Eight things you ought to know before you start writing stories about Rick Perry. You’re welcome.
Here we go again. As you know, Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, is contemplating a presidential run, which means that any day now, your boss will be sending you down here to take the measure of the man. Though he managed to avoid the 2012 spotlight longer than any other candidate, Perry, the nation’s longest-serving governor, has lately become, in the words of a recent NPR report, “the eight-hundred-pound gorilla on the sidelines of this race.” The trickle of stories about him has become a stream, and the minute Perry declares his candidacy, that stream will become a flood, a flood that will carry you straight to Austin. I am writing you this note in the hope that it will help you avoid the political and sociological clichés that Texas is subjected to every time one of our politicians seeks the national stage.
It’s an experience we’re all too familiar with. A Texan has occupied the White House in 17 of the past 48 years—just over a third of the time. Texas has become an incubator for presidents, as Virginia and Ohio were in America’s distant past. I’ll grant you that the presidents we have sent to Washington, from LBJ to
George W. Bush, have not always served as the best advertisements for Texas. Nevertheless, we have endured a disproportionate amount of bad writing about our state from journalists who don’t know very much about the place, and I for one can’t bear to suffer through another campaign of it.
So please, heed this advice. Rick Perry, as you have no doubt already discovered, is not the easiest man to write about. He is secretive and leery of the media (sometimes to the point of hostility), and he has a strategically valuable knack for being underestimated by his critics. I have been writing about him since the eighties, when he began his career in the Texas Legislature. Along the way I have learned a few things, which I have arranged in this handy list of Eight Points to Keep in Mind When Writing About Rick Perry.
1. Perry is not George Bush. Don’t assume that because Bush and Perry served together in the Capitol, or because they’re both Republican Texans who wear boots, the two men have a lot in common. They don’t. As governor, Bush positioned himself as “a uniter, not a divider,” championing education as one of his main priorities. Perry has been the opposite kind of chief executive: dismissive of Democrats and fond of political maneuvers that put the heat on moderates within his own party. And in the legislative session that just wrapped up, he presided over a budget that cut $4 billion from public schools. The cultural differences are striking too. Perry, the son of a Big Country cotton farmer, is at ease with a populist tea party message; W., the scion of a political dynasty, always seemed more comfortable with the country club set. They have followed starkly different paths. When W. began his political career, he had a famous name, access to his father’s huge national fund-raising base, and the backing of the establishment wing of the Republican party. As a late arrival in the Republican ranks, Perry had no fund-raising base and little name identification. He had no choice but to gravitate to the conservative wing of the GOP, where he could prove up his conservative bona fides. Nor is there any love lost between the two men. When Perry ran for lieutenant governor, in 1998, Bush’s camp wanted everyone on the ticket to run positive races; the Perry team defied the order, and ever since, relations have been frosty. There is one other critical difference. Bush lost his first race, for Congress. Perry has won every race he’s ever run.