Kinky Friedman and the Texas Jewboys, got started. When I first heard your song, “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore”—back in 1972 or ’73, I think—I said to myself, “Now here’s an original.”

Kinky Friedman: I think the band originated in the jungles of Borneo during the monsoon season. I had in mind a blend of Bob Wills and Jack Ruby, maybe. I figured that I was bastard child of twin cultures, Jewish and cowboy, that had nothing in common except they both liked to wear their hats indoors. And so the Jewboys were born.

AG: Are you going to write any more detective mystery novels, starring a Jewish cowboy detective also named Kinky Friedman? 

Kinky Friedman: No, those are over. Ten Little New Yorkers saw the death of Kinky Friedman the detective. There were 17 of them, but now there’s books like Kinky Friedman’s Guide to Texas Etiquette, Or How To Get to Heaven or Hell Without Going Through Dallas-Ft. Worth. The new one is Cowboy Logic: The Wit and Wisdom of Kinky Friedman. It’s got quotes and cartoons by the great cowboy cartoonist, Ace Reed.

AG: I’m looking forward to that one. I guess your literary production has slowed with your campaign for Governor, right?

Kinky Friedman: Well, I think running for Governor is just an extension of the music and the books—it’s all about truth-telling, basically. Looking back I realize that there are certain songs that really offended some people, like “They Ain’t Making Jews Like Jesus Anymore” and “Get Your Biscuits in the Oven and Your Buns in the Bed.”

AG: Yeah, and what about “I’m Proud to be an Asshole from El Paso”, that take-off on the famous Merle Haggard song? I hope nobody remembers that one when you try to get votes out in West Texas.

Kinky Friedman: You know, a guy called into a radio show the other day and he said he’s been a Republican all his life, but he’s supporting me now because these guys are all afraid of offending somebody. All of these politicians are so afraid of offending people that they never do anything at all. It would be great to have a Governor who was not afraid of offending people. So I don’t think that old song will hurt me. It may help me.

AG: Is that what you mean by the “wussification”, and the need to “de-wussify”, Texas?

Kinky Friedman: The wussification of Texas is all about those little things like people being embarrassed to say Merry Christmas these days.

AG: You’re talking about the political correctness kind of wussification.

Kinky Friedman: Yeah, exactly, I’m talking about political correctness run amok. I’m talking about the smoking regulations in Austin that have pretty well killed the live music scene. I’m talking about taking the Ten Commandments out of the public schools—

AG: And turning them into “the ten suggestions.”

Kinky Friedman: That’s right. There’s lots of wussification, and a lot of political correctness is keeping the teachers from doing anything original or independent. Political correctness is the enemy of independence everywhere. It always has been.

AG: You have this thing about animals. You’re always writing about cats in your books, and I read about the Utopia Animal Rescue Ranch that you created to care for strays. Do your sensibilities toward animals come from your folks, too?

Kinky Friedman: Yeah; most good stuff comes from your folks. But I’ve just always liked stray dogs better than fat cats. And Utopia has been great. Utopia Rescue Ranch has run now for seven years, and it’s saved God-knows-how-many more animals than Noah. I want to be Governor, but I want to be Governor of the animals, too.

AG: Some people might think that the animal-lover side of you contradicts the cigar-chomping, rowdy, bad-ass side of you.

Kinky Friedman: Nothing is what it seems, you know. And it’s not just about kindness to animals. Now there’s a horse-slaughter plant in Kaufman, Texas, which is thirty miles south of Dallas, that I’m in the process of trying to close down because it’s killing America’s wild stallions and shipping them over to the French for human consumption.

AG: Aww, that’s just not right.

Kinky Friedman: It’s not right at all, so let me say this to meat-hungry French ladies: “Save a horse. Ride a cowboy.”

AG: Kinky, even with your love of animals, I know you’re not against hunting and that you take the Second Amendment seriously. But do you hunt? Do you go down to the Armstrong Ranch and shoot birds?

Kinky Friedman: I haven’t hunted since I was about 11 years old; right after I started going downhill with chess I started going downhill with hunting. But I would like to say about the Dick Cheney affair at the Armstrong Ranch that I really think it’s a nice ending for a long and distinguished military career.

AG: Let’s get to the essence of why you want to be Governor of Texas. Is it mainly because you’re just pissed off with politics-as-usual? Is that why your campaign slogan is “Why the hell not?”

Kinky Friedman: Yeah. Look, I’m really an accidental candidate, like George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt and Davy Crockett. John McCain is another good one. In other words, I never plotted or planned to run for Governor. I just thought, Jewish cowboys speak the truth, and if I’m a truth teller, in the tradition of Mark Twain and Will Rogers, instead of Tom DeLay and Jack Abramoff, this might be a good thing for Texas and a good thing for the Kinkster. I love Texas, but I don’t like the direction it’s heading. I want to see if I can turn it around. If I can’t fix it in four years, then I can’t do it. But I’m pretty damn sure I can.

AG: You focus in pretty strong on both parties being in the pockets of special interests, on back scratching and outright corruption. Talk a little about the Trans-Texas Corridor and what it says about politics in Texas.

Kinky Friedman: Absolutely. The Trans-Texas Corridor is Rick Perry’s dream child. It’s going to cost overall, I believe, something like $184 billion, and it will divide old farms, ranches and towns all through Texas. It will take a swath about ten miles wide out of these places, and we’ll be paying tolls for the next 70 years to a Spanish corporation. And that’s why I’ve endeavored to get Lance Armstrong involved. Lance has been able to irritate the French for seven years in a row, and I think he might be very good at irritating the Spanish now by stopping the Trans-Texas Corridor.

It’s a bad idea and it’s all smoke and mirrors. The people who own the land on both sides of this big corridor are going to be the same people who own the Governor. Meanwhile the Governor has been busy banning gay marriage for about two and a half years, while education and the border have both gone to hell through neglect.

AG: You mentioned education; let’s talk about that. You put a real stress on education in the campaign, and I know that you’re disappointed with the quality of education in Texas. What’s wrong with it, and how do you propose to fix it?

Kinky Friedman: I say no teacher left behind. And in order to do that, we’re going to have to leave one Governor behind. To pay for education you can’t do what this Governor has been trying to do and use big, one-time expenditures with an eye toward the election cycle.

We have to legalize casino gambling and use it to fund education. We invented “Texas Hold ’em”, and we can’t even play it here! Every state around us is sucking bucks out of Texas with “Texas Hold ’em” and casino gambling—Louisiana, Oklahoma, New Mexico. We’ve even shut down the Indian casinos, which is a real shame because what the Native American has done in time of war for this country is truly just remarkable. Ira Hayes, who raised the flag at Iwo Jima, is one of my personal heroes. I’m going to re-open those, day one, when I’m Governor. And I’ll get rid of the toll roads, too. Instead we’d have four major highways named after Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Bob Wills and Buddy Holly. The casinos will fund education—I call it “Slots for Tots”—that and a thing we call Trust for Texas Heroes, which is a 1 percent surcharge on oil and gas produced in Texas.

AG: Aren’t you worried though that the gambling is going to bring corruption and the mob like it did to Atlantic City and other places where gambling has been legalized?

Kinky Friedman: What happened to Atlantic City? It was nothing before it started, and it’s nothing now. Las Vegas, on the other hand, is the fastest growing community in America. And Vegas is a place where the hotel maids own their own homes; their kids go to good schools.

Louisiana gamblers have now paid up to $70 million per annum to keep gambling out of Texas. That’s how big it is. And Texans are gambling right now, but they’re gambling in Oklahoma and Louisiana. I also want to shift sports funding in the public schools out of the education budget and let the corporate sector bid on sponsoring the stadiums and the other stuff. 

AG: How is public education now funded at the local level in Texas? Mainly through property taxes like in most states?

Kinky Friedman: Yes, and the property taxes are through the roof.

AG: Does that bother you? How can educational opportunities be equal when education is funded by local property taxes?

Kinky Friedman: Well, you’re right: It’s not equal, and it’s definitely property taxes that are doing it. That’s why we need to fund the schools other ways, like “Slots for Tots.”

There’s a lot wrong with education here, and one of the main reasons is that the Governor has appointed a whole bunch of people that have never seen the inside of a classroom. We need to appoint the best people. That’s my secret plan: to appoint the very finest people I can find, and then I’ll get the hell out of the way and let ’em work. This has never been tried in Texas. George Washington was right about political parties, you know. I’m just for common sense and common honesty.

AG: Health care is another big part of your platform. You have some data showing that Texas is not a particularly good place to get sick if you’re poor. What you would do differently?

Kinky Friedman: I’d borrow a page from Minnesota. Senator Dean Barkley, who was Jesse Ventura’s campaign director, is our campaign director. Dean has told me all about Minnesota Care. Minnesota is now number one in health coverage for adults and children. And Texas, of course, is right there at the bottom again. And all they do in Minnesota is put a tax on insurance companies, hospitals and medical procedures. And they have a floating scale. No matter how poor you are, you’re taken care of in Minnesota. In Texas, one in four kids has no insurance whatsoever, even though Texas is so much richer than almost all of the states. When you realize that Texas lags in health insurance and care for the elderly—we’re fiftieth in education and health care—behind places like West Virginia and New Mexico and Alabama, that’s just ridiculous.

AG: Let’s talk about immigration and the border with Mexico.

Kinky Friedman: I’ve been talking about it for a year. We need some kind of guest worker status. But before we do that we’ve got to secure our borders. You know, remember the Alamo…

AG: I remember; and I was shocked when you pointed out that the Governor of Texas and the Governors of New Mexico and Arizona have never met to coordinate and to talk about their common interests. I find that astonishing.

Kinky Friedman: They’re Democrats in New Mexico and Arizona; why should our Republican governor want to talk to them?

AG: Well, maybe because it’s in the public interest of all three states?

Kinky Friedman: That’s right. But his policy has been, bring us your tired, your poor, your drugs, your gangs, your bombs, your terrorists: Welcome to Texas! That’s why we find dead bodies in the back of cargo container trucks.
That doesn’t have to happen. It’s a policy of neglect, and the governor doesn’t want to offend Hispanics, if you want to know the truth.

AG: But they’re the ones who suffer most from it.

Kinky Friedman: Totally. Hispanics want the same thing that everybody else does: They want education for their kids in a good safe community.

AG: Right, and safe means drug-free, too. You know, Kinky, this is the 30th anniversary of the war on drugs, and thirty years after we declared war on drugs, drugs are more plentiful, cheaper and stronger than ever. You have defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

Kinky Friedman: Right.

AG: So how would you restore sanity in Texas if you were Governor?

Kinky Friedman: Well, Arlo Guthrie told me recently that his dad, Woody, told him that the more laws you make, the more criminals you’re going to have. Right now in Texas, we got too many laws, too many criminals, and we’ve got a bigger criminal population than the entire population of Alaska. Most of them, 55 to 60 percent, are non-violent dopers. They need to be rehabbed so we can put the sexual predators and real criminals away, and throw away the key.

The other thing we need for the sake of our sanity is a moratorium on the death penalty. I like to ask, “When was the last rich man executed in Texas?” The answer, of course, is never. So if we’re dealing with an imperfect system, the same system that killed another innocent man 2,000 years ago who now is widely regarded as the savior of the world, what have we learned? I’m just asking whether we should be wearing little crosses or Stars of David around our necks, or whether we should be wearing little gold-studded electric chairs. If you’re going to be against abortion you have to be against the death penalty. That’s a very unpopular stand here, by the way. But I stand by it.

AG: How’s the campaign going? You’ve raised a fair bit of money, and Don Imus has endorsed you. But as an independent you have to mount a petition drive to have your name placed on the ballot. How’s that coming?

Kinky Friedman: It’s going through the roof. It ends May 10th. Right now we need fifty thousand signatures, a little less than that. Frankly, I think that we’re already over a hundred thousand. This whole petition thing, by the way, was designed to keep independents off the ballot. It’s been 147 years since the last independent even made it to the ballot, and that was Sam Houston.

But the peasants are really coming with their pitchforks, and by November the soul of Texas will be riding on this campaign. A lot of it is young people. I’m telling kids in high school, “If you’re old enough to die in Iraq, you’re old enough to help us fix Texas.”

AG: In a lot of places, in states, and certainly at the national level, television advertising has become a real important aspect of campaigns. What do you think the effect of television and TV advertising has been on the campaign process?

Kinky Friedman: Bill Hillsman, the other fellow with Jesse Ventura who’s working with us—he worked with Paul Wellstone, too—Bill is of the opinion that television ads are the only thing. The air war is the big thing, and if people don’t see you represented in that war, they don’t think you’re a real candidate. You could be Jesus Christ, but if you don’t have political ads, you will be left out. So it’s a government of the money, by the money and for the money. Two of our opponents have well more than $10 million, and we’re going to have to have $10 million if we’re going to be viable.

AG: Don’t you find that sad—the thought that television ads drive the campaigns, and that anybody who doesn’t have a big fat money machine behind them to buy that TV space hasn’t got a prayer?

Kinky Friedman: That’s why I first liked Jesse Ventura, when I heard him say that the guy with most money shouldn’t always win. That’s not the American way. Jesse also never met a lobbyist. In four years he refused to meet a single one. And I say, every time a bell rings, another lobbyist gets his wings. That’s the way it is here in Texas anyway.

I’d like to do what Jesse did. I’d like to be the first governor who doesn’t meet with the lobbyists. I think that Jesse was a great one. He just finally said to hell with it: He was unprepared; he was naive; he didn’t realize that wrestling is real and politics is fixed. I know politics is fixed. It’s stacked against us, no question about it. So we’ve got to get the politicians out of politics, get the money-changers out of the temple. That’s the only way to beat this thing.

Politics is the only field in which the more experience you have, the worse you get. I’m the only one in the race who has no political experience whatsoever. I’m 61 years old. That’s too young for Medicare and too old for women to care. But I care about Texas.

AG: Thanks for talking to The American Interest, Kinky.

Kinky Friedman: Thank you—and may the God of your choice bless you, Adam.



Kinky Friedman is a songwriter/musician and author/novelist who is running as an independent for Governor of Texas.
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