Ready to Tell His Story Again, Rick Perry Eyes 2016 Reboot
DES MOINES, Iowa -- Rick Perry doesn't care if you think he's dumb. In fact, he kind of likes it that way.
Without blushing, the former governor of Texas and likely 2016 Republican presidential candidate will tell you all about how he'd gone to Texas A&M wanting to be a veterinarian until a run-in with organic chemistry left him with a bruised ego and an academic change of course.
In phys ed class, he managed only a gentleman's "C."
"All I wanted to do was get out and fly airplanes, so anything over a 2.0 was gravy," as he puts it now.
Rather than lashing out at a media narrative that has at times turned him into a caricature, Perry embraces his reputation for not being the sharpest knife in the Republican Party’s jam-packed drawer of White House aspirants.
Why? It’s because he knows there is only one way for him to go in the public’s esteem: Up.
Ever since his chastening performance in 2012, which came after a hurried decision to enter the presidential race without significant preparation, Perry has made it a point to engage with some of the deepest conservative thinkers on issues ranging from health care to foreign policy.
And he has been doing the little things to promote intellectual growth, too.
While in Iowa recently, Perry did not hesitate to show off the home screen on his iPhone, which -- among the Dallas Morning News and Texas A&M athletics apps -- featured an easy-to-access link to Dictionary.com.
The term “misunderestimate” may not be found on that particular website, but like George W. Bush -- his predecessor in Austin -- Perry is skilled at the time-honored Texas tradition of encouraging his adversaries to dismiss him as a real threat.
Yes, this is the same man who famously uttered the “Oops” heard ‘round the world as part of a puzzlingly inarticulate debate performance on a memorable November night in Michigan in 2011 when he forgot the name of the third federal agency he'd eliminate after education and commerce -- energy.
But he’s also someone who can discuss the intricacies of the Syrian civil war or rattle off statistics on higher education participation rates among Hispanics with a facility that suggests he is well-acquainted with expert opinion in a wide range of policy fields.
In addition to Perry’s smartphone apps, dead-tree editions of The Wall Street Journal and The Economist are on his daily reading list, whether he is on the road or in the Austin apartment he shares with his wife and four dogs.
Rick Perry isn’t dumb.
Perhaps even more importantly to his future political prospects, he knows how to tell a story as well as anyone in national politics today -- an underappreciated quality that he would bring to his second stab at the Oval Office.
Following his well-received address at the first Iowa cattle call of the 2016 White House campaign last weekend, Perry sat down for a wide-ranging interview in a Des Moines hotel room during which he demonstrated his rare ability to spin a yarn.
“When I rolled in here in 2011, nobody knew the Texas success story,” Perry said. “They do now. And they’ve actually seen over the last two-plus years an individual who is prepared, who’s ready, who continues to lead a state that is inarguably, unquestionably the most successful state in the nation from a job creation standpoint. So I think there is a clear path and a clear opening for an individual who has our record.”
Perry often uses the first-person plural when discussing his accomplishments in office. But rather than a sign of regal pretention, his favoring of the royal "we" comes across as deferential -- another signal that this is someone who is supremely comfortable in his own skin.
Also not in doubt: Perry’s willingness to run through the campaign gauntlet again, even if no fair reading of the current 2016 calculus would suggest that he is more likely to succeed than he is to fail.
At 64, Perry -- who is now a grandfather -- shudders at the idea of idle retirement and says that since he stepped down from office earlier this month, no day has been the same as the one that came before.
“What is retirement?” he said. “I’m not ever retiring. I’m just not wired that way.”
Still, now that he is unencumbered by a day job, Perry will have significantly more time on his hands this go-around to do the hard legwork that is required to succeed in the Iowa caucuses and beyond.
Throughout his three decades of public service, Perry’s most obvious political asset has always been his natural and at times jarring personal charisma.
But perhaps even more important to his chances in places like Iowa is a less frequently extolled quality: his cordiality. Whatever your views on his political views or his qualifications to be president of the United States, it’s hard not to like the guy personally. Despite his larger-than-life presence, Perry is skilled in the art of putting people at ease.
As we were getting ready to begin our interview, I offhandedly asked Perry whether he was a golfer.
Perry’s short answer: “Nope.”
I thought that would be the end of the discussion on that particular topic. Instead, the self-professed non-golfer took this throwaway icebreaker as an opportunity to regale me with a 10-minute collection of stories about the relationship he has had with golf at various points in his life.
Told by most people, these anecdotes would have been boring. But in the hands of Perry, they were highly entertaining.
The best of the bunch was an episode in the fall of 2007 when the then-governor had agreed reluctantly to participate in a Pro-Am tournament in Las Vegas.
On the second day of the event, Perry recalled, he was placed in the same group as John Daly -- a legend of the sport who is known as much for his brusque attitude and colorful personal life as he is for his golf game.
Daly, Perry recalled, was having a tough time of it on this particular day.
“He hit a pitching wedge,” Perry recalled. “It didn’t go where he wanted it to go, and he went, 'Mother f-----.'"
At this point in the story, Perry rose from his seat and began reenacting the scene with alacrity, as he mimicked Daly’s temper tantrum by tossing an imaginary golf club at the hotel room’s wall.
“And it was an elevated green, like that, and he threw -- and literally his caddy went over and was trying to get it out,” Perry continued, as he demonstrated the act of trying to pull a golf club that had become embedded in the turf. “I mean, he buried it that far in the side of the thing. It was hilarious!”
At this point, I thought the story had reached its climax and we could now start the interview in earnest.
But there was more.
“The next morning, sun’s coming up, wife is reading the Las Vegas Review[-Journal], and I hear her snickering,” Perry continued. “I said, ‘What are you laughing about?’ She went, ‘You made the paper.’ And that’s the last thing you want to hear when you’re in Vegas, right?’”
Right, I agreed.
“She said, ‘In the sports section. There was a sports reporter who was in your group yesterday and they interviewed Daly after the round, so they asked him, ‘You were looking a little frustrated during the first part of your round. Was it because you were having to play with the governor of Texas and he was slowing up the play?’”
At this point in the story, Perry leaned in closer to ensure that his audience was ready for the punch line.
“And he went, ‘Well, let me say this. Obviously, Texas is a very well-run state because it’s obvious that governor spends no time on the golf course.’ And it was like I could have hugged the man.”
Perry slapped his hands together, beaming from ear to ear. “That’s perfect, man!”
Never mind that a quick dive into the Review-Journal’s archives reveals that it was not Daly but rather the newspaper’s sports columnist, Ed Graney, who made the tongue-in-cheek remark about Perry’s golf game.
Like all great storytellers, Perry cares far more about the effect of his stories than he does about getting the details right.
It is this ability to charm his audience with tales of that “Texas success story” which figures to serve him well in a second presidential run.
There appears to be little, if anything, holding him back.
At this point, at least, Perry’s ongoing legal troubles seem to be more of a nuisance than a threat.
On Tuesday, a judge declined to dismiss an indictment against Perry on abuse of power charges related to his veto of state funds to a Texas district attorney’s office when she refused to resign following her conviction on drunk driving charges.
Perry’s legal team immediately appealed the decision, and for his part, the former governor insists that he has not been slowed down one iota by a court case that has the potential to rally conservatives to his side, if he can characterize it effectively as a political witch hunt.
“I consider it my responsibility to veto bills that I don’t agree with, and it’s actually that simple for me,” Perry said. “This was an individual that I’d lost faith in, that wasn’t a responsible individual to take care of $7.5 million worth of state money. So, for me, this is a straight up -- and I’ve said many times and will continue to say -- I did what was right, I did it for the right reasons, and if I were faced with that again, I would do it exactly the same way again.”
Perry says he’ll make an announcement about whether he’s running for president in May or June.
For now, at least, it sure sounds like he’s in.
“At my soul, I’m a competitor. And I know that’s how America gets stronger,” Perry said. “There’s a lot of folks who say, ‘I hope you’ll run. I hope you’ll stay in this thing. We need your experience.’ There’s nobody in the field who has the record we’ve got. That’s a fact.”
But after having spent 30 uninterrupted years in office as a member of the Texas House of Representatives, agriculture commissioner, lieutenant governor and governor, wouldn’t the chance to try something outside the political realm appeal to someone who advocates for less government in people’s lives?
Perry leaned in toward my audio recorder one last time before he set off to embark on another afternoon of retail-style campaigning in Iowa.
“I love this,” he said.