BY DIANNA WRAY
The hair has been the great constant.
For the past 14 years, the state of Texas has been run by the guy with the best head of hair in professional politics. Now we are reaching the end of an era. Come January 20, Governor Rick Perry will leave office after serving the longest gubernatorial term in the state's history, roughly 5,110 days. Whether he follows through on his threat to go into quiet California-Dreamin' retirement or takes the more likely path and tries another quixotic run at the White House, one thing is certain: We're going to miss that gorgeous dome of hair and the strange and wondrous mind beneath it.
Perry has been many things to us in Texas -- an Aggie, a Sam Rayburn-inspired Democrat, a state legislator, a more-conservative-than-your-most-conservative-relative Republican, agriculture commissioner, lieutenant governor and governor -- but he has also been something infinitely more priceless. Dear Lord, even when his policies have been the stuff of nightmares, Perry has been entertaining.
We could talk about how Perry consolidated power to turn the relatively weak governor's office into a concentration of political strength never before seen in Texas. We could ruminate on the alleged Texas Miracle that he takes so much credit for and point out that despite all those jobs, Texas actually isn't all that remarkable where the economy is concerned.
We could mention the Texas Enterprise Fund, the Cancer Prevention & Research Institute of Texas and the many questions regarding the finances and management of such Perry-established entities. There's his reluctance to tap into the Rainy Day Fund while he's happily accepted brutal cuts to the education budget. Heck, we could go on for ages about the poverty rates as well as the children and poor who don't receive health care. We could discuss Perry's refusal to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, a decision that has left thousands uninsured, although the federal government would have footed the bill until 2016 and covered about 90 percent of the expansion costs for a number of years after that. And we could go into the corporations to which Perry has given so many tax breaks, but that's not what this is about.
It's been a long, strange trip, and it's coming to an end. Yes, after 14 years, Perry is finally leaving office, and now we can't help waxing sentimental. The corn dogs. The guns. The strange political optics. The habit of opening his mouth and saying things that don't make much sense before showing the world his pearly whites -- evidence that Perry has no idea he's once again "stepped in it."
The thing that's so great about Perry is that he never learns and he will always step in it. The evidence was there even before he embarked on the infamous national "oops" campaign of 2012. "George W. Bush did an incredible job in the presidency, defending us from freedom," Perry told interviewer Meredith Vieira in 2010. He followed that up with a smile.
We know that Greg Abbott, governor-elect, is ready to usher in a new era, but will Abbott ever ask the state to solve a drought crisis by praying for rain? Will he ever play drums with ZZ Top? Will he ever be so excited to get a bottle of maple syrup that he'll practically make out with the bottle onstage? We think not.
Come, let us sit upon the ground (or wherever) and tell hilarious stories of the high jinks of a once and future king. Perry is leaving the governor's office, and it will be a long while before we see another like him. In honor of these final weeks, this brief twilight of a god, we look back on the evolution of Rick Perry, who would take his "Most Popular" high school credentials and expand them on a much larger stage.
The Novice Perry's backstory was made for professional politics. He was born in Paint Creek, a dusty little town about 40 miles outside of Abilene. His family were tenant farmers (though his dad eventually bought some land as well) and they weren't wealthy, but they managed to hang on through the crippling 1950s drought, often going without food. Perry played piano as a kid -- he met his eventual wife, Anita Thigpen Perry, at a piano recital at age 8 -- and his seamstress mom sewed all of his clothes, underwear included, until he left for college.
Perry got into politics young. His dad was a Democrat, and Perry first became intrigued with the whole political game when his father took him to Sam Rayburn's funeral. (Keep in mind that Rayburn -- who grew up on a small Texas farm and went on to become one of the most powerful politicians in the country as speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives -- is the guy who famously said, "I like power and I like to use it.") Around that time, Perry also ran in one of his first elections, campaigning to become the junior-high Halloween king. He won the race easily with the help of the generous distribution of penny candy. "It was Rick's first victory, and he won it with payola," Wallar Overton, his old scoutmaster's son, told The New York Times.
He was everything an eventual candidate should be: an Eagle Scout, the high-school quarterback, "Most Popular" and the "Future Homemakers of America Beau," and he never made the honor roll. He went off to Texas A&M after high school, got decent grades and became a cadet and a yell leader, working summers as a door-to-door Bible salesman to make money for school. After college, he signed up for a hitch in the U.S. Air Force. Once he got out of the service, he came home and did a little cotton farming with his dad, but everyone knew that Perry wasn't going to stay in Paint Creek.
He was elected to the state Legislature in 1984, but the only remarkable thing about his time there was his election as a Democrat. Perry supported Al Gore's bid for president in 1988, but the following year he sloughed off the liberal coil and became a Republican.
And what a Republican. In 1990, looking like the spitting image of the Marlboro Man -- if the Marlboro Man were a little more ruggedly handsome -- Perry ran against incumbent Jim Hightower for Texas agriculture commissioner and won. Within eight years, Perry was lieutenant governor. He got his first real bite of power and the world got its first glorious taste of what Perry really had to offer: entertainment.
It started in 2000, at the tail end of Perry's time as lieutenant governor under then-governor George W. Bush. Perry and an aide were tooling down the highway when a state trooper had the temerity to pull the black SUV over for speeding. (The lieutenant governor setup didn't come with the don't-pull-this-guy-over security detail.) Perry popped out of the car and showed the officer his ID, then got audibly irritated when the trooper began to write out a warning. "Why don't you just let us get on down the road?"
After the incident hit the media, Perry explained the whole thing away with a face of pure boyish regret during a press conference. "I was frustrated and in a hurry, and I regret having got out. I would probably have gotten further down the road more quickly had I just sat in the front right seat."
The Cowboy Governor After nabbing the gig as lieutenant governor in 1998, Perry ascended to the top spot in the wake of W's meteoric rise to the presidency. This was really the golden era of Perry watchage, the time when Perry's unmitigated confidence and his innate ability to be himself in public were perfectly matched.
Perry started off his governorship in fine form, vetoing 82 acts in the 2001 legislative session, the most vetoes issued by a Texas governor in a single legislative session since Reconstruction.
Meanwhile, Perry had plans! First there was the Trans-Texas Corridor, a proposal to create a $175 billion, 4,000-mile network of superhighways, paid for mostly by private investors. Perry got the idea from a rich buddy of his, the late oilman Ric Williamson, and experts said the technical concept was visionary. However, Perry failed to put together any political support for the project. The plan didn't go over well with landowners in the path of the proposed superhighway system, who would have lost their land to eminent domain. Dallas and Fort Worth officials also banded together in opposition when they learned the tollway system would bypass their big shipping and warehousing developments and veer into the boondocks, curiously close to land owned by Williamson. The Legislature killed the project entirely in 2010. Still, there were a lot of fans of one of the roads, Interstate 69. People started swiping the I-69 signs as soon as state officials put them up, though authorities claimed to be "baffled" over the thefts.
Perry also had some thoughts about higher education. He announced the Seven Points Plan in 2008. Another bright idea from a wealthy oilman pal, Jeff Sandefer, the plan aimed at reining in the skyrocketing cost of a college degree, then devolved into an assault on the internationally renowned Texas university research programs that helped Texas officials figure out how to diversify the state's economy and keep it alive in the wake of the 1980s oil and real estate busts. Specifically, Perry wanted to make it illegal for universities to use research as a criterion for awarding faculty tenure. Instead, he wanted tenure to be awarded based on student votes in professor popularity polls.
His controversial mandate requiring all teenage girls to receive the HPV vaccination went over just about as well with the public. (It turned out that Perry was receiving a bunch of money from Merck, one of the big pharmaceutical companies producing the vaccine, but let's not look a cervical-cancer-preventing-mandatory-vaccine-order in the mouth.) He also had an interesting approach to immigration. While he was tough on border issues, Perry proved to have a soft center, signing a law in 2001 that allowed qualified illegal immigrants to pay in-state college tuition rates.
In addition to governing, Perry kept busy with that other thing he does so well -- saying and doing stuff to keep the Perry watchers amused. In 2005, he was giving interviews from an Austin studio when a reporter from KTRK-TV in Houston tried unsuccessfully to ascertain details on his plans for education funding. Finally the reporter, Ted Oberg, gave up, saying, "Try as I may, Governor, I guess I can't win this one." Perry, who apparently thought the interview was over, popped off, parroting Oberg. "Try as I may, Governor, I'm not going to wait that long. Adios, mofo." Of course, the cameras were still rolling and all of that was definitely not off the record.
When Texas was struck by a crippling drought, Perry didn't step in with a state water plan or anything like that to help rescue the farmers and ranchers who were watching a way of life evaporate. But the governor did ask the people of Texas to pray for rain. (Alas, he did not conduct a rain dance, to our eternal disappointment.)
As a fifth-generation Texan and, you know, the governor, Perry is known for doing things Texas-style. That style even applied to running. An avid jogger, Perry carries a gun on his runs. One February morning in 2011, as he was loping through Austin, his daughter's Labrador retriever puppy at his side, the firearm came in handy. Governor and puppy were galloping along just before sunrise when a coyote appeared on the path and moved toward the dog.
Perry pulled out his laser-sighted .380 Ruger loaded with hollow-point bullets and shot the coyote dead. "Don't attack my dog or you might get shot ... if you're a coyote," Perry told The Associated Press. To this day, Perry declines to say where he was carrying the gun prior to the encounter. Presidential Candidate On paper Perry was the perfect candidate. He had it all: the looks, the long record of Texas leadership, the deep-pocketed campaign donors, the 10th Amendment-toting Washington-outsider status and just enough of a populist feel to give him a chance at broadly appealing to more moderate voters. Unfortunately for him, Perry on paper is a far cry from Perry on the national campaign trail. The results were both excruciating and sidesplitting. The dude was representing Texas, and he was terrible at the national campaign game.
In August 2011, he was leading the pack and the polls for about two seconds. Then he started talking. Even though he was running to, you know, lead the United States, he talked about Texas seceding. Then he didn't know how many justices were on the U.S. Supreme Court. "I trust those independent school districts to make those decisions better than eight unelected and, frankly, unaccountable judges," he said. (They're called "The Nine" for a reason.)
He didn't know the legal voting age or the actual date of the election. "Those of you that will be 21 by November the 12th, I ask for your support and your vote." (The voting age has been 18 since 1971, and the election was scheduled for November 6.) He also checked in at a Dartmouth fraternity and dropped a little knowledge on those college kids, claiming the American Revolution took place about 200 years before it did. "The reason that we fought the Revolution in the 16th century was to get away from that kind of onerous crown, if you will."
And then there was the "oops" heard 'round the world. Perry has never been much of a debater. His 2006 approach seemed to be based on running out the clock rather than actually trying to win, and in the 2010 governor's race, he flat out refused to debate with his Democratic opponent, former Houston Mayor Bill White. But Perry's lack of skill became glaringly apparent during the big GOP debate on November 9, 2011. All the other little verbal slippages might have been overlooked -- this is the nation that elected George W. Bush twice -- until Perry said "oops" on national TV.
When asked what federal agencies he would eliminate, Perry replied thus: "I will tell you, it's three agencies of government, when I get there, that are gone: Commerce, Education and the -- what's the third one there? Let's see. OK. So Commerce, Education and the -- The third agency of government I would -- I would do away with the Education, the ... Commerce and -- let's see -- I can't. The third one, I can't. Sorry. Oops."
An entire campaign obliterated in about 60 words. Perry and his people tried to clean it up, selling it as a "human moment" and simultaneously explaining the whole debate away as the byproduct of medication for back pain. He was in the spin room immediately after the debate, telling anyone who would listen that third on the Perry elimination list was the Department of Energy. "I'm glad I had my boots on tonight because I sure stepped in it out there," Perry said. "I stepped in it. Man, yeah, it was embarrassing. Of course it was."
He followed that disaster -- and most armchair politicos agree that Perry had gone from contender to the Titanic post-iceberg with that one epic gaffe -- with a subtle advertisement, "Strong," that did nothing to improve his image. "You don't need to be in the pews every Sunday to know there's something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can't openly celebrate Christmas or pray in schools," Perry told viewers.
To his credit, he lumbered on through the campaign while his poll numbers sank to single digits and the mistakes kept coming. Then, in January 2012, he went the extra mile and called Turkey a "state run by Islamic terrorists." He also said Turkey, a key U.S. ally in the region with 24 NATO bases, shouldn't be a member of NATO. That didn't go over particularly well with the folks in that country. "Turkey joined NATO when the governor was still 2 years old," the Turkish Foreign Ministry declared in a withering statement.
By the end of the campaign, Perry had gone from being a front runner, and the biggest obstacle to Mitt Romney's landing the GOP nomination, to being the "oops" dude. Of the campaign, Perry said: "There is no viable path forward ... I know when to make a strategic retreat."
Resurgence as the Would-be King of California Cool Perry stayed out of the public eye and off the political stage for much of 2012, or at least as out of sight as the head of Texas can manage to be. And then, slowly, the resurgence.
It started with the glasses. They were black, heavy Buddy Holly frames of the hipster variety, a $500 pair of Jean Lafont specs picked out for Perry by his wife, he said. He donned them in 2013, officially because his contacts had begun to irritate his eyes. The change had nothing to do with the cultural shorthand that equates glasses with smartness. Not one bit.
Next, he ditched his cowboy boots (he'd named one pair "Liberty" and "Freedom") for orthopedic shoes, citing back trouble. Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson took to the Austin American-Statesman to lament the changes Perry made, claiming the lack of boots and the new glasses meant that "our governor could now pass for a West Coast metrosexual and has embarrassed us all with his sartorial change of direction."
In March, Perry popped up on Jimmy Kimmel Live! still sporting those hipster glasses. He was relaxed, made jokes about pot (though he claims he's never smoked it) and admitted to playing the drums -- it seemed like the Great California Experiment was working.
They even talked about the big P-word. Kimmel was benignly perplexed that Perry would even consider having another go at the White House. "Why would you run for president? You know it didn't go that great last time?"
Perry, exhibiting that blithe confidence that knows no bounds even in the face of the cold, hard reality of his disastrous 2012 run, did what Perry does best and grinned. "You know, America is a great place for second chances, and let's leave it at that."
And then, as if to prove a point, Perry took a trip to California to "instill goodwill," which is a fancy way of saying he was trying to poach some jobs for Texas. During the jaunt, Perry announced that he liked California a lot. In fact, he was so keen on the state that he claimed he was considering moving there once he was done being governor of, you know, his own state.
He capped the whole thing off with a stop in San Francisco. During a talk at the Commonwealth Club of California, Perry was asked if he believed homosexuality was a disorder. Perry's reply was a little, shall we say, off the mark, considering he was in San Francisco. "People have choices in life. Whether or not you feel compelled to follow a particular lifestyle or not, you have the ability to decide not to do that," he said, according to the San Francisco Chronicle and pretty much every other media outlet in the country. "I may have the genetic coding that I'm inclined to be an alcoholic, but I have the desire not to do that. And I look at the homosexual issue the same way." Presidential Candidate Part Deux? Now we are in the final days, but it looks as if Perry will not be going quietly into that good night, or to California.
See, while some may say the 2012 disaster was due to a lack of preparation or maybe too many pain pills, Perry seems to believe that he was just too darn soft on immigration. So he set out to fix that this year with a firm stance on the border crisis, implying that President Obama had conspired to send a bunch of minors and families to the Texas border as part of some evil plot by the federal government.
Then, because it's Perry, the governor turned around and denied ever having said such a thing.
CNN's Kate Bolduan pressed Perry, asking if he really believed there was a presidential conspiracy.
And then it got really good. "No, you actually did say the word 'I hate to be conspiratorial,'" Bolduan pointed out. Perry rode it out, playing dumb to the very ends of his gorgeous hair. "And I hate to be conspiratorial, I hate to be conspiratorial," Perry said. "I did not say I was."
Most politicians would look at an indictment on two felony counts as the end of their political career, but Perry has never been most people.
The whole thing stems from when Perry tried to force Rosemary Lehmberg, the district attorney of Travis County, out of office because of her drunk driving arrest. Lehmberg refused, so Perry said he'd withhold about $3.5 million in funding for the Public Integrity Unit, and then he did just that.
Perry became the first Texas governor in almost 100 years to face criminal charges. The thing is, Perry -- the guy who could not step onto the national stage without flubbing his lines -- somehow turned this incident into a political win. Republicans, particularly the tea partyers, rallied 'round the man, claiming he was being wrongfully prosecuted. (And to be fair, legal types from both parties have raised questions about whether there's any evidence he broke the law.) He even turned his mugshot into a photo op.
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After that little problem was nicely handled, Perry jetted off to Europe to continue to shine up his foreign policy chops. This plan would have worked a lot better if it hadn't put him in Europe right in the middle of the Dallas Ebola crisis. While Perry parlayed felony charges into a bonus, he and the rest of the state government fumbled the Ebola matter in every possible way.
And now we're facing a new iteration of Rick Perry. He'll soon leave the governor's mansion behind, but every step he has taken for the past year has been that of a creature homing in on bigger prey: the White House. It's the end of an age, but do not grieve too deeply. Unless the governor wakes up bald on January 20, all the world, or at least the nation, will be Perry's stage, and we'll all have ringside seats for the show.
Jim Schutze contributed to this article.
Dianna Wray is a reporter for the Houston Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.