Longform

Rick Perry's Manufactured Miracle

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The TTC is hardly the only example of Perry's ham-fisted style of governance. After the savage blood-letting of the most recent legislative session, he poured salt in the wounds of local school districts by seeming to blame all of the unpleasantness on them: "The lieutenant governor, the speaker, their colleagues aren't going to hire or fire one teacher, as best I can tell," he told reporters at a news conference. "That is a local decision that will be made at the local districts."

Well, yes, because Perry and the Legislature cut off their money.

Perry also vowed publicly that he was not forcing his "seven points" anti-research plan on any of his many appointees to Texas university boards of regents. He said he had presented the plan to them merely to foster discussion.

"I appoint people to the board of regents," Perry said in May 2008. "They are in charge of setting policy ... that's their call. It's not the governor's call. It's never been the governor's call, and I don't get confused about what my role is."

But in April 2008, the Houston Chronicle published emails sent to regents and university chancellors by Perry aide Marisha Negovetich in which she repeatedly hectored them to get going on the governor's seven points plan. "The Governor is anxious to put together a cohesive plan of action ... and also learn from you what progress you have made to move these reforms forward," she wrote.

In the September 12 GOP presidential debate, Perry said he was "offended" by criticism from Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann that he "could be bought for $5,000" from Merck, maker of Gardasil, the HPV vaccine that Perry mandated by executive order in 2007 for all Texas teenage girls. Two days later the Houston Chronicle's Austin bureau laid bare a pattern of six-figure contributions by Merck to a middleman fund that has given millions to Perry.

Stanford, the campaign consultant Perry beat in 2006, agrees Perry botched the Gardasil moment, but he says it also illustrates why he might get himself elected president. The same traits that make him tone-deaf in office, Stanford says, can make him pitch-perfect on the campaign trail.

Before Perry unleashed his Gardasil order, Stanford says, "He hadn't done that hard government work that you have to do in building coalitions. He hadn't reached out to the people who already agreed with him and gotten them on board."

Stanford ticks off a roster of state and national women's organizations, concerned over the link between HPV infection and cervical cancer, that had been calling for universal HPV vaccination for years. "He could have, in a government way, reached out and said, 'Here is a bipartisan coalition for this idea. Let's all talk about this idea.' But, no. One day, boom, he announces it. No coalition."

Stanford calls that lousy governing. But he says it can also be "a great way to do a campaign." He says Perry's style — grand gestures, few details — is the right kind of theater for an election.

"You surprise everyone. Everyone's looking at you. You own an idea." That's just how Perry rolls, Stanford suggests. "He likes surprising people with big ideas."


On the campaign trail, Perry still has the gestures and body language of the handsome country bumpkin who was elected a yell leader at Texas A&M in 1970. A&M, newly coed, was still more military academy than college when Perry, a poor ranch boy from a flyspeck town 180 miles west of Dallas, showed up in 1968 wearing shirts, pants and underwear sewn by his seamstress mother.

Yell leaders then, as now, were more like orchestra conductors than cheerleaders, directing the A&M bleachers at football games in "army yells" communicated by coded hand signals. It's an elective post, a popularity contest that garners twice the voter turnout as the school's election for student body president.

Watch Perry's appearance on The Daily Show from last November, and you'll see him wrest the audience away from host Jon Stewart at key moments with sly grins sidelong to the peanut gallery and, yes, even a hand signal or two. The man does know crowds.

"What he has more than anything else is street smarts," says Colbert, the education consultant and former legislator. "What he has is an ability to be able to judge people for what it is that's important to them. How can I make them my friend? In all sorts of ways that's a very, very important skill to have, and if you happen to be in politics it's one of the most vital skills you can have."

He's particularly adept at picking up on and hooking into important underlying themes in public sentiment long before other politicians get a clue, Colbert says.

"He sees it. He runs in front of it, and regardless of whatever his underlying stuff may be, he will do what he needs to do to stay on top of that wave rather than have the wave roll over him and crush him," Colbert says. "He's a good surfer."

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze