Texas governor Rick Perry is about to stride purposefully through every cultural tripwire in the country.
He may not become as despised as Sarah Palin, but that’s because he’ll never be a pro-life woman — the accelerant for the conflagration of Palin-hatred. The disdain for Perry won’t burn as hot, but it’ll burn just as true. He’ll become a byword for Red State simplemindedness in the New York Times and an object of derision for self-appointed cultural sophisticates everywhere.
You could be mistaken for thinking that Perry set out from his infancy to trample on certain eastern sensibilities. Born in nowheresville Texas to a family of cotton farmers. An Eagle Scout. Attendance at Texas A&M, where he was a “yell leader” — basically a male cheerleader — and in ROTC. After earning a degree in animal science and serving in the Air Force, he entered politics and eventually ascended to the governorship in the wake of another hated Texan — George W. Bush.
Perry makes Bush look like a sniveling elitist, what with his patrician, highly credentialed family. Perry went to Paint Creek Rural School in Haskell, Texas; Bush went to Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., and then on to Yale and Harvard.
Perry is a great partisan of Texas and has mused about its leaving the union. He’s an evangelical Christian who unembarrassedly prays in public and for his state. He’s a tea partier who extols the Constitution and seeks a drastically limited federal government. He’s a law-and-order conservative in a state that still executes people.
It’d be almost impossible to come up with a background and cluster of affiliations so provocative. Texas has all the negative charge for liberals that Massachusetts does for conservatives. Perry will be branded as a backward, dimwitted, heartless neo-Confederate. A walking, talking threat to the separation of church and state who doesn’t realize people like him were supposed to slink away after the Scopes trial nearly 90 years ago.
Surely there can’t be anything wrong with being an Eagle Scout? Such is the culture war that even the Scouts are controversial. In some quarters, they are considered notoriously anti-gay. A few years ago, Perry wrote a polemical book-length defense of the institution, On My Honor: Why the American Values of the Boy Scouts Are Worth Fighting For.
The title speaks of an author who is an incorrigible square, another Perry offense. In a photo of him at Texas A&M, wearing white sneakers and his Yell Leader sweater, he looks like the guy we’re always supposed to root against in movies about college life. Perry apparently lacks all ironic detachment, the quality that so endears liberals to Pres. Barack Obama even though they constantly exhort him to become a fighter.
Obama officials have already signaled they will attack Mitt Romney as weird if he’s the Republican nominee. If it’s Perry instead, they will surely pursue a similar line against him as bizarrely retrograde and altogether too Texas — George W. Bush, only more so.
The cultural static around Perry could well distract from his core economic message. He’d do well, as he began to do in his announcement speech, to cast his personal story and his state in terms of aspiration. Rural life, the Scouts, the military, and his faith inculcated in him the virtues necessary for success, and he lived in a state wide open and free enough for him to rise.
No matter how big his belt buckle and his boots, Perry should work to belie the image of Texas. It’s not the TV show Dallas of 30 years ago. It’s a dynamic state that has created jobs to absorb a population growth of 20 percent during the past ten years. It has thriving big cities and a diverse economy no longer exclusively dependent on the oil-and-gas industry. It has close ties to Mexico and a large Latino population.
Perry can say all that and more, but it won’t matter. He’ll still be hated.
— Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. He can be reached via e-mail, [email protected]. © 2011 by King Features Syndicate.