Roving thoughts and provocations

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The Rick Perry Hustle

Rodger Mallison/Fort Worth Star-Telegram/MCT/Getty Images
Texas Governor Rick Perry fires a gun filled with blanks at an event in downtown Fort Worth to kick off a weekend of NASCAR racing at the Texas Motor Speedway, April 15, 2010

So far the defining comment about the current Republican presidential stampede was made by the columnist Maureen Dowd in The New York Times: she said Mitt Romney looked like a statue of himself. Promptly another Times columnist, Gail Collins, said that when Governor Rick Perry of Texas loomed over the podium with his big chest he looked like a float; another commentator mentioned that Governor Perry often looked as if he’d had himself stuffed; while, to my eyes, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann of Minnesota looks like a mannequin who has somehow been granted reason and motion—though not too much reason or very rapid motion: it’s when things speed up suddenly that Congresswoman Bachmann tends to fumble.

In the fifth debate Bachmann needlessly and erroneously flung herself into the argument about the mandated use of the anti-cervical cancer vaccine HPV, saying Perry was forcing “innocent little girls to have a government injection” through an executive order. Neither the Congresswoman from Minnesota nor the Governor of Texas have got it quite right on the subject of the vaccine, at least not through the sixth debate. (The executive order Governor Perry issued in 2007, mandating use of the vaccine for middle school girls, contained an opt-out clause for parents, a fact Governor Perry eventually mentioned, although it could hardly be heard.)

Clearly the GOP has a problem. Except for those aging sinners Newt Gingrich and Ron Paul, all its candidates seem synthetic. It’s become the party of stale air; and now who should come bounding in but another slicked up trashmouth, Governor Perry of Texas, a man whose only salient principle seems to be that all attention is good. Pop off a few times outrageously: the Fed is “almost treasonous”; Social Security is “a Ponzi scheme”; Texas might “leave” the Union “if Washington continues to thumb their nose” at us; climate change is a fraud: this even as the climate changing smoke from some of the most-destructive wildfires in Texas’s history wafts through the statehouse in Austin, a place like many not defended by very many firefighters since the Governor pared them down for budgetary reasons.

What Perry has brought to the Republican muddle thus far is his abundant, if unfocused, energy. He rushes from debate to debate, gives many interviews, gets his picture on the cover of TIME; yet all his politicking is curiously affectless. He makes sounds, but where’s the personality? Hillary Clinton has a personality; so does Sarah Palin. Either of those women could cut Governor Perry off at the knees, and will if given the chance.

It’s not been said so I’ll say it: as a politician Rick Perry is fundamentally lazy, so far as actual governing is concerned, content to run things mainly by sound-bite. He makes lots of decisions but lingers on no issue very long; there’s little follow-through. Clemency, or its absence, is an example. Two hundred thirty-four humans have been executed in Texas on his watch and only recently has he been stirred to a review. He believes that the State Board of Pardons and Paroles is so infallible that there’s no reason for him to lose sleep over the fate of this or that prisoner. The Governor has much more confidence in the Board than the Board has in itself; its members are well aware that even, or especially in Texas shaky verdicts have come down. The Governor, a man with a notably short attention span, has a lot more to think about than the death chamber.

An irony of his sudden emergence as a front-runner is that his few humane decisions—the HPV vaccine, which is safe and helpful, and the tuition credit for the children of illegals, which could help keep gangs of feral children off our streets—are what may sink him with the Tea Party and his own rabid right wing. And this is the wing he has assiduously cultivated his whole political life.

That political life has always been dogged, never flamboyant. Perry grew up in Haskell County, a one-stoplight county on the edge of the high plains cotton country. At Texas A&M, a better school than Aggie humor would suggest, he was head cheerleader, the same job George W. Bush held at Yale. (Despite this common achievement, the two men have never been close.)

Perry often plays the hick, but he has actually seen more of the world than most hicks ever do. Having enlisted in the Air Force after college, he flew cargo planes in the Middle East in the 1970s, and has made twenty-three trade missions out of the country as governor, although that doesn’t mean that he’s particularly well informed about the world.

All I know about his wife, Anita Perry, is that she’s a nurse who works for a charity that attempts to help victims of sexual abuse; also she seems to be a devotee of Big Hair. The story goes they met in youth at a piano recital: but where? I would doubt that there are many pianos in Paint Creek, Texas, Perry’s actual hometown. They courted for either sixteen or twenty-one years, depending on your authority.

Then a Democrat working in his father’s cotton business, Perry entered the Texas House of Representatives in 1985. He switched parties in 1989, and soon beat out the admirable Jim Hightower for Commissioner of Agriculture, serving two terms; he soon got comfortable with Big Agro, Big Oil, Big Pharm and whatever Bigs may be. Then he successfully ran for Lieutenant Governor, from which office he became governor.

Perry’s rise was not meteoric and his victories were not landslides. In 2006, a race complicated by two Independents and a Libertarian, Perry got only a plurality, 39.23 percent of the vote. (One of the Independents, the singer, songwriter, band leader and detective novelist Kinky Friedman, a ubiquitous Austin figure, was also a good friend of George and Laura Bush: did they egg Kinky on? Do we owe Rick Perry to Kinky, who drained off 547,674 votes? It’s a thought.)

Lately Perry has been combing his hair like Ronald Reagan, and certainly he had something of Reagan’s deep untouchability, a factor commented on or admitted even by Nancy Reagan. What really touches Rick Perry I don’t know, but rumors of scandal don’t interest him at all. In 2005 The Austin American-Statesman did a long investigative piece about Perry’s libido-life. Austin, a fishbowl of a town, was agog with rumors of Perry’s gayness, or, failing that, at least some garden-variety infidelities. Anita Perry’s departure was several times predicted; but Anita is still there and the newspaper drew a complete blank. The Perrys, apparently, just laughed it all off. Gone forever, I guess, is the Austin of Billy Lee Brammer’s The Gay Place, itself a kind of hymn to fornications past.

Ronald Reagan, remote or not, was much more likable than Rick Perry; at least Reagan enjoyed the camaraderie of politics. What Perry actually likes is anybody’s guess. Maybe it’s just shooting coyotes with his laser-sighted .380 Ruger, for which he has a concealed-weapon license. The coyote he shot was said to be menacing his daughter’s puppy. Perry laid the coyote low, and that single act is the only thing most Texans know about their governor—it seems to me a dubious credential on which to hang a presidential run. Apparently, not long after this shooting his wife Anita suggested that he get off his butt and save America. I suspect, myself, that Perry’s friends at the Texas Public Policy Foundation—a place that harbors conservative’s conservatives—may have whispered a few words to him also.

There is, by now, a good deal of evidence that what Rick Perry has really done, from childhood on, is hustle.

Governor Perry’s rivals have been slow to challenge his incessant bragging about Texas and jobs. In his speeches Texas is always held out as the last best hope for the jobless.

The state does in fact have an overabundance of natural resources and usually enjoys a robust economy. The New York Times reported that oil shale alone might bring two million jobs to South Texas—a report at which local oilmen scoffed: the jobs may be there, but try finding two million Texans who are willing to work. What was largely been unreported is that the Western work ethic is not what it used to be. My brother-in-law is a small oil producer; he has four rigs but can rarely find roustabouts to keep even two of them in operation. Meanwhile, in other industries, just this August the state lost 1,300 jobs and our jobless numbers are not that far below the national average.

Another problem never mentioned in talk about huge prosperity in the oil patch is the factor of crystal meth. Speed in one form or another has always been the drug of the oil business: workers who find themselves doing twenty- or thirty-hour shifts need a boost. But meth is virulent in its force, and hundreds of hamlets and small oil-patch towns bear its scars and will forever. Rid the oil patch of that drug and you’ll find a lot more takers for those two million jobs.

Drugs, meth particularly, cast a long shadow over the Texas workplace today, a fact that, to my knowledge, is never mentioned by Governor Perry, though it’s at its most devastating in rural places, where he comes from.

As to jobs, Big Oil has long argued expensively that fracturing (or “fracking” as it is known), the technique that allows us to extract natural gas from oil shale, is totally safe and no threat to ground water. Guess what? Big Oil was wrong, and the threat is real. Which may in time limit job possibilities.

Governor Perry’s opponents have not had much time in which to study his long record; neither has the press. When they get around to it I hope they’ll pay close attention to his appointments and his vetoes—273 and counting—of everything from forcing insurers to pay doctors more promptly to prohibiting the execution of mentally retarded criminals. Let them discover why our well-funded school system is now 47th in the nation.

I believe the record will reveal that Rick Perry has no interest in moderation, or moderates. His affability should not obscure his intentions, which is to do for America what he’s done for Texas, and what he’s done for Texas, is to make it a far less tolerant and less generous place to be.

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