The Recowboybooting of Rick Perry

Four years after “oops,” his mind reeducated, his back operated on, his candidacy rebooted, the former Texas governor makes his case.

Rick Perry, former governor of Texas, speaks during the Iowa Freedom Summit in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Saturday, Jan. 24, 2015.

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

INDIANOLA, Iowa—Rick Perry had started the week as the longest-serving governor of Texas, signing a Bible for his successor, leaving the nation’s reddest state redder than when he found it. He ended the week, naturally, in the smallest dining room of the Indianola Pizza Ranch.

The Old West-themed Iowa chain, proudly Christian, is a magnet for Republican candidates—homey, uncontroversial, and cheap. All it took was five pizzas and a likely presidential candidate to pack a small room with 50 voters, who talked excitedly about giving Perry a second chance at the presidency. Some of them had seen him since 2012, at the rallies Perry held for the Iowa GOP’s resurgent midterm ticket. Some of them had watched Perry at the Iowa Freedom Summit, where he roamed the stage and deftly riffed off an uprising of immigration reform protesters.

“This is why we live in America today,” he’d said, pumping his fist, “to be able to stand up and tell our government to do what we want to do!” Even the people who’d missed the summit had heard good things about the speech.

“I liked him in 2012,” said Darrell Rogers, a 73-year-old lighting specialist from Oskaloosa, who hitched up his jeans with a Gadsden flag belt buckle. “I liked his honesty, his Christian attitude, and his success in Texas. And, you know the deal where he forgot which agency he wanted to boot out? I thought, well, I do that kind of stuff all the time. It was kind of like a feeding frenzy. The guy makes a mistake—so what?”

Oh, yes—the mistake. On Nov. 9, 2011, Perry tried and failed to remember the three government agencies he’d been pledging to eliminate. He happened to do this live, agonizingly, during a televised debate. He ended his fumbling with a shrug and an “oops,” which somehow made it all worse. It turned the governor of Texas into a pitiable figure. “I want to win,” said the Saturday Night Live actor playing Mitt Romney on that weekend’s episode. “But not like this.”

Perry has spent more time atoning for that mistake than he spent running for president. He’d told National Journal that he spent “20 months” boning up on “all the big issues that face the commander-in-chief.” He told the magazine this five months ago. In 2011, his back surgery and the resultant medication he took were closely held secrets, admitted only when nosy reporters had confirmed them. Since then he’s openly talked about the surgery, the medication that scrambled his synapses, and the glasses he now wears at every public appearance.

“He’s campaigned with me numerous times,” said Iowa Representative Rod Blum, who narrowly won the state’s most Democratic House seat in 2014. “He’s got a great story to tell. But the ‘oops’ moment was mentioned to me, numerous times. There are people who can’t get past it.”

There are plenty of other people who can. Perry arrived at the Pizza Ranch around 5:30, making his way through the dining room, posing for a selfie with a young, engaged couple. “Don’t blow it!” advised the former governor of Texas. The 50 guests had slapped on name tags, which Perry used to greet them all personally, alternating between handshake, back slap, and fist bump.

“How’s your back?” asked Patti Hughes, a 68-year-old retiree.

“It’s really healed up, thanks for asking,” said Perry. “I do a lot of pull-ups, a lot of crunches, all that stuff.”

“Stay strong,” said Hughes.

“Yes, ma’am!” said Perry. He found his place, surrounded by chairs; to his right, a painting of the hand of God touching a man in a hot air balloon. He roamed the tiny space between voters, talking with his hands. “Bringing together” meant slamming his two fists together. Describing two far-apart things meant holding his arms up at 180 degrees; he did this when describing the houses of worship in his Texas hometown. “We had a Methodist church on one end and a Baptist church on one end,” he said. “Your choice.” Talking about how his father flew missions over “Nazi hell Germany” meant an arm shooting out and snapping back.

“It dawned on me, Janis, what an extraordinary place America is,” said Perry, locking eyes with a voter and her name tag. “I’m just a small-town country boy who’s been incredibly blessed in his life. I know there are some of my teachers scratching their heads”—he scratched his head “and thinking, 'And he was governor for 14 years?'”

Perry’s stump speech, in its early and post-gubernatorial form, is all economics with a little zest of Obama-bashing. In 2011, Perry had closed out his Iowa campaign with a straight-to-camera ad bemoaning how “gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” In the Pizza Ranch, four years later, he answered a gay marriage question by saying Texas had defined marriage in its constitution—big applause line—then jerking the conversation over to the rights of states.

“I think those are issues that do need to be decided by the states,” said Perry. “That gets back to this whole concept of that Tenth Amendment. I don’t think Washington, D.C., ought to have legislation that pushes all us square pegs into round holes or square pegs into”—he searched for the word—“triangular holes.”

No, the new Rick Perry was all about the economy—the economy, and gesticulation. He brought question after question back to the topics of tort reform, fracking, regulation, and taxes. Fix the tax system and “we will see an explosion, a renaissance of manufacturing in this country,” said Perry, flinging out his arms as if he was about to launch into jumping jacks. Instead of forgetting the EPA’s name, he praised everything Texas businesses could do to reduce emissions without “burdensome regulations”—a concept he acted out by hunching his shoulders and walking like Gollum from The Lord of the Rings.

By the end of the night, Perry had established himself with 50 voters (including a local state senator) as the only repeat presidential candidate who could improve on his performance. In one way, the legacy of “oops” was even helping him. In popular memory, including the memory of voters, Perry’s 2012 campaign foundered after he lost his words onstage. Voters, especially Iowans, were inclined to forgive that.

But that wasn’t the full story of the Perry swoon. “Oops” happened on Nov. 9, 2011. An average of 2011 Iowa polls finds that he peaked on Oct. 6. On Oct. 12, he ended his short reign as a frontrunner. By Nov. 8 he’d tumbled to fifth place, behind Mitt Romney, Ron Paul, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain, whose own controlled demolition was days away.

Perry had not been hobbled by “oops.” The flub took him out after he’d defended Texas’s tuition for undocumented immigrants in front of a Florida debate audience.

“If you say that we should not educate children who come into our state for no other reason than that they've been brought their through no fault of their own, I don't think you have a heart,” said Perry. Conservatives bolted Perry for Cain, and they never came back.

They only started to notice Perry again after the child migrant crisis in the summer of 2014. Perry devoted large portions of the Pizza Ranch dialogue to this. In his telling, the president was a distant, ignorant observer who refused to do a “photo op” on the border—“I guess that came as a surprise to the White House photographers who go with him everywhere”—and refused to listen to experts like, well, Rick Perry. Left to drift, Perry described how he took action and how a surge of troops along the border stopped the crisis. And he got to do this just a day after DREAMers had interrupted his speech to Iowans, a surreal scene that according to Iowa Representative Steve King went well for Perry.

After the speech, multiple voters thanked Perry for that. The next morning, Perry and his entourage walked into Maccabee’s, a Jewish deli in Des Moines, where the Republican Jewish Coalition had assembled a dozen local worthies next to plates of lox, salmon, herring, and bagels. He remarked on the mural of Jerusalem that occupied one wall—“it looks like the view from the King David Hotel window”—and started talking about his 2014 visit to Auschwitz.

“It’s like having the president come to the border of Texas and Mexico,” said Perry. “If you’ve never really seen what’s going on, it’s hard to really get your arms around it. Pictures does it some justice, but when you walk in, what had the most vivid, powerful impact on me, is I walked into a room and there were thousands of locks of hair cut off. They were almost all dark, but there were some blonde, and obviously it was children’s hair. I mean, it was one of the most powerful impacts anything has had in my life.”

Monday morning Perry was toned down from Sunday-night Perry. He stayed seated. Neither he nor his roundtable touched their food until business was ended. And he benefited hugely from low expectations. It wasn’t just that the new Rick Perry could cite Louis Brandeis (calling states “laboratories of democracy”) or rattle off the names of successful Texas projects. It was that his musings, which could start in foreign policy and meander back to the natural gas industry, were going un-checked.

“When the secretary of state says that Israel is no better than the apartheid regime in South Africa, that is a huge problem from my perspective,” said Perry. He was misrepresenting John Kerry, who’d told an audience in 2014 that Israel risked becoming “an apartheid state,” not that it was one.

“I hope that in 2017, when the president of the United States gives the State of the Union, that they talk about anti-Semitism,” said Perry. “I’m not sure I have head the words anti-Semitism come out of the president’s mouth. Correct me if I’m wrong.”

He was wrong. The president had condemned “deplorable anti-Semitism” in the State of the Union. Perry claimed to have watched the speech, jokingly, to see if when Obama talked about the economy he gave the governor of Texas “a shout-out, as he calls it.”

That led right into another Perry whopper. The rationale for his comeback was that no other governor had his experience, and no other state had been governed so well. Perry was making that case as the national unemployment rate ticked down. This, argued Perry, was misleading.

“We've got the lowest participation rate since the late 1970s, when Jimmy Carter was president,” said Perry. “I'm talking about participation in the work force. That's of really great concern for me. I mean, who is it standing up for these people that I call the uncounted? They've lost hope that they can even get a job, so they're not even counted. When you look at the unemployment rate today, that's not the true unemployment rate, it's been massaged, it's been doctored.”

That statement jarred with Perry’s hometown newspaper. In a fact-check for the Austin American-Statesman, W. Gardner Selby gave Perry a full “pants on fire” no-prize for his theory that today’s economic data was skewed by discouraged workers.

The New Rick Perry was compensating for everything that the Old Rick Perry bungled. He could fine-tune the new software as newer, greener candidates sucked up all the hype. The voters could forgive him and embrace him. The press and the facts—for now, that was another story.