Rick Perry’s whirlwind arrival on the presidential stage has made him a Texas-sized character in Americans’ political imaginations. But some early black-and-white images of Perry’s life and politics don’t quite square with the more nuanced facts.
He’s a political outsider. Perry deftly saw the Tea Party movement brewing and horned onto it early, styling himself as an anti-government conservative. He fended off a 2010 primary challenge from Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison in part by mocking her 16 years spent in Washington. But it’s true, as Mitt Romney likes to say, that Perry is a career politician himself. The Texas governor first ran for public office 26 years ago, and has never since tired of the public payroll. (Indeed, as a young legislator he once sought to triple his job’s modest pay.) Perry’s only adult experience outside of politics was in the Air Force, which is also a form of government service.
But it’s not just Perry himself who is a creature of the system his base so despises. It’s his entire modern lineage. Perry’s great-great grandfather was a Texas legislator and county judge. His great grandfather was a county commissioner. His grandfather also ran for county commissioner. He lost, but Perry’s dad made up for it by serving for 28 years in that post.
Perry might argue that Washington is nefarious, while state and local governments are more in touch with the people. But unlike many of today’s Tea Party “citizen legislators,” he can’t honestly denigrate anyone whose vocation is politics: “The urge to get involved in public service was strong for me,” Perry wrote in his 2008 book, On My Honor: Why the American Values of the Boy Scouts Are Worth Fighting For. Perry said he was raised to believe that “giving back in the form of public service was an important principle,” and that when he first told his wife Anita he’d be going into politics, she understood. “Anita saw how much I wanted to do this. After all, she knew what Perrys did: they ran for office.”
He hates Big Government. Beyond the fact that Perry and several generations of his forebears have worked in government, his Texas record features plenty of public policy activism. There’s his much-debated attempt at a mass government vaccination program to save girls from HPV-related cancer. There’s his lobbying for large sums of federal aid for Texas, even as he denounced Washington’s largesse. Above all, there is the great unrealized project of his tenure in Austin: the Trans-Texas Corridor.
Lately, Perry has talked about his determination to get government “out of the way” of the private sector. But it wasn’t so long ago that, much like President Obama, he saw a government role in shaping private-sector backed infrastructure improvements. The Trans-Texas Corridor was to be an epic transportation and utility project that would relieve the state’s overstressed infrastructure system. In 2003 Perry billed the project– which would cover 4,000 miles and cost up to $184 billion, taking 50 years to complete–as “the beginning of a whole new way of planning and building a transportation system…. The plan is as big as Texas, and as ambitious as our people.” Alas, it proved all too ambitious. Featuring highways, rail and utility tunnels, the project would have required the state to claim some 500,000 acres of private land through “eminent domain”–a practice detested by conservatives, and which incurred the wrath of rural Texas farmers. And while the plan would have been funded with private investment, it also would have created new tolls managed by a Spanish corporation, stoking nativist impulses. (Perry even touted the project in ways that sounded the same notes as President Obama, including its potential to reduce air pollution and expand high-speed rail.)
The project soon ran into a huge political backlash, and was long dead by the time the Texas legislature formally killed it earlier this year. The failed scheme emerged as one of Hutchison’s best issues against Perry, who ran a biting attack ad on the topic, although by 2010 the issue was too old–and Perry too divorced from his original scheme–to incur severe damage.
He was a fighter pilot. Conservatives have gleefully sent around this dashing photograph of a young Perry in a flight suit next to a nimble-looking fighter jet, and he is often described as a “fighter pilot.” But while Perry likely trained on such jets, he was not a dogfighter. Instead, after joining in the Air Force upon his graduation from Texas A&M in 1972, Perry was assigned to fly C-130 cargo planes, transporting men and material from base to base. This is absolutely vital work, to be sure–the military cannot function without its C-130s. And it makes Perry the only major 2012 candidate to have worn a uniform. But Top Gun it was not: As Perry himself concedes in On My Honor, this was not “fancy flying, like the jet fighters.” (Indeed, the C-130 is not a jet at all, but a slow and lumbering turboprop plane.) Perry has said that he was given the option to become a pilot instructor flying the sexier T-38 fighter jet. But that posting would have required him to move to Selma, Alabama, and he preferred to stay in Texas, even if it meant flying what he sometimes called “trash haulers.”
Perry wound up being stationed in Saudi Arabia and Germany. Although he joined the Air Force in 1972, before the war in Vietnam ended, he didn’t serve there. (At the peak of the war, Perry was enrolled at Texas A&M; it’s not clear that he has ever spoken publicly about his draft status.) When John Kerry was facing questions about his Vietnam service during the 2004 presidential race, Perry called on the Democratic nominee to make public his complete military records. Since then, however, Perry has reportedly declined to do so himself. Military service is never a political loser. But don’t expect to hear “Danger Zone” at Perry’s rallies.