Anita Perry

The 53-year-old first lady of Texas on small-town values, getting burned by the press, what we don’t understand about the governor, and her reaction to “Adiós, mofo.”

Evan Smith: So are the Hutchisons back on your Christmas card list?

Anita Perry: They were never off.

ES: Really? You can separate the personal from the political?

AP: I can separate it. I’ll be honest with you, though. The list has 10,000 to 25,000 names on it. Can I absolutely, positively say they’re on there? I think so.

ES: I didn’t mean it in the literal sense.

AP: Yeah, they would always be on my Christmas card list.

ES: Okay, what about the Strayhorns?

AP: Absolutely. If I saw Carole right this minute, I’d ask about her children and grandchildren.

ES: It must be difficult, not as the first lady but as a wife, to turn on the TV and hear someone like the comptroller say such unkind things about your husband.

AP: “Drugstore cowboy” was a little too much for me, because when I met him, he was a cowboy, a real cowboy. He had his own horse, and he could saddle it and take care of it. He broke his arm putting his pony in the trailer when he was sixteen. I’ve actually seen him round up cattle, work cattle, brand cattle, immunize cattle. So he’s not a drugstore cowboy to me.

ES: That’s only the beginning of what’s going to be a difficult, nasty campaign. Are you prepared for what’s coming?

AP: I am. I’m ready. We’ve never had an easy campaign, really. Some may have been a little bit lighter than others—maybe a candidate might not have been as well funded or as serious—but we’ve always had difficult campaigns. That’s prepared me. And I’m looking forward to this one.

ES: Are you looking forward to another four years? Because there’s a perception out there that maybe you’d rather return to private life than be the longest-serving first lady in Texas history.

AP: I’ve actually just had a person say that to me. A friend of mine said, “Aren’t you tired of all this?” I said, “No, I’m not.” I like private life, but I love this life.

ES: Even with all the intrusions? You’re living in a house that’s inherently more public than any place you would be if you were not first lady.

AP: I know it’s not going to be forever. Presidents continue to have Secret Service protection, but there will be a time when we’ll drive out that back gate and go back to our private life. It’s a passage.

ES: May as well make the most of it while you’re here, right? Tell me some of the things you’d like to do in the next four years.

AP: As a nurse, I know we need more nurses. So recruitment—I’d like to do that. I’ve been involved with the March of Dimes, a wonderful organization. They were gracious enough to ask me to be their national chairman for childhood immunizations. I don’t know if I’ll travel more, but if they want me to, I’d like to. I want to continue working on heart disease and breast cancer and Alzheimer’s.

ES: A nurse can talk about those issues with authority. But can you move the needle more than any first lady can?  So much of what affects the lives of ordinary people has to do with money and politics, and you’ve admirably stayed out of that sort of stuff during the years your husband has been in office.

AP: It’s been hard, because the issues I tend to focus on are sometimes the ones whose funding has been cut. But it makes me feel like it’s even more important to get out there and raise awareness and try to raise funds.

ES: Do you ever lobby the governor?

AP: There have been times when I’ve said, “It seems like everything I’m passionate about gets cut! Stop that!”

ES: What’s his response?

AP: Oh, he looks at me like, you know, maybe I don’t know everything. And I don’t know everything that’s going on out there—why this is funded and why this is cut.

ES: But you’re the first lady! Surely that counts for something, especially with him.

AP: I don’t look at myself as first lady. I don’t see myself as any different, any more special, than anyone else. But people tell me, “Now, Anita, remember, you may not see yourself that way, but others do.”

ES: What are they saying? Don’t forget to carry yourself like a first lady?

AP: It means don’t act like something I’m not. Be true to who I am, to what my parents taught me. Be gracious. Be humble. Be kind. Always say thank you.

And always be on duty. We tend to be nurturers. We take care of everybody else. We take care of our husbands, the governors. But we also need to take care of ourselves. [Former first lady] Janey Briscoe, who I loved, took me aside once and said, “You need to look out for yourself too.” Governor Richards, precious woman, said to me, “Anita, you have a tough time ahead.” And I said, “I know, Governor.”

ES: Give me an example of how it’s been tough.

AP: The pressures of living here. What you read in the paper—it hurts you personally. I needed an adjustment time with my children being teenagers in this house. It took me time to work with the staff. I didn’t have a staff before.

ES: But you’re continuing to cook on the weekends, aren’t you?

AP: Is your kitchen game rusty? Griffin Perry [her son] tells me I only know how to cook three things now: I can make spaghetti sauce, a hamburger, and maybe pork tenderloin.

ES: Do you miss cooking more?

AP: I love to cook, but I don’t like to clean up. It’s pretty nice to have somebody take care of that.

ES: How about driving?

AP: I miss driving. I don’t have a car.

ES: Did you sell it when you became first lady?

AP: I wanted to hold on to my independence and drive.

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