Perry vs. White: The Battle of Sam Houston


At his very first tea party, on Tax Day 2009 outside the Austin City Hall, Gov. Rick Perry invoked his favorite historical reference this side of the Tenth Amendment: “I happen to agree with the seventh governor of this great state, Sam Houston. He once said, ‘Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may!’ ”

Perry loves him some Sam Houston. He talks about him just about everywhere he goes. In the opening monologue of Robert Draper’s New York Times Magazine profile, Perry calls Houston “in my opinion possibly the greatest leader this country’s ever developed.”

Something tells me that there’s a little self-aggrandizement involved here. (With Rick Perry? Could it be?) After all, if Sam Houston can be the greatest leader in United States history, maybe somebody will someday say the same about Rick Perry.

At least, that appears to be Rick Perry’s theory on this thing. There’s some Sam Houston projection going on here. Heavy projection. And so it wasn’t surprising that Perry’s Democratic foe, former Houston Mayor Bill White, took a little swipe at Perry’s supposed kinship with Sam Houston during his acceptance speech in Corpus Christi last Friday: “Rick Perry has been governor longer than any governor of Texas but Sam Houston,” White said. “Sam Houston and Rick Perry are both going to be defeated on the same issue: secession. The difference is that Sam Houston was against it, and Rick Perry is for it.”

I admit it: I praised that line. I thought White had gored Perry right in his Sam Houstony heart by cleverly exposing the fundamental flaw in the Perry-Houston equation—that small detail that Sam Houston was hardly a sworn foe of the Union.

Like most people reporting on the convention, I overlooked the other part—about Sam Houston serving as governor longer than Rick Perry. Actually, as The Dallas Morning News’ fact-checking feature, “Heat Index,” has pointed out, Houston was governor for just a fraction of Perry’s tenure.

Oops. White, who’s been critical of Perry and the State Board of Education for dumbing down history—and who has pointed out the irony of Perry’s identifying with a non-secessionist—punctured his smarter-than-thou image a little bit by mucking up his own history so badly. But ultimately, only a little bit—unless there’s a repeat performance.

The “Heat Index” disagreed, tut-tutting: “White was not only wrong, but on dangerous ground: No candidate for high office in Texas can afford to mangle the state’s sacred history.”

My, my. Aren’t we in a scoldy mood today? You’re telling me that Texas has never elected a history-mangler? I’m not saying we’ll be electing Bill White, either. But if we don’t, it’s not going to be because he thought Sam Houston was governor of Texas a whole lot longer than he was.

White’s mangling of “sacred history” earned him the worst possible score on the “Heat Index”: four hot peppers, signifying that “this claim is totally false.”

Right below the exposure of White’s blunder, there was an item that rated a little lower on the scale—three peppers, a “serious distortion of the facts”—about Rick Perry making nutty claims about climate change. Also about White. Wayne Slater writes:

Rick Perry says on his campaign website that legislation to limit greenhouse-gas pollution, known as cap-and-trade, “will cost the average Texas family more than $1,200 a year.” Perry says the proposal, which would put a price on carbon dioxide emissions blamed for climate change, would kill jobs and raise energy costs. And the governor implies that Democratic challenger Bill White supports the idea.

As Slater finds, this is inflated (the cost) and grossly misleading (White supports other energy initiatives).

If the choice boils down to somebody who gets a fact all wrong about Sam Houston, or a guy who uses scare tactics to get people to be afraid of combating climate change, the “Heat Index” is going to choose the latter as the lesser evil. That’s because White did, indeed, get it just flat wrong. But there’s a difference in degree between these wrongs. The Perry people were surely popping some corks and dancing some jigs when they heard about White’s big old flub. But what the governor said is the kind of thing that can do damage to us all—not, as with White, just to himself.