On the evening of April 29, Rick Perry’s leathery visage crinkled with sincerity, close-up on the two big video screens in a vast Austin ballroom. To his left, on the actual stage, crossing her legs beneath a snug black skirt, was his mutual admirer, Sarah Palin, nodding as Texas’ governor waxed pious. The two had just spoken to an anti-abortion audience motivated enough to brave downtown Austin on a Thursday night and pay handsomely for the privilege. After Palin’s remarks prompted a sustained standing ovation, a few questions “from our sponsors” had been dished up to her and Gov. Perry.
Palin had just been saying how she’s constantly approached by folks who pity her for being so horribly “abused” by the media and tell her they’re praying for her. “It’s that prayer shield that allows those slings and arrows to just bounce off,” she’d said. “At the end of the day, it is my faith that gets me through. Faith is everything to me.”
Texas’ governor fully empathized. “If I wasn’t 100 percent sure of where I was going to go when it’s all over,” Perry said in a hushed, gargly voice, “it wouldn’t be worth doing.”
This was three days after a Western-hero glam shot featuring a plate on Perry’s right boot reading “Come and Take It” flashed from the cover of Newsweek. It was four days before the governor would suggest, for all the world to hear, that the BP/Halliburton oil spill in the Gulf might be “just an act of God that occurred.” And it was two days after Perry had boasted to the Associated Press about snuffing a coyote with one deadly blast while on a morning run in February.
Tonight, it was all about life.
Meanwhile, the Legend of Goodhair and the Coyote was the talk and whisper of Texas. Perry’s tall tale meant different things depending on whether you believed it. If you thought it sounded plausible, considering the main actor, then you were faced with the reality of a governor so paranoid, so terrified—so reminiscent of the crouching, hiding, post-9/11 Dick Cheney—that he couldn’t set out along a running path in his genteel neighborhood without packing cranium-exploding heat.
And what if, like me, you couldn’t help suspecting that Perry had conjured up the whole coyote business? Or, at least, exaggerated it into a hell of a story? You were left with a governor so habituated to fibbing, after all these years in politics, that he might have believed it himself even as it came out of his mouth. You were also left with a governor whose fantasy life involves deadly gunfire.
One of the secrets to Rick Perry’s improbably long run of political victories is his knack for characterizing himself as the kind of fellow that particular voters want at a particular moment. In 2010, so far, he is Tea Party Rick, the anti-Washington crusader, hawking Texas’ positive economic indicators and hailing the Second and Eighth Amendments while gleefully deflecting talk of the state’s crippling structural budget deficit. But he can still snap right back into Christian Rick mode. Just two days after playing the lead in another episode of Reckless Hunter Rick.
With his shape-shifting, Perry keeps highlighting the single most unseemly side of the political beast he has become. You can see it in his manipulations of state boards and universities. You can see it in his manipulations of right-wing voters. You can read it on his boots. And you can hear it when Perry testifies about how wonderfully “blessed” he is.
It has always confounded me, this sect of prosperous Christians who believe that the undeserved riches and power they’ve stumbled onto is a sign of God’s special dispensation of grace upon them. But that is the gospel of Perry and Palin.
One great advantage of being “chosen,” of course, is that there’s no real price to pay for the mistakes you make. Heaven-bound politicians are free to lurch forward, as George W. Bush so famously did, interpreting God’s will and making uninformed decisions on the basis of mystical speculations. They are free to play God, because God is reliably on their side and will eventually pull them—the special, the chosen—out of whatever fires they set along the way. Once blessed, always blessed. And those who aren’t—coyotes, liberals, poor folk, journalists—will simply have to put up with what the blessed decree.