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.”

September 2005By Comments

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. But one of the security detail at that time said, “Okay, Mrs. Perry, here it is: If you get stopped, it’s gonna be in the paper.” I took that advice to heart. It’s also a security thing. If I drive, they’re gonna follow me. They feel better with me in their car. So I sold my car to my little sister. But I miss driving! I miss going to the grocery store like I used to. I don’t know what new products are out there. I love putting on my baseball cap and going to Target, but the longer we’re here, the more my cover’s blown.

ES: It’s the political equivalent of a rock star sighting.

AP: Not really. People don’t know me like they know Rick. We went to Cabela’s this week; Griffin needed a pair of wading boots. So we’re in the store, and people walk by. They don’t know who I am, but I can hear them whispering, “The governor’s in here!” Like it’s such a shock that his children might need clothes.

ES: Do you ever get real wifey about that sort of thing?

AP: “Hey, who’s that woman talking to my husband?” Oh, I probably used to. That was the hardest thing for me when I was much younger—learning to share my husband.

ES: What happens when one of the governor’s critics comes up and talks to him?

AS: Just in the past four or five weeks, we were eating out at lunch, and a man came up to him. Rick’s very friendly, so he spoke to him. I noticed this man kind of held back a little bit, so Rick said, “How are you today?” And he said, “Well, I’m fine, but I’d be better if you’d get rid of the Trans-Texas Corridor.” And Rick said, “Well, I don’t think that’s gonna happen, but I would be very happy to listen to your opinion.” He’s very gregarious. He loves talking to people. He’s not an elitist at all.

ES: Has he changed?

AP: We’ve all changed some. I’ve changed.

ES: How?

AP: I’m probably a little more patient.

ES: You seem enormously patient.

AP: I’ve had to learn. I’ve been through a lot, Evan. Probably my skin has gotten thicker.

ES: Okay, then: Patient with whom?

AP: My children. My husband. This whole political world. Things really used to eat at me. And some things still do.

ES: Does the press bother you?

AP: If it hurts my children or if it’s something about me. There have been a couple of times.

ES: I’m thinking of one time in particular when you were unhappy about the intrusion, when your marriage was suddenly under a microscope. How did you deal with it?

AP: Honestly, I probably stayed in more, wrapped my blanket around myself.

ES: You did fault the press in that case?

AP: Yes, because the rumor [about the governor’s sexual orientation and the possible breakup of their marriage] wasn’t true. I wanted them to really report it. That was something the Austin Chronicle did. They came out after it was over and said, “We did all the research. We followed up on all the leads. It’s not true.”

ES: By Austin Chronicle you mean the alternative weekly?

AP: Not exactly the governor’s biggest fans over there. I give them a lot of credit. And then after that, the talk kind of petered out—“There’s nothing there. Let’s move on.” I got through it. But it was hard. Griffin found out about it about two and a half months in, and he was really upset. I told him that he and [his sister] Sydney would be the first people in the world I would tell if I were leaving their father. We had cameras at the back gate. It was so silly. People called my mother pretending to be reporters! They called her in Haskell and said they were so-and-so from so-and-so. That upset her. That went over the line. I wanted to tell the world it wasn’t true, have a press conference, whatever I needed to do. But I was advised not to. I was told that that wasn’t the best way to handle it.

ES: Did you learn something from that experience in terms of how to deal with the press?

AP: It didn’t make me more press shy, but it made me more conscious of what I say. And there are people in the press who I trust more than others.

ES: Do you think politics has gotten meaner in the years you’ve been the wife of a politician?

AP: It is meaner. It’s harder to get good people to run for public office because of the strain. Everything is going to be an open book, so if you have anything, the tiniest thing, any old skeletons in your closet . . . It makes me very sad.

ES: What do we do about that?

AP: I don’t know what we do. I know what I try to do: I try to be nice to as many people as I can. I know that people don’t like me for this or that or the other reason and don’t like my husband, but I try to bring people together to work for a common cause.

ES: Why do you think people don’t like you?

AP: If you want to make a change, you have to make decisions, and sometimes decisions aren’t popular with everyone. But it’s always best to do what’s right and suffer the consequences.

ES: And what do you do when you don’t think the right thing is being done?

AP: There are times when I see myself as a voice of reason, when I present another side, whether the ultimate decision comes down on my side or not. I do it privately. Sometimes it’s not popular with the decision maker, but I feel like I have to say something.

ES: You and the decision maker have been married for 23 years. I assume you’re as frank with him today as you’ve always been.

AP: Well, he’s still my husband. If you want to be successful in your marriage, you have to communicate. If I don’t tell him my point of view and something changes that I’m not really for, then it’s my fault for not saying anything.

ES: You understand that I’ll lose my press card if I don’t ask you to name an issue on which you and the decision maker disagree.

AP: When I read in the paper that one of the options in the governor’s tax plan was to tax cosmetic surgery, I said, “Why didn’t you talk to me about this first? Cosmetic surgery is not just Botox or a face-lift or liposuction; it’s also for children with cleft palates. It’s a health issue.” If Evan Smith had a suspicious mole on his face that his physician said needed to be taken off, and he needed to see a plastic surgeon, that could be taxed. I don’t think it’s right to tax a preventive measure that could possibly keep him from having melanoma. So I said, “If you had just asked me, I could have given you my point of view. I don’t agree with that.”

ES: Let’s stay on the decision maker for a minute. You said something earlier about what a nice guy the governor is, though that’s not necessarily the image of him that comes across in the press. What don’t we get about him after all these years?

AP: I had someone say to me recently that he only caters to the top 1 to 5 percent of Republicans, and that is certainly not true. It couldn’t be any further from the truth. He cares about the children of Texas and the elderly of Texas and the abused and the suffering. But I think he believes that government on the whole overspends. It’s just like in our own household, when he says, “We’ve got to get ahold of the hemorrhaging of our finances.” Everybody needs to cut and do without. He’s not a mean-spirited person at all. He’s a very kind, generous, loving, compassionate conservative.

ES: Do you still recognize him as the person you married?

AP: He’s probably stronger now than when we were younger, but I’ve changed that same way. And we’ve probably gotten more conservative as we’ve gotten older.

ES: Your conservative values were shaped by growing up in the small West Texas farming and ranching town of Haskell.

AP: Well, my parents really shaped me. My mother would always say to me, “If you do something wrong, I’m going to find out about it before you get home,” and that was true. If I rode my bicycle somewhere I wasn’t supposed to, my mother knew. My daddy was a physician, and everybody knew him, so people would always come tell my parents.

ES: They helped you understand right and wrong.

AP: Oh, absolutely. I think that’s one thing that’s the matter with our family structure today. We don’t have role models for our children, whether or not they’re the natural parents.

ES: Any role models?

AP: I don’t have a problem if it’s a loving, nurturing home.

ES: Do you miss being in a place like Haskell?

AP: I don’t. I hate to say that. I miss my family.

ES: Why don’t you miss it?

AP: My home is here. My children are here. My friends are here. And I don’t miss the lifestyle. I love living in Austin. I love that everyone is physically fit. I love the arts. The restaurants. The hustle and bustle. Everything.

ES: Would you stay in Austin when your time is up?

AP: Oh, absolutely.

ES: What are you going to do when you’re done being first lady?

AP: I’d love to recruit medical personnel, physicians, pharmacists, nurses to Texas. And continue to spread the word about domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual assault.

ES: Essentially extend your first lady portfolio into private life.

AP: Or maybe I’ll write a children’s book. Anything to help children.

ES: Sounds great. Okay, I think we’re about done—unless you want to say “Adiós, mofo” to me. [Laughs]

AP: No, I will not say that.

ES: What was the reaction to the governor’s locker room talk in your world?

AP: I did have people say, “Gosh, he’s more human than we thought he was.”

ES: What did you think when you heard about it?

AP: I read about it in the paper, and I said, “You said what ?” And then I met him in the bathroom with a bar of soap.

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