From his first statewide run for Agriculture Commissioner in 1990, when a soft-focus ad showed him posing on horseback in the sunset like a Harlequin Romance coverboy, Rick Perry has itched to fashion himself the next Ronald Reagan—a Hollywood-handsome, Old West conservative locked and loaded for a showdown with big-government liberals. Last year, the dream began to come true: When Perry shamelessly exploited the burgeoning Tea Party movement, the national media finally discovered him. A year later, Perry landed on the cover of Newsweek in his more mature business-cowboy garb—suit and “Come and Take It” boots—and got the mythic-hero treatment. “Could Perry be the second coming of Ronald Reagan?” the magazine asked in a rhapsodic profile.
Perry was riding high at the time, fresh off his landslide primary victory over Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and Debra Medina. But then a bumper crop of Tea Party nincompoops—Rand Paul, Sharron Angle, Christine O’Donnell, et al.—began to steal his thunder, as did his pal Sarah Palin. Despite his denials, Perry continues to walk and talk like a presidential candidate—complete with the obligatory campaign-launch book, Fed Up, due out in November. But something else has happened since last spring: Perry’s carefully constructed image as a principled conservative in the Goldwater/Reagan mold has started to come unglued. On Election Day, the “R” at the top of the ballot will be a character who more closely resembles another timeless GOP model: Richard M. Nixon.
The similarities start—but do not end—with the campaign Perry has run against Democrat Bill White. It’s an uncanny reproduction of Nixon’s “Rose Garden” re-election strategy in 1972, when the Trickster set a new standard for evading press and public scrutiny. It was more than a front-runner’s strategy against an overmatched opponent; it was the vindictive president’s blowback against reporters who’d been dogging him since his Communist witch-hunt days. “I must have heard Richard Nixon say ‘the press is the enemy’ a dozen times,” his former speechwriter William Safire later wrote. Displaying a similar contempt, Perry has maintained a Nixonesque silence in 2010, refusing to debate while deflecting and consistently rejecting interview requests from all but the most compliant (read: right-wing) of national journalists.
Refusing to be accountable to the people of Texas is sorry enough. But as with Nixon, there’s a growing list of reasons why Perry avoids scrutiny. Since the spring, a dark pattern of paranoid secrecy, old-style political patronage and corrupt financial dealings has been unearthed by the The Dallas Morning News, the Observer, The Texas Tribune and the non-profit Texans for Public Justice (TPJ).
We’ve only begun to learn what-all the governor is hiding. But it’s already enough to make Tricky Dick grin in his grave. We’ve learned how Perry’s public service has made him wealthy, thanks to the Morning News’ exposé of the estimated $500,000 profit he made on a shady land deal at Horseshoe Bay. We’ve discovered, from the Observer and the Morning News, that Perry has used the Texas Enterprise Fund and Emerging Technology Fund to dole out hundreds of millions in taxpayer money to big campaign donors. A TPJ investigation found that the governor’s appointees to state boards and commissions have thanked him to the tune of $17 million in campaign contributions—more than one-fifth of his total funds raised—in his three races for governor.
When Perry deviated from the Rose Garden script to answer questions on Inside Texas Politics in late September, he was grilled about another revelation: that he’d averaged only eight hours a week on state business during the first half of 2010. Asked what he does on an average day, Perry ultimately replied: “I consider everything I’m doing state business.”
This, folks, is the classic Nixon (and Cheney) mindset: L’état, c’est moi. “If a president does it, that means it’s not illegal,” as the disgraced Nixon told David Frost. Perry’s possible illegalities haven’t yet been sorted out, but one thing’s clear: He’s come to believe that if the governor of Texas does something, it’s not unethical.
Less than two years after his Rose Garden re-election, President Nixon was riding Air Force One back to San Clemente, unmasked as one of the most corrupt, cynical and unethical creatures ever to infest the White House. Gov. Perry’s political trajectory is headed in the same grim direction. Whether or not he wins on Nov. 2, it won’t be long before Texans find themselves sifting through the wreckage left behind by the governor who christened himself king.