Rick Perry, believe me, is no more going to prison than I’m going to bounce into his office one fine day to sign him up for an Obama fundraising dinner (an occasion prospectively disadvantageous to the health and well-being of both statesmen, should they meet in the receiving line).

The ins and the outs of the indictment leveled at Perry in late summer are a little complex.  But let that go for a minute.  The ins and outs, the twirls and twists and curlicues of legal reasoning, don’t matter.  That’s right.  They don’t matter at all.  In fact, they are unbelievably silly, considered in this context.  You ask me to believe that a governor of Texas is in legal jeopardy on account of vetoing a bill?  I ask you in return why you apparently suppose the continuous consumption of Lone Star longnecks on an empty stomach elevates the reasoning powers.

Rick Perry is in this fix, if you want to call it a fix—indicted by a state grand jury on two counts for felony abuse of power—because the meanness of that which we pleasantly call politics has conventionalized itself.  Oh—you’re a conservative!  (Or even a liberal!)  That means, in the conversational patois of Texas, that you’re a lowdown sidewinder that I’m afixin’ to shoot the rattles off.  If you’re not on my side, you couldn’t be honest!  And what’s more, you should pay for it.

I dissent from objections that particular public men (not to mention women; Maggie Thatcher comes to mind) have long suffered abuse as crooks, bums, riffraff, and the like, proving there’s nothing new in the animosity here.  This is true in the historical and, most of all, the theological sense.  Ours is a fallen world.  We’re a mess.  Even journalists, as much as I hate to acknowledge it, have been complicit in swinishness and malpractice.

What is it about modern politics, even so, that disengages the capacity for restraint and thoughtful judgment and turns political disagreement into guerre à outrance?  A lifetime of pained observation has led me to solemn ratification of Lord Acton’s solemn judgment about power as a corruptive force.  Too much power does sweep from the field the civilized attributes of reason, patience, and moderation.  If power is what you’ve got, in spite of my entitlement to it, then you’re most likely a blankety-blank so-and-so, in the quasipolite discourse of yore.

Back to the Perry indictment.  At the center of the incident is the power question: Who’s got the power in Texas right now, and who would like to wrest it from the present owner?  The Republicans have the power, of course.  Perry is their big chief—the longest-serving governor in Texas history; a former, as well as a potentially future, presidential candidate.

Texas Republicans, who took over state government only two decades ago, are perpetually at odds with the “anticorruption” unit in the Travis County District Attorney’s office.  Now it is true that everybody hates corruption save the corrupt, but the anticorruption office, situated in Texas’s most liberal county, is much mistrusted by Republicans, and for good reason.

In the 90’s, then-DA Ronnie Earle prosecuted Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison on charges so dubious that his case collapsed within literally minutes of the trial’s commencement.  Earle also secured the conviction, in a jury trial, of Republican House Majority Leader Tom DeLay on charges of money laundering and conspiracy.  A state appeals court last year threw out the conviction and acquitted DeLay.  The DA’s office is appealing.  There were occasional prosecutions of Democrats during the Earle years, but one felt entitled to the impression that Republicans were the big game.

Rosemary Lehmberg, Earle’s successor, proved hardly more prepossessing.  Over a year ago, while driving drunk, she became belligerent with the police and had to be put in the slammer.  Not a pretty picture: justice behind bars.  Perry—I take it—said Aha!  The governor suggested she resign; otherwise he would veto the state appropriation that partly supports an anticorruption unit he was heartily tired of anyway.  Nothing doing, she said.  Well, replied the governor, innocently, I told her, didn’t I?  He duly vetoed the appropriation.  Great was the rage at the courthouse, with Lehmberg holding onto a post that was significantly reduced in resources if not in scope.  An outside group, calling itself Texans for Public Justice, and feeling her undoubted pain, as well as seeing a gotcha moment, filed an ethics complaint against Perry.  Ultimately, a special prosecutor, a nominal Republican named Michael McCrum, procured Perry’s indictment on grounds he had offered Lehmberg an illegal inducement to quit her job—just when an executive-branch cancer-research program was under investigation.  (McCrum’s Republican credentials, previously unidentifiable, are a favorite talking point among supporters of the indictment.)

The main thing Perry did to Lehmberg, nevertheless, is show some muscle the lady may not have expected.  Wham!  He meant what he said.  Hardball isn’t quite the species of politics that is favored in freshman poli-sci.  But then politics—the non-Aristotelian version—more and more takes on in America a shape produced by the extraordinary passions connected with the extraordinary prominence and influence we assign to the political realm.  Our political obsessions are not entirely about power, but the lust for power has grown apace with the growth of the political superstructures that dominate the modern landscape.  The more we call on government to do, the more important—in government’s own eyes—become its mission and capacities.  Government matters in ways not characteristic of earlier times in America, when (with exceptions for the 1850’s and the populist era) the good citizen might go all day without worrying what Congress was up to—and, least of all, how Congress was likely to make his life more pleasant.

Politics in the 21st century, by contrast, is everywhere; it is, in a sense, everything.  If you haven’t got a piece of it, you’d better get one, or get someone to get it for you.  The interconnections of lobbyists, pressure groups, interest groups, and elected officials are close, intimate, almost lover-like.  The Founding Fathers never envisioned such a state of affairs; it is, all the same, the state of affairs we live with.  Power is the fuel of government, the get-it-done stuff.  And it corrupts.  We hardly need Lord Acton to remind us of this bitter detail.  To get things done, as Willie Stark understood, you have to have power.  Your friends are the powerful; to the extent you yourself wield the means to desired ends, you take on unwonted importance and value.

What is more—what is worse, in a sense—is that the power struggle called politics is responsible for the social and cultural animosities we so often lament.  The more political questions matter to the living of life, the harder we fight (and the more intensely, sometimes, in order to hate) to achieve victory, and the extirpation of The Enemy.  Nothing personal, you know, but you guys stand in my way.  That is how we live life now—if you can call it life, in the pious, reverent, and grateful sense our ancestors (the best of them) might have employed the term.

As power struggles go, the Rick Perry-Rosemary Lehmberg imbroglio is small potatoes: extremely unlikely to result in court-ordered retribution for Perry, somewhat more likely to dent any presidential aspirations he may have for this cycle, thanks to inevitable cries of “You crook!” leaping from liberal throats.  We shall have to see.  The thing in any case will blow over probably more quickly than special prosecutor McCrum and his liberal cheering section anticipate.  Legal opinion, if I read the journalistic analyses correctly, takes Perry’s side: big deal; nothing to get very worked up about.

I agree in the juridical sense—nothing to get worked up about.  There is another sense in which to consider the matter.  About this one I am less confident.  It is the sense in which the good society depends, for the accomplishment of good ends, upon a process founded on ancient maxims of prudence, justice, and concern for the public weal.  We’ll really have to see about that one.