Rick Perry: Can he ride the cowboy myth to the White House?

Dissecting the mainstream.
Sept. 21 2011 4:29 PM

Revenge of the Texans

Can Rick Perry ride the cowboy myth to the White House?

(Continued from Page 1)

Or as poet Doug McCutcheon put it:

But if you'll see fit to grant these few favors
I'll be most beholdin' to you
So Lord, I'll just kinda rattle 'em off
and please, see what you can do

Perry was elected Texas Agriculture Commissioner in 1990. He notes in On My Honor that he and his wife moved to Austin, the state's liberal mecca, because it was required by state law. The statewide Democratic Party barely exists in Texas, so when Perry became governor, in 2000, he didn't need to moderate his politics. Moreover, he didn't need to moderate his style. Even to a Texan, Perry seems very Texan.

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Perry's inner cowboy peeks out every time he hits the stump. He is at turns bluff and pious; he grips the podium with two hands, as if he's trying to hold down a sick animal. In Perry's speeches, you becomes ya; feel becomes fill. He has a goofy sense of humor that feels (fills?) to me like the product of a lonely childhood. (The slain coyote, he explained to a reporter, went to "the place coyotes go.") Conservatives like to paint Obama as The Other, the exotic, but on the debate stage with Romney, Bachmann, et al, that label could be easily slapped on Perry.

Is this a Reaganesque cowboy performance? Or is this the "real" Perry? The answer to both questions is: Yeah. Even if we grant that the 27-year-old Perry spoke to God (the "big trail boss," in Glen Enloe's phrase), it's superb opportunism to reveal it at Liberty University while Jerry Falwell Jr. looks on. Perry used his announcement speech, too, to reiterate his Western bona fides: no ZIP code, "hard work," "thrift." Perry knows cowboy mythos is even more powerful when it's delivered by an authentically craggy vessel. As Michael L. Johnson, a scholar of the Western culture, puts it, "Perry is the real, mythic thing."

Cowboys are such anachronistic critters today that few even remember what the myth is; Perry, in a different year, would be as out of place in a GOP debate as Anton Chigurh. But Perry's Texanness has been given a lift by Texas itself. On the trail, Perry boasts that while the United States was losing 2.5 million jobs, he was creating 1 million. It's as if Texas is the center of civilization, and the rest of rusting America an alternate universe. Even Perry's defense of the 234 executions he presided over—"the ultimate justice," he said, sounding like a sheriff—drew cheers.

This is an update of Sam Houston's reputed boast: "Texas could exist without the United States, but the United States cannot, except at very great hazard, exist without Texas." And Perry has the amazing good fortune to make an argument about Texas that he has been making, by his very character, for his entire life. "I don't associate Texanness, or Texas exceptionalism, with the Bush campaign," says Evan Smith, the CEO and editor-in-chief of the Texas Tribune. "It's the fundamental basis for the Perry campaign."

The GOP candidates (minus Ron Paul) are all Texas exceptionalists now. "Texas is a great state," Mitt Romney admitted at the Reagan Library debate. To be Texas governor, he said at the next shootout, is like being dealt "four aces." Romney's feeble argument is that Rick Perry is an ordinary cowboy running an extraordinary place. Notice what's being conceded here, and you'll see the Texans' revenge is already complete.

Bryan Curtis (@curtisbeast) is the "Middlebrow" columnist for Slate. He also writes for Grantland, Texas Monthly, and Newsweek.

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