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?

Illustration by Charlie Powell. Click image to expand.

In 2009, when George W. exited through the saloon doors, it seemed like the Texas affect in American politics—Texanness, let's call it—had gone with him. Rick Perry represents its comeback, its revenge. Perry is "appealingly craggy" (The New Yorker), an "uber Texan" (the New York Times). He owns a pair of boots called "Freedom" and "Liberty." His rhetoric is studded with barbed wire ("treasonous," "Ponzi scheme"). In a well-traveled anecdote, Perry interrupted a gubernatorial jog through Austin to gun down a coyote.

I'm a Texan, and when I talked to Perry this spring, I found his cowboy affect shocking. "It's Rick," he drawled when he answered the phone. Then: "Areyoukintagreg?" Translated: Was I related to Gregory Curtis, the old Texas Monthly editor? By laying on an impenetrable accent, Perry was testing to see how much Texanness I could stand. It's a game he's now playing with America every time he sidles up to a debate podium.

The difference between Perry and Bush, in Texas terms, is Old West versus New West. Bush was New West. His Texanness was pure theater. Think of him calling for Osama Bin Laden "dead or alive," or his Crawford ranch, where the brush-clearing never stopped. These are New West affects, slipped on as easily as a Fort Worthian slips on a pair boots from Leddy's. If Bush was tapping a vein of Texas mythology, it was that of the big-city wheeler-dealer—T. Boone Pickens, Jerry Jones—even if Bush never wheeled and dealed at their level.

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Rick Perry is Old West. He dreams a 19th-century dream. Perry's great-great-grandfather, D.H. Hamilton, was an ex-Confederate who resettled in Texas, like John Wayne's Ethan Edwards in The Searchers. Perry's great-grandfather lived near Paint Creek, a fly-speck West Texas town, as did his grandfather, and his father, Ray. Paint Creek is Perry's Olduvai Gorge, the cradle of his Texanness. "A very broad area but with very few people," as he later put it.

The Perrys had no plumbing until Rick was 6, and took baths in a washtub on the back porch. Perry's mother, Amelia, made his underwear even when he left for college. As Patricia Kilday Hart noted in a Texas Monthly profile, the Perrys "lived a life few Texans can imagine today."The pang Perry gives off about his childhood is loneliness. His father called the area the "Big Empty." Paint Creek, he likes to note, had no ZIP code. "I can't tell you where the closest male was that was my age," Perry toldTexas Monthly last year. "It would have been miles away. ... But I spent a lot of time just alone with my dog. A lot."

Paint Creek's ice-cream shop even closed when Perry was young. But Perry does what the New Yorker writer John Bainbridge, in his 1961 Texas study The Super-Americans, identifies as reverse bragging. That is, the more miserable the prairie, the greater the boast it produces. So Paint Creek becomes, as Perry later put it, "the center of civilization, and everything else was an alternate universe." This is cowboy mythology: The land that contains nothing is the land that, in fact, contains everything you'd ever need.

Perry's Paint Creek was a plains Eden. It was a place where rugged townsfolk helped one another, where "we were all equals." (Never mind Abilene's segregation or the poor treatment of Mexican-American farm workers.) Indeed, Perry fashions Paint Creek as a rebuke to the teeming cities that by the 1960s were rising up in Dallas and Houston. "Life should be simpler, slower …" Perry writes in his book On My Honor. "We should be what we were meant to be, and we long for a place to take us back to such a simpler time."

Perry went off to Texas A&M, where he got a degree in animal science, and then spent four-and-a-half years crisscrossing the globe as an Air Force pilot. It is the only period in Perry's life in which he lived outside Texas. Afterward, he moved back to the farm in Paint Creek. It was a tricky coming-home moment, and Ray Perry and Rick clashed. As Perry explained to a crowd at Liberty University last week: "I was lost spiritually and emotionally. … I spent many a night pondering my purpose, talking to God, wondering what to do with this one life among the billions that were on the planet."

The image of a Big Empty cowpoke turning to the Almighty sounds like cowboy poetry. In fact, it is cowboy poetry—c.f., Glen Enloe's "When a Cowboy Talks to God":

Lord, you know that I'm one small seed
Blown across the fields of this world—
You could lose me in a moment
By the power you have unfurled

But when I need to talk to you,
I know you'll hear me and stand mute—
Then bless me with your vast knowledge
In green valley or lonely butte.

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