The Money Guy
Executive editor S. C. Gwynne on writing about political donor Bob Perry.
texasmonthly.com: What led you to write about Bob Perry?
S. C. Gwynne: As the largest individual political contributor in America, he is a highly visible and extremely powerful person. He is also extremely private, and relatively little is known about him. This seemed like exactly the sort of story I like to do. There was lots of room for original reporting on a subject that ought to be of interest to anyone who likes politics.
texasmonthly.com: It must have been a challenge to write an extended profile without any direct contact with Perry. How did you go about starting the piece (as in, when you knew you weren’t going to get an interview, what was your next step)?
SG: It was something of a challenge, though Perry did offer some cooperation, something he had not done before with other reporters. I was allowed access to some of his friends and associates, and allowed to see and tour his business. He also ultimately agreed to answer some questions through an intermediary. So in that sense, I wasn’t flying completely blind. I also interviewed lots of other people in business and politics in the state and elsewhere.
texasmonthly.com: You have a surprising amount of information about a man who doesn’t like the spotlight. How long have you been looking into Perry? Where did you go for information?
SG: Almost all information comes from interviews. The printed record contains a great deal about the political effects of his money, but not much about who he is or how he operates.
texasmonthly.com: What surprised you most about Perry?
SG: His style of giving in both politics and charity. He is quite spontaneously generous. He gives lots of money. He basically just decides that he likes you and then writes a big check. He does this in all sorts of ways. We are accustomed to expect a great deal of accountability for money we give. He gives because he believes in something, and he doesn’t worry so much about what happens next.
texasmonthly.com: Why do you think he let you in so much closer than other reporters?
SG: I am not sure. I think he was looking for someone to write something that went a bit deeper than the sort of stuff usually written about him, which mostly appears in daily newspapers on the occasion of some news story about a group like the Swift boat veterans. I think he may have seen that it was in his interest to let someone have a more detailed look at who he is and what he does. But that’s just speculation. I don’t really know.
texasmonthly.com: Are figures like Perry the future of fundraising in American politics? Mostly unknown people donating millions based on single reasons like tort reform?
SG: There are various movements afoot to try to restrict the power of these megagivers like George Soros and Bob Perry. I would guess that at some point some federal restrictions would be placed on the giving to 527s, though at some point this is a free-speech issue, too. In Texas I don’t see much change in the near future that would inhibit Perry’s ability to give large sums to Texas causes and candidates.
texasmonthly.com: If you had had the chance to talk to Perry directly, and not through spokesman Anthony Holm, what is the one thing you would have wanted to talk with him about the most?
SG: More than anything else, I would be interested in knowing how he decides to spend his money. Specifically how. He gave $16 million to politics last year and untold millions more to charity and philanthropy, and some of this has a huge effect. It is just not clear to me, in his day to day life, how he makes these decisions. So I would ask him about that.
texasmonthly.com: Was this the most challenging profile you’ve done, or can you remember a harder story to write?
SG: I once did a profile of the man who at the time was considered by most of the major intelligence agencies in the West to be the main dealer of nuclear weapons components in the Soviet Union, just as the old empire was breaking up in the early nineties. I had to report the story in New York, London, Moscow, and Vienna, and I was trailed constantly by intelligence agents. It was a very difficult profile to write because it was hard to get at the truth of who this guy really was.
texasmonthly.com: What do you expect Perry’s reaction will be to this piece?
SG: I try not to think about how people will react to stories I write. The idea is to be fair to the person you are writing about, and I always try to be fair.