Although my first in-person encounter with Rick Perry was ten years ago and at a considerable distance, I’ve forgotten little about it. The then-Lt. Governor was standing in for Gov. Bush, who canceled an engagement with a bunch of dot-comsters, investors, and hangers-on at the last minute. This must have been late 1999 or very early 2000. The governor was introduced to a noisy crowd, which momentarily quieted down.
But as he quickly got got waaaaaay into a story about his own derring do in flying a C-130 as an Air Force Captain, I witnessed something I’d never seen before and haven’t since. The hipsters in the back of the room (by the bar no doubt) resumed their conversations, then the middle of the crowd, then the front. Five minutes into a speech by the Lt. Governor of Texas to a room full of 20- and 30-something Marc Andreesen wannabes, not a single person in the crowd of maybe 250 was listening to a word he was saying. Worse, they were actually shouting over one another’s conversations to be heard.
Except me. I stood there stock-still, wide-eyed and srticken as if watching a slow-motion train wreck, while Gov. Perry went on for another ten minutes, easy. I’m just wired that way–a large-scale display of disrespect makes me physically unfomfortable, and you couldn’t hear a word the poor man said. No one–and I mean no one–but me was even looking at him. Yet he soldiered on, apparently landing his jet safely and perhaps drawing some analogy between entrepreneurship and aviation.
I took away two impressions of Rick Perry. First, he was the most handsome politician I’ve ever seen. I mean, the hair alone: Shaun Cassidy updated for 20 years later. “If I looked like that,” I thought, “I’d run the world.” (The more likely truth is that if I looked like him, I’d be in jail). But secondly, I thought, “how in hell does a guy get elected to a statewide office when he can’t read his audience for beans?”
My, how things have changed. Like Bill Clinton, who was abandoned by the tv networks the midst of his deliciously awful 1988 convention keynote speech, Rick Perry has learned a thing or two in ten years about playing to a crowd. With his latest tea-partying and secession-baiting, it’s become clear that Gov. Perry reads his audience just fine, thank you you very much.
For a comparable display of sheer, embarrassing preposterousness by a senior Texas politician, one would have to hark back to Clayton Williams’ s favorable comparison of rape to bad weather in 1990 (try explaining that one to your friends while living in Northern California, as I was at the time). But there’s a critical difference between Williams’s remarks and Perry’s. For the Claytie, it was the beginning of the end in his fight with Ann Richards. For Rick, it may have put in the bottom under what appeared to be a free-falling attempt to protect his job from another candidate whose feminine wiles present the mere tip of her formidable political spear.
Yup: the Republican base loves this stuff. Eats it up like crazy. They really can listen to Perry say, straight-faced and absolutely unfettered by irony, “we’re fed up with what’s coming out of Washington.” Really? After 12 weeks? Sell fed-up to Texans who endured George Bush for fourteen years. Well, it’s apparently not as hard as one might think.
Anyone in my acquaintance who claims to know Rick Perry’s mind is certain of two things: he wants to be the President of the United States, and he thinks he can win. As far-fetched as I found all this at first blush, I have since begun to conjure up the following scenario: what if he is actually trying to throw the governor’s race? (Line least likely to be heard in March 2010 under any circumstances: “you won’t have Perry to kick around any more.”)
Think about it. If Perry loses to Hutchison, he could spend the full-time campaigning for the 2012 GOP Presidential nomination, without either the time constraints or putative limits on truly ridiculous pronouncements that would seem to get in the way of governing a state as big and complex as Texas. By bringing up secession, what if he’s trying to throw the race, but he can’t say anything crazy enough to alienate the base? What if Perry is on the way to becoming the Right’s answer to Warren Beatty’s character in Bulworth? What’s next? Proposing that the age limit for carrying a concealed weapon to school in the bill now before the Texas House be lowered from 21 to 11? Are you kidding? Perry’s base might eat it up!! Have you been on a Texas playground lately? They don’t play marbles for mathsticks any more, ya know. And…. if you take guns away from 11-year-olds, then only 11-year-olds will be criminals! Wait; that’s not quite it….
If he wants to throw the race to Sen. Hutchison, Perry may just have to tack back to the left–temporarily, of course. So if he suddenly says something so reasonable as to be out of character, such as “the earth is probably a little more than 7,000 years old,” you’ll know what’s up. And remember: you heard it here first.