Pioneer Up

More than any other presidential candidate of the past half century, Rick Perry exemplifies the frontier style. Will it play in Peoria?

During his first campaign for president, in 1999, Governor George W. Bush had a favorite line to describe the differences between himself and his famous father. Explaining to reporters that his dad had grown up amid the gracious green comforts of Connecticut, while he had been raised on the rugged plains of the Permian Basin, Bush would say, “I went to Sam Houston Elementary School in Midland and he went to Greenwich Country Day.” The contrast served him well until this past summer, when Bush’s successor in the Governor’s Mansion, Rick Perry, launched his own presidential campaign. Faced with a similar line of questioning, about the difference between himself and his predecessor, Perry came up with a similar retort. “I went to Texas A&M,” Perry replied. “He went to Yale.”

This was meant to correct the misperception that the two governors, despite sharing a swagger and a smirk, inhabit the same Texan persona. Bush, for all his legendary brush-clearing, was essentially a modern managerial type, a creature of the boardroom and golf course whose colleagues could be found on the membership rolls of the more exclusive clubs in Houston and Dallas. This is a legitimate Texan persona (though it did not exist until the mid–twentieth century), but it is decidedly not Perry’s. Perry, to an almost pitch-perfect degree, typifies the frontier style.

It has been a long time since the country has experienced a major candidate with a true frontier style. The mode derives from our defining experience—the bloody, multigenerational westward expansion of (mostly) Anglo-American settlers across a vast and violent continent. The leading edge of this expansion, that ragged line of white society, was naturally more rough, more optimistic, and less restrained than anything to be found in the drawing rooms of Virginia, and it supplied the young country with a powerful sense of identity. Writing in 1893 (three years after the U.S. census had declared the country settled and the frontier closed), the historian Frederick Jackson Turner set forth his famous “Frontier Thesis,” arguing that “American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier. This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, its continuous touch with the simplicity of primitive society, furnish the forces dominating American character.”

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