Giving Rick Perry a Second Look

Texas Gov. Rick Perry may hope that Republican voters give him a second look if they tire of hearing about Herman Cain’s sexual harassment troubles. But Michael Winship says the voters should really focus on Perry’s troubling record as an enabler of crony capitalism.

By Michael Winship

I’m at sea this week — literally, for once — and learning helpful nautical stuff. For example, the old, three-mile limit for territorial waters was established in 1702 as the maximum distance a cannon ball could reach when fired from shore.

It’s even more useful to gain some distance from political events back on the mainland. Much of the week before this was spent chairing an international meeting of writers from a dozen or so countries. Combined, seeing ourselves as others see us, both experiences are revelatory.

One theme that prevails is a general mystification over many Americans’ propensity for the outright rejection of anything that’s not instantly comprehended.

Talking with a couple from Calgary, the Canadians expressed their incredulity that relatives in the States were so vehemently opposed to President Barack Obama’s health care and jobs programs “when they haven’t even bothered to read anything about them.”

For another, you realize yet again how bizarre our system of campaigns and elections seems when viewed by those from abroad — even though these days the rest of the world isn’t exactly the picture of mental health either.

Something like our media frenzy over the harassment charges swirling around Herman Cain — mired as those accusations appear to be in years of hubris and egotism on his part and our consuming national neurosis when it comes to all things involving sex or race — seems distinctly odd.

Whether or not the Rick Perry campaign is behind any of the leaks surrounding Herman Cain’s alleged improprieties, the distraction certainly made the Texas governor, as the website Talking Points Memo reported, the “luckiest presidential candidate in the universe this week.”

Texas Gov. Rick Perry greeting voters

Up to now, the governor has been experiencing the most dramatic crash from electoral hero to goat since Tennessee’s Fred Thompson ran his presidential campaign’s pick-up truck off the road four years ago.

The Cain scrutiny helped draw attention from Perry’s plummeting poll numbers and his wacky address last week at that dinner held by New Hampshire’s Cornerstone Action, a group of social conservatives with a notoriously anti-gay agenda.

The speech came off more like Open Mike Night at Chuckles Comedy Club than High Noon on Inauguration Day 2013. (You can see the highlights here:

In the words of Jon Stewart, “Best-case scenario, that dude’s hammered. Worst-case scenario, that is Perry sober, and every time we’ve seen him previously, he’s been hammered.” I prefer to think that Perry decided, “What the hell, this campaign’s going nowhere, might as well let it all hang out.”

Or maybe he suffers from a case of premature election burn-out, like Robert Redford’s character in 1972 movie The Candidate, reeling from one too many iterations of his stump speech, blathering: “Can’t any longer play off black against old, young against poor. This country cannot house its houseless, feed its foodless,” and so on.

Of course, these are idle distractions from what we really should be paying attention to: candidates’ positions on the issues and their prior track records as business leaders or officeholders. And blahblahblah, I can hear you tuning out now.

Luckily, though, when it comes to Rick Perry at least, in the tradition of such greats of journalism as Ronnie Dugger and Molly Ivins, we continue to have fine investigative reporting coming out of the state of Texas.  Reporters there care — even when you don’t.

They’ve been covering Perry and his stewardship as governor with an intensity as white hot as Tiger Beat’s recording of the day-to-day tribulations of Justin Bieber. Certainly, ounce for ounce, Perry has greater entertainment value.

The non-profit, non-partisan Texas Tribune, for example, features on its webpage an exhaustive “Perrypedia,” which offers the latest on all things Rick.

The publication recently noted that “Perry’s presidential campaign hinges on one overarching message: that states perform best when left to their own devices and federal regulators should butt out. Yet during his decade-long tenure in the governor’s office, Perry and his staff repeatedly downplayed the severity of abuse and neglect allegations at Texas’ state-run institutions for the disabled — until conditions became so dire that the U.S. attorney general was forced to intervene.”

Two years after that Justice Department investigation found violations of civil rights and avoidable deaths, “a Texas Tribune review of facility monitoring reports and employee disciplinary records shows mistreatment is still relatively commonplace.

“And though there’s been some evidence of improvement, the state’s federally designated disability watchdog group Disability Rights says that halfway into the five-year settlement agreement, not even a quarter of its requirements have been met.”

A couple of months ago, the Houston Chronicle ran a terrific, four-part series, “Perry’s Texas,” examining the deteriorating condition of the state’s infrastructure during the governor’s tenure.

And the Oct. 22 edition of the Austin American-Statesman took a closer look at Perry’s time as state agriculture commissioner during the 1990s. The paper’s Laylan Copelin reported, “Over his eight years as Texas’ farmer-in-chief, Perry oversaw a loan guarantee program with so many defaults that the state had to stop guaranteeing bank loans to startups in agribusiness and eventually bailed out the program with taxpayer money.

“The state auditor panned Perry’s claims of creating jobs and criticized Perry and his fellow board members at the Texas Agricultural Finance Authority for not following their own lending guidelines. …

“Even as the first alarms were sounded, Perry defended the program, saying no taxpayer money was at risk, blaming others and claiming he had fixed it. It only got worse.”

Guaranteeing risky business loans with public money is a familiar tune — all together, let me hear you say Solyndra. But instead of solar energy schemes, during Perry’s watch, “Entrepreneurs lined up for money to spin cotton into yarn, process meats, develop cotton insulation, market canna bulbs to wholesale nurseries and sell pinto beans as a ready-to-eat frozen meal, to name a few.”

Forewarned is forearmed. These and other reports from Texas journalists present Rick Perry as the poster boy for conservative humorist and essayist P.J. O’Rourke famous description of Republicans as “the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.”

Unsensational as it may be to all but the wonkiest, more attention to all candidates’ public records serves us far better than the latest private gossip and innuendo. Sorry, the salt air must be going to my head. Land ho.

Michael Winship, senior writing fellow at Demos and president of the Writers Guild of America, East, is senior writer of the new public television series, “Moyers & Company,” premiering in January 2012.

5 comments for “Giving Rick Perry a Second Look

  1. rosemerry
    November 9, 2011 at 03:52

    George W Bush showed us that being a terrible governor of Texas is no bar to getting elected POTUS.

  2. bobzz
    November 8, 2011 at 13:32

    I guess it is too late to respond to this, but no, Rick Perry was not drunk. I would bet my bottom dollar that no Southern reporter, even a Perry detractor, would say that. Yankee reporters, however, are not privy to the style of big tent Southern preachers holding a meeting (Yankees, count your blessings). First the speaker fawns over those who made the invite. Second, he cracks jokes that only those that love the big man will enjoy. Perry’s extreme facial expressions and exaggerated gestures are all part of the drama (his were admittedly over the top but not those of a drunk). This is all to soften up the audience. Now he launches into the body of the speech—long on drama, short on substance. The variation of powerful voice modulating to a whisper is designed to bore his sincerity into the heart of the hearer. Bottom line: he was not drunk; he was preaching. I limit my thoughts to his style, not why I thought the substance was shallow.

  3. November 7, 2011 at 07:53

    There he stood on the mountaintop. Here was the man who had been called upon by history to lead his people out of the desert. He was the new Moses – re-visioned for the twenty-first century. This man of the Texas plains called out to the multitudes, “I will lead you to the precipice of this mountain of righteousness. Follow me.” The people were overwhelmed by his very presence. Surely, they felt, here was a man who would do battle, in their name, against the evil forces of liberalism. They knelt at his feet, some of them weeping in joy and gratitude. He found himself at the height of his life’s mission, standing proud. “I am at fate’s alter”, he quietly said to himself, “Nothing and nobody will hinder my quest.” And there he proudly stood on the mountaintop of history, prepared to go forth to do battle. At that very moment something horrible happened….

    Rick Perry opened his mouth.

    Tom Degan

  4. K2K
    November 6, 2011 at 11:19

    Until today, I always had a high opinion of Demos, but this represents a low form of tabloid not-journalism.

    First, a visit to leads me (a registered democrat in NYC)
    to think they are conservatives who care about family and community, and oppose same-sex marriage, which is not the same as “notoriously anti-gay”.

    Second, a serious journalist relies on primary sources, not a deliberate bash-edit. Highlights? Watch the entire 25-minute speech which is what I did after I saw the 8-minute “edit”:

    Maybe Gov. Perry should not mimic Ron Paul, but I agree with the people who were in attendance:

    “…“I was there,” New Hampshire House speaker Bill O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, told reporters at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. “Not only did he give a very effective and appropriate speech, but one that was enthusiastically received by all the folks who attended that dinner. …”
    Primary Status: NH House Speaker, other conservatives leaders defend Perry’s much-maligned Manchester speech
    Senior Political Reporter
    Published Nov 3, 2011 at 3:00 am

    • joel watson
      November 9, 2011 at 18:15

      I’m sure that if you asked any party apparatchik at any party function ever held if their bright and shining one gave a good, nay, great speech, you’d hear “Not only did he give a very effective and appropriate speech, but one that was enthusiastically received by all the folks who attended that dinner. …”

      I wasted 25 minutes of my life to listen to the whole thing and came away struck by how self assured this brainless moron has turned out to be.

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