By Gail Collins
The New York Times
YOU think of Rick Perry, you think of Texas. And more Texas. Perry the cowboy coyote-killer, the lord of the Texas job-creation machine, the g-dropping glad-hander with a “howdy” for every stranger in the room. He barely exists in the national mind outside of the Texas connection.
A continuation of the TV series “Dallas” is due in 2012. How long will it take before we fixate on the fact that James Richard Perry is another J. R.?
Some of this is natural — the man is the governor, after all. But we didn’t obsess about the state this way when Governor Bush was the presidential candidate. (We obsessed about the Bushes.) We didn’t talk endlessly about Arkansas when we were evaluating Governor Clinton. (We obsessed about the Clintons.)
The difference is that Perry obsesses about Texas, too. On the campaign trail, he’s the ambassador from the Lone Star State, promoter of the Texas Miracle, filtering almost everything through a Texas prism. On his maiden voyage through the Iowa State Fair, some hecklers were giving him a hard time, the typical hazing for a new face on the national scene, and Perry’s response was instinctive.
“That may not be an Aggie over there,” he yelled, pointing at a heckler.
Aggies are alums of Perry’s alma mater, Texas A&M. Not a group you normally see a whole lot of in Des Moines.
Then he was off to talk some more about economic growth in Texas. And lambaste the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, by saying that he would be treated “pretty ugly” in Texas. Some aides seemed surprised to find this was not regarded as presidential language, since Perry says that kind of thing in Texas all the time.
Moving on to New Hampshire, Perry dealt with the evolution issue by saying that Texas schools teach both evolution and creationism. Which they don’t, but it’s the thought that counts.
Perry comes to the race with a remarkable lack of national experience and exposure. The only recent equivalent would probably be Sarah Palin, and it’s not surprising that Texas and Alaska would produce the people with little frame of reference outside of their home states. Both places are huge, so it’s easy for people who live there to think they’re in a self-enclosed world. If Texas or Alaska had the population density of New York City, either one could contain every person on the planet, although of course a lot of them would be very uncomfortable.
We have had several Texas presidents, but none so deeply, intensely Texas as this guy would be. (Walking on the stage with the other debate candidates, Perry is so much broader of chest and squarer of shoulder and straighter of spine than the rest of the pack that he looks as if he might have been stuffed.) Dwight Eisenhower, who was born in Texas, moved out before he was 2. Lyndon Johnson had long since become a man of Washington when he entered the White House, though he worried that Northerners would make fun of his twang — which they sort of did. George H. W. Bush was basically an Easterner who had moved to Texas for his job. His son was much more of a Texas product, but his parents sent W. off to boarding school to erase some of the evidence.
RICK PERRY has never spent any serious time outside of Texas, except for a five-year stint in the military. Nobody sent him off to boarding school to expand his horizons. He grew up in Paint Creek, where he graduated third in a high school class of 13. He went to the most deeply Texas of all the state’s major institutions of higher learning. He was a terrible student, but won the prized post of yell leader, the most deeply Texas of all possible Aggie achievements. Then he joined the Air Force and flew transport planes out of Texas, Germany and the Middle East. “There was no telling what you were going to haul around on any given day, from high-value cargo like human beings to the colonel’s kitty litter,” he once told a reporter in Texas.
Then it was back to Paint Creek, where Perry worked on his father’s ranch and began a stupendously successful political career, during which he ran for the State Legislature, agriculture commissioner, lieutenant governor and governor without ever losing a race. The word his former opponents use most frequently to describe him is “lucky.” Really, “lucky” comes up all the time. It may be sour grapes, or possibly an attempt to put his career in the context of a state political landscape in which conservative Democrats were rapidly fleeing to the G.O.P. Or possibly, it’s just that Perry’s lucky.
His career has certainly been marked by strokes of fortune. When Perry was still a Democratic state representative, Karl Rove took him under his wing and set Perry up for a run as a Republican against the liberal icon Jim Hightower. This was in a race for agriculture commissioner, a statewide post without a vast array of issues. Perry ran against a Hightower rule requiring farmers to get their workers out of the fields before they sprayed pesticide on them, and won. When Perry moved up to run in a very tight race for lieutenant governor, his campaign got a critical last-minute infusion of $1.1 million from a very, very conservative doctor/businessman from San Antonio named James Leininger, who is one of a large number of rich Texans who seem to enjoy giving things to Rick Perry. (In Texas, individuals can donate as much as they want to political candidates. The term “Wild West” is frequently invoked by campaign finance reformers.) Then Governor Bush went off to the White House, turning over his job to Perry, who went on to win election in his own right three times, once with 39 percent of the vote in a race that featured several third-party candidates.
But in his last race, in 2010, Perry trounced Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, who was certainly a real opponent. Paul Burka of Texas Monthly, who followed the two of them on the campaign trail, noted that Hutchison talked about important state issues, and Perry about the evils of Washington. “The problem for Hutchison is that the energy in the Republican Party today is not directed at how to make government work better,” Burka wrote. “It is directed against government, and no one channels that anger better than Rick Perry.”
IF Perry continues on his early trajectory, we will be hearing quite a lot of debate about how good a governor he’s been, but Americans’ lack of interest in anything connected with state government is so vast that in the end, it may turn out to be beside the point. Anyway, the real question isn’t how Texas is doing but whether Perry’s experience there has led him to think about the federal government at all, except as a sinister force that can be identified as the villain when anything goes wrong.
Just one example: health insurance. More than a quarter of all Texans have no health insurance whatsoever. During his first presidential debate Perry blamed that fact — as he has in the past back home — on Washington. (“Well, bottom line is that we would not have that many people uninsured in the state of Texas if you didn’t have the federal government.”) When Bush was in Washington, Texas proposed a half-baked plan to improve its Medicaid program by reducing benefits and coverage. The application was sent back to the state for reworking — by the Bush administration — and the state seems to have expended precious little energy in revising it. But the legend of federal overreaching lives on, a perpetual excuse for why more than six million Texans are uninsured.
Having an interest in national government that’s mainly limited to disliking it might work fine if you’re the governor of a state that has always regarded itself as “low-tax, low-service” anyway. It’s a little more problematic if you’re the guy in charge of keeping the dollar stable, the food supply safe and the national defense ready.
We could live with a president who named his boots “Freedom” and “Liberty.”
Not sure about one who has contempt for the job he’s running for.
Gail Collins’s book on Texas will be published next year by W. W. Norton.
See Related: Perry’s monstrous lies about Social Security