The Back Page
Continental Airlines has been a good friend to Governor Perry. In the last five years, executives and PACs associated with the company have donated more than $30,000 to his various campaigns. But it’s hard to put a price on their latest gift to the candidate: the cover story of the September issue of Continental, the airline’s onboard magazine. “The Image of Success,” a four-page profile of Perry with plenty of big color photos, was penned by Houston socialite Gracie Cavnar.
Cavnar is a fixture in Houston high society, where she is perhaps best known as one of the hosts of the annual Hair Ball, the fundraiser for the Lawndale Art and Performance Center in Houston, at which participants compete to see who can show up with the most elaborate hair sculpture. She is also the wife of Robert L. Cavnar, until last month senior vice president and CFO of El Paso Production Company, a unit of the El Paso Corporation (one of many energy firms with recent accounting troubles). El Paso is another benefactor of the governor’s: $24,500 over the last five years.
In the boardroom, this is known as synergy. In electoral politics, it looks more like an unregulated, unreported campaign contribution from Continental Airlines. Every month, almost one million people board a Continental flight in Houston. If Perry’s campaign had purchased a four-page color ad in the mag (not to mention the cover), it would have cost him over $100,000.
Ah, but then we would not have gotten to read Gracie’s insightful observations. Cavnar’s short bio in Continental reads: “Houston-based journalist Gracie Cavnar regularly reports on art, cultural trends and intriguing people, and likes to keep a watchful eye on politics.” This will come as news to readers of Savoir Faire, the quarterly subscription newsletter about luxury travel that Cavnar edits. She was certainly intrigued by the “unnervingly handsome” Rick Perry, whom she accompanied on a short airborne campaign tour of East Texas last summer. Cavnar got so unnerved, she forgot to ask him any questions, or to mention the name of the man Perry is running against, Tony Sanchez, anywhere in the article. When Perry isn’t unfolding stiffly from his King-air jet or scanning the tarmac, he’s fighting off autograph-seeking women or delivering firm handshakes to blue collar workers.
Cavnar moves fairly briskly through Perry’s career in the 1500-word profile, though there are a few surprises: “It’s classic Perry, the good ole West Texas boy; a tenant cotton farmer from Paint Creek.” A tenant farmer? Cavnar’s prose occasionally swerves into Yogi Berra country, as in: “Texas’ political swagger cuts a broad swath,” or her description of how Perry came to be our governor: “Perry has evidently mustered the political acuity to emerge from relative obscurity and snag the post by default.” But for the most part it’s a smooth read.
Still, for someone who likes to keep a watchful eye on politics (and small luxury hotels), some of her reporting seems a little…incomplete. “But just as his good looks disguise his age, his pretty boy image disguises his quick mind, sometimes to Perry’s advantage,” Cavnar writes. “While adversaries aim to label him an empty suit, it is the governor’s combination of looks and brains that often catches his opponents off-guard. It contributed to his surprising win over [Ag Commissioner Jim] Hightower and, eight years later, to his victory against well-known Democrat John Sharp for the job of lieutenant governor.” Tight jeans and jet black hair certainly didn’t hurt, but some readers might recall a debilitating Democratic primary, in which the Farm Bureau funded six opponents against Jim Hightower, as being the pivotal factor in the 1990 ag commissioner’s race. Likewise, in Perry’s razor-thin win over Sharp, a last-minute loan of $1 million underwritten by right-wing mogul James Leininger didn’t hurt.
For our money, though, Cavnar redeems herself about six paragraphs in, where we encounter what may well turn out to be the most revelatory moment of clarity any journalist gets from Rick Perry all season: “During his years as agriculture commissioner, he continued to take advantage of his good looks to get publicity. ‘My picture was more likely to be in Women’s Wear Daily than in farm and ranch magazines,’ he quips.”
The truth, at last.