I drove to Houston for the rally yesterday. The event was held at a huge complex called the Richard E. Berry Educational Support center on Barker-Cypress Road in northwest Houston. The surrounding area is entirely outside the Houston city limits and is unincorporated. A colleague at Texas Monthly who lives nearby told me that 800,000 people live in the area. I would say that I can’t verify that, except that she is head of our fact-checking department.
The Berry center is a lavish athletic complex. It was built with the proceeds of a 2001 bond issue for the Cy-Fair school district. The outside of the complex was a handsome red brick building with an impressive facade. Inside, I stepped onto a tile floor with marble squares at regular intervals. Between the building and the street was a parking lot large enough that, had it been grass, could sustain a hunting lease. This was not a monument to the fiscal conservatism that the two main attractions claim to embrace.
The venue for the rally was a rectangular arena with a concrete floor. A basketball court can be placed on top. Two tiers of permanent seating – no benches – rose to the top of the arena on all sides. The school district says that the capacity is 8,300. The seating was around two-thirds full so I would estimate the attendance at around 5,000 to 6,000. Published estimates ranged from 6,000 to 8,000 to 15,000. No way on anything much above 6K. Still, six thousand people – some of whom were already lining up at 9 a.m. on Super Bowl Sunday – is a huge turnout.
Hand-painted banners were taped to the walls. “TEXAS VALUES … PROVEN LEADERSHIP … PROUD OF TEXAS … GOV PERRY TRUE TEXAN … HANDS OFF MY PISTOL … HOME SCHOOLERS 4 PERRY … STOP BAILOUTS,” they read. A band played the theme from “How the West was won.” A woman in the lower seats began to clap in an effort to stir up the crowd. Giant screens on either side of the state flashed instructions on how to tweet, how to follow Perry on Twitter, and how to set up your home headquarters for Perry.
Dan Patrick was the master of ceremonies for the rally. “One thing Governor Perry and I have in common is that we make use of the social media,” he said. He told the audience, “When you leave today, the Perry campaign will be handing out packets with the name of a Republican who hasn’t made up his mind yet. Call them and tell them you are supporting Rick Perry. Then send the results back to the campaign.” Later, the screens advised the audience to “Text “Fired Up” to 95613 for instant messages.”
As everybody waited for Sarah Palin to make her appearance, a band played a slowwww version of “America the Beautiful.” Later they provided a version of “Texas our Texas” that was almost reverent. Then Granger Smith sang a couple of his hits and also a song called “We Bleed Maroon,” which is about Aggie values. Patrick then introduced Michael Krejci –“a home schooler” – as a member of the Boy Scout Troop that was presenting the colors.
“Why do I support Governor Perry?” Patrick said. “Texas is going to double in population in 31 years. Thirty one years ago Earl Campbell was carrying the football for the Houston Oilers. We need experienced leaders. Governor Perry will never equivocate, procrastinate, or hesitate to say that Roe v. Wade should not be the law of the land.” That brought the first sustained cheer of the day. “He believes in Tenth Amendment rights.” This drew only scattered clapping. It didn’t seem that the audience, who live in a middle class suburb, was particularly drawn to states’ rights.
Ted Nugent came out to play the Star Spangled Banner. He was wearing a black-and-green checkered outdoor shirt. “I don’t get out of a Texas deer stand for nobody,” he said, “but I got out of it for Rick Perry.” The version he used was basically a series of loud overlapping chords on his guitar. It was so loud that I couldn’t hear whether anybody was singing. (Nugent was not.)
The press was confined to a stand for TV cameras – the rig count was 10 – surrounded by metal barricades that formed a walkway to the stage. After the national anthem, Perry and Palin came inside the railing to be escorted to the stage. The stood, waiting, around ten feet from me. He was clad in a blue blazer; she wore a black dress. Her hair had been recoiffed since an earlier appearance with Chris Wallace on Fox, so that more of it was up. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Patrick said, “Please welcome two genuine conservative leaders.”
Granger came back for another song:
“Sing a song about the heartland,
Sing a song about my life.”
Perry took the microphone. He has a tendency to mutate into an Aggie yell leader at these moments. “Oh, is it a super Sunday or not?” Perry asked. “They say there’s a ball game going on today – but you’ll never forget the day you got to see Sarah Palin.
“Early voting starts 10 days from now,” he reminded the throng.
“Do you want to keep Texas successful and keep the track it’s on [YESSS!], or do you want to usher in a Washington-style leadership. [NOOOOO!] Do you want a creature of Washington who likes pork barrel spending? [NOOOO!] Vote for leadership who is willing to tell Washington, ‘No.’
“Who agrees with me thast Washington is out of control?
“Who thinks that the answer is less Washington and more Texas.
“We have a senator who has voted for 90% of the spending we have.”
“They just keep on creating deficits[?] with your money. We’re rewarding the risk takers and innovation in America.”
“We in Texas know what works. Don’t spend all the money. Keep a fair regulatory climate. We put aside billions in our rainy day rund. We have to have a balanced budget. So should [the federal government]
“We want to create a virtual high school.”
“We need to lock in some wise [constutional] amendments, a two-thirds vote for a tax increase, and a spending cap of population growth plus inflation.”
“It’s time for Washington to have a balanced budget amendment.”
“America would be a lot better off if Washington did things the Texas way.”
[Perry still can’t pronounce “fiscal.” It comes out as fizcal.]
* * * *
Now it’s Palin’s turn. I didn’t write down whether Perry or Patrick introduced her. I think it was Perry. But here is what was said:
“On Super Sunday, let’s welcome a conservative super star to Texas. Some people you identify by the people they inspire. Others, you identify by the people they drive crazy.
At the very mention of her name, the liberals, the progressives, the media elites go crazy. Imagine, if Keith Olberman were here today.”
[At this point the audience just went nuts. Perry was still talking, but you couldn’t hear him above the screaming and the stomping.]
Sarah: “I was just telling Piper, “Do you know where we are today? We’re in Alaska’s little sister state.”
“Are there any A&M fans here?” [many whoops]
“Are there any UT fans here?” [sounded like more UT]
“Both of our states, we proudly cling to our guns and our religion” [cheering]
“Who here has served their country? Raise your hands We love you, United States military.
“We just want a smaller, smarter govenment that will get out of our way and let America grow.”
“Early voting is coming up soon, so mark your calendars for March 2.” [I guess the briefing didn’t take because March 2 is election day, the end of voting]
“There is a big difference between the Texas way and the Washington way. Washington spends us into debt and lives on borrowed money. Texas balances its budget and sets aside millions for a rainy day.
“What will it be for this country? The way they operate in D.C. Or the way you operate in Texas.”
“Rick Perry vetoed over $3 billion in spending.
“He told Washington thanks but no thanks for programs Texas couldn’t afford.
“Texas isn’t seceding. It’s succeeding.”
“Texas has an $8 billion surplus. It has the top five housing markets in the United States.
“Did you catch the Glen Beck show? [cheers] You can’t legislate prosperity from Washington.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Why would you change. Rick Perry knows that the government that governs best governs least.”
“Rick and I and you gotta believe in what Ronald Reagan believed in, the shining city on the hill, and that is American exceptionalism.”
“God bless you and God bless Texas.”
* * * *
And that was all, except for another reminder for members of the audience to pick up a packet and contact undecided voters.
It did occur to me, when I heard Palin say, “God bless Texas,” that Bob Bullock, who for eight years as lieutenant governor ended every session of the Senate with that phrase, would roll over in his grave if he heard Sarah Palin say it. Bullock had his personal and political shortcomings, goodness knows, but he believed that government could help people and tried to do what he could to make it work. That notion has almost disappeared from Texas politics. I share with Republicans a healthy skepticism about government, but I also share with Democrats their belief that it can make people’s lives better.
One other comment on the rally: Palin is a better politician than Perry. He is something of a one-trick pony. He relates to people through the yell-leader model, stirring up the Aggies to hate the Longhorns, or the R’s to hate the D’s, or the Texans to hate the Washingtons. He can fire people up – “Fired up” is the way to text message him – but when the emotion of the moment goes away, I don’t think he connects with people, certainly not the way or to the degree Palin does. When I covered the Republican National Convention in 2008, the delegates were ga-ga over her. She isn’t nearly as good as Perry at stirring the visceral emotions, but she wins folks over with her ability to put her emotions, and particularly her sincerity (whether synthetic or not) into her voice for everybody to experience.