National political conventions put on display not only the party’s first team—the nominees for president and vice president and other big names in American politics—but also the second team, those who will be the leaders of tomorrow. And so, on the first day of the Republican Convention in Philadelphia, a newcomer to the national stage appeared on television screens across America. He was tall and lanky, with dark, wavy hair, and lively eyes framed by crinkly lines that testified to long days spent under the West Texas sun. A rakish smile crept across his face to balance the hard set of his jaw. So perfectly did he represent the image of the rancher turned officeholder that he looked like an actor sent up from central casting to play the role. When he spoke, the inevitable twang in his voice was as broad as the Texas plains: “Mr. Chairman and fellow delegates, I am proud to nominate the current governor of the great state of Texas and the next president of the United States, George W. Bush.”Rick Perry had more than one reason to be proud—a friend’s success, a bit of state chauvinism, but also, for the lieutenant governor of Texas, the pure excitement of the moment when he himself began to step out from Bush’s shadow and claim his own place as the odds-on favorite to be the next governor. If Bush wins the presidency, Perry will serve the remainder of Bush’s term; if Bush loses, Perry, as lieutenant governor and leader of the state Senate, will have far more influence over the course of the 2001 legislative session than a lame duck governor. All of this must have gone through his mind as he basked in the euphoric applause that followed his nomination of Bush.
But this was not Perry’s only moment in the spotlight this summer. A few weeks before the Republican Convention, he made another appearance on television—one that was not planned, however, nor did it receive applause. It was a Department of Public Safety videotape of a routine traffic stop, aired on Texas newscasts around the state and on the Internet, that showed a cranky Perry emerging from his vehicle and complaining about being delayed after his driver had been stopped for speeding by a state trooper. The two summer videos present opposing, but equally compelling, portraits of Perry. In Philadelphia, he was a sophisticated, likable rising star with a great future. On the highway outside of Austin, he was a graceless, arrogant political neophyte who didn’t look ready for prime time.
Which one is the real Rick Perry? Although he has held statewide office for almost ten years—the first eight as the commissioner of agriculture—and was a state legislator for six years before that, few Texans outside politics and his home area north of Abilene know him well. His name identification hovers around 20 percent. His best work has been done in unglamorous and unseen roles: in interminable, suffocatingly detailed budget meetings or behind-the-scenes negotiations. The outlines of his career are fairly well known—Aggie yell leader, Air Force pilot, rancher, conservative Democrat legislator turned Republican statewide officeholder—but even among political insiders, Perry remains something of a mystery. Throughout his career, he has generated low expectations and exceeded them; his political opponents typically make the fatal mistake of underestimating him. In 1990 he surprised the Austin political establishment by defeating liberal icon Jim Hightower for the agriculture job; eight years later, with the help of Bush at the top of the ticket, he edged out respected Democrat John Sharp for the job he now holds. As the lieutenant governor, Perry surprised his detractors again by winning the trust of senators from both parties.
But he also seems unable to shed the shackles that hold his reputation down. The DPS videotape was not the only embarrassing revelation of the summer. Another public relations disaster was a hardball fundraising letter sent to Capitol lobbyists that ended up in the newspapers. The lobbyists complained that the message of the letter appeared to threaten their clients’ interests if the lobbyists or the clients didn’t ante up. In a way, Perry’s position in Texas is much like Bush’s nationally: No one questions the personal charm that has kept him on a promising career trajectory, but they do question his command of substantive issues and his maturity to handle the chief executive’s job. The good looks that have been such an asset to him are also something of a liability; for his entire political career, Perry has been described as a “himbo”—the male version of a bimbo. Can someone who reminds you of Tom Cruise really be smart? Most of the speculation about Perry’s future is limited to Austin political circles; when he gets out of town, both his pluses and his minuses are for the most part unknown, and he has the opportunity to start with a clean slate. On a blazing morning in August, I met him at a private airplane terminal for a trip to Laredo, where he was scheduled to address the chamber of commerce and meet with a group of teachers. It was the kind of pressure-free occasion a politician can use to win friends without being under the close scrutiny of the public and the media. On the flight down he talked about the book he was carrying, Stephen Harrigan’s The Gates of the Alamo (“This guy’s a good writer”), and a trip he took earlier in the summer, during which he and his dad retraced the elder Perry’s World War II service. When he shifted to a discussion of a family friend who was killed in the war and the letters the young man had sent home, his eyes got misty. “It’s the most poignant letter I’ve ever read,” he said of an account of the hardships of a winter in France. The history discussion was cut short when an aide informed him that we were approaching our destination. Perry studied a briefing folder as we descended through