Dear Yankee

Eight things you ought to know before you start writing stories about Rick Perry. You’re welcome.

August 2011By Comments

Here we go again. As you know, Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, is contemplating a presidential run, which means that any day now, your boss will be sending you down here to take the measure of the man. Though he managed to avoid the 2012 spotlight longer than any other candidate, Perry, the nation’s longest-serving governor, has lately become, in the words of a recent NPR report, “the eight-hundred-pound gorilla on the sidelines of this race.” The trickle of stories about him has become a stream, and the minute Perry declares his candidacy, that stream will become a flood, a flood that will carry you straight to Austin. I am writing you this note in the hope that it will help you avoid the political and sociological clichés that Texas is subjected to every time one of our politicians seeks the national stage.

It’s an experience we’re all too familiar with. A Texan has occupied the White House in 17 of the past 48 years—just over a third of the time. Texas has become an incubator for presidents, as Virginia and Ohio were in America’s distant past. I’ll grant you that the presidents we have sent to Washington, from LBJ to 
George W. Bush, have not always served as the best advertisements for Texas. Nevertheless, we have endured a disproportionate amount of bad writing about our state from journalists who don’t know very much about the place, and I for one can’t bear to suffer through another campaign of it.

So please, heed this advice. Rick Perry, as you have no doubt already discovered, is not the easiest man to write about. He is secretive and leery of the media (sometimes to the point of hostility), and he has a strategically valuable knack for being underestimated by his critics. I have been writing about him since the eighties, when he began his career in the Texas Legislature. Along the way I have learned a few things, which I have arranged in this handy list of Eight Points to Keep in Mind When Writing About Rick Perry.

1. Perry is not George Bush. Don’t assume that because Bush and Perry served together in the Capitol, or because they’re both Republican Texans who wear boots, the two men have a lot in common. They don’t. As governor, Bush positioned himself as “a uniter, not a divider,” championing education as one of his main priorities. Perry has been the opposite kind of chief executive: dismissive of Democrats and fond of political maneuvers that put the heat on moderates within his own party. And in the legislative session that just wrapped up, he presided over a budget that cut $4 billion from public schools. The cultural differences are striking too. Perry, the son of a Big Country cotton farmer, is at ease with a populist tea party message; W., the scion of a political dynasty, always seemed more comfortable with the country club set. They have followed starkly different paths. When W. began his political career, he had a famous name, access to his father’s huge national fund-raising base, and the backing of the establishment wing of the Republican party. As a late arrival in the Republican ranks, Perry had no fund-raising base and little name identification. He had no choice but to gravitate to the conservative wing of the GOP, where he could prove up his conservative bona fides. Nor is there any love lost between the two men. When Perry ran for lieutenant governor, in 1998, Bush’s camp wanted everyone on the ticket to run positive races; the Perry team defied the order, and ever since, relations have been frosty. There is one other critical difference. Bush lost his first race, for Congress. Perry has won every race he’s ever run.

2. It’s not a big deal that Perry was once a Democrat. To suggest otherwise will make you look foolish. When Perry was elected to the statehouse, in 1985, conservative Democrats ran the Legislature. In 1989, realizing that a conservative had little future in the party, Perry switched to the GOP. He has been a rock-solid Republican ever since and has driven the state party further to the right. Only twice has he made strategic errors that brought him into conflict with his hard-right base. One was an edict that twelve-year-old girls be inoculated against cervical cancer (it was quickly overturned); another was his promotion of a giant system of toll roads called the Trans-Texas Corridor, which stirred up significant opposition from landowners. These two bobbles aside, Perry has a genius for sensing where his base is on any given issue.

3. Perry is cannier than you think he is. Perry revels in political plays that are initially misunderstood by the press and his critics. Take his secession “gaffe” on tax day 2009, when he responded to a TV reporter’s question with an acknowledgment that if the federal government continued to interfere with Texas, the state might have to leave the union someday. His response may have repelled Democrats and independents, but it hit a nerve among conservatives and led to his shellacking of Kay Bailey Hutchison in the 2010 Republican primary for governor.

4. Texas is not a “weak governor” state. A common misconception. It used to be true, but during his historic governorship, Perry has reinvented the office as a power center. This may be his greatest accomplishment. Yes, our state constitution, written the year before Reconstruction ended, created a weak governor’s office (as did most constitutions of the states of the former Confederacy). We had two-year terms (the Legislature changed it to four-year terms beginning with the 1974 election) and a fragmented executive department with power divided among the governor, the lieutenant governor, the comptroller, the land and agriculture commissioners, the attorney general, and the railroad commission. But Perry has used his appointment power to install political allies in every state agency, effectively establishing a Cabinet form of government and making him vastly more powerful than any of his predecessors. In this regard, the Texas politician he most resembles is LBJ, who, Robert Caro reports, once told an assistant, “I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me. I know where to look for it and how to use it.” Rick Perry, to a tee.

5. Perry is not a male hair model. The late Molly Ivins coined the nickname Governor Goodhair, and it has stuck, especially with ­liberals and journalists from up north. It is true that Perry has a much-remarked-upon coif, but don’t let this lead you to assume that he’s soft, or feckless, like that other recent walking shampoo ad, John Edwards. Perry is a hard man. He is the kind of politician who would rather be feared than loved—or respected. And he has gotten his wish. Perry does not have many friends in the ­Legislature.

6. Perry is from the middle of nowhere. The first place you need to go to understand Perry is Paint Creek, where he grew up. Paint Creek is not a town. It’s a watercourse that runs through the cotton fields of southern Haskell County. Perry’s parents were tenant farmers, and not just tenant farmers but dryland farmers, which is as hard as farming gets. In a June 2010 interview with TEXAS MONTHLY editor Jake Silverstein, Perry described an incident involving a new couch that his parents, who “rarely ever bought anything,” had just purchased. “There were places in our house that you could see outside through the cracks by the windows,” the governor recalled, “and this dust storm came in and there was a layer of dust all over that new couch. And it just, you know, kind of—it was a hard life for them.” In the interview, Perry also described taking baths in the number two washtub and using an outhouse until his father built indoor plumbing in his early years. “We were rich,” Perry said, “but not in material things. I had miles and miles of pasture, a Shetland pony, and a dog. . . . I spent a lot of time just alone with my dog. A lot.”

7. Perry is an Aggie. Like many Texans with rural roots and sympathies, Perry attended Texas A&M University. This is the other place you need to go to understand him. Of course, it has changed dramatically, so you’ll have to envision it as it was when Perry was there, around 1970. A&M was uncompromising in those days. There was a saying, regarding the road to College Station, that was directed at students who resisted the A&M military culture: “Highway 6 runs both ways.” You either bought into the school’s traditions or you didn’t. Perry bought all the way in, becoming a yell leader. To this day, Perry’s style on the stump is that of the Aggie yell leader (“Are you fired up?”).

8. Don’t discount the luck factor. It is uncanny how often good fortune has been in ­Perry’s corner throughout his political career. His opponents self-destruct, as Jim High­­tower did in 1990, when Perry, a big underdog, won his first statewide race, for agriculture commissioner, and as Kay Bailey Hutchison did in 2010. In 2006, when he was at his most vulnerable, Hutchison opted not to challenge him. Perry got only 39 percent of the vote, but because there were four major candidates in the race, he won with a plurality. This spring, he lost two top aides to the Gingrich-for-president campaign, only to see Gingrich self-destruct and the aides return with national campaign experience. The list goes on and on. If you look at Perry’s career, it seems that fate is always arranging the universe so that its favorite son will be in the right place at the right time.

So there you have it. In closing, I would like to request that you please do your best to avoid tin-ear clichés about barbecue, cattle, oil, football, and the Alamo. Remember, this is an urban state of 25 million people. We don’t go to sleep at night dreaming of William Barret Travis drawing a line in the sand. We do admire our rural history, as this month’s cover attests, but our vitality is in the cities. Enjoy your visit, best of luck, and please get it right this time.

Yours truly,
Paul Burka

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