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.

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.

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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