Several hours after, back in the motel further up the endless highway — a faux castle called the Knights Inn (geddit, geddit) — I turned on C-SPAN and watched the Rick Perry event I had been at that morning. Or thought I had been at. Maybe I hadn’t. I didn’t know any more. C-SPAN has been following the Republican candidates throughout the primaries, broadcasting events in real time, directly from camera, and then replaying them later.
They get in close, get the whole stump speech, and then the meet and greet, the glad-handing, the book-autographing, the fans gushing, and the mad questions.
You see the candidate, and his sinister staff behind in black suits and earpieces. You see the grateful petitioners, stumbling up on stick and frame, in Walmart windcheaters, to urge the candidate to end the Fed, push for extended fishing licenses, ban fluoride, or defeat that communist Obama. You see the other cameras, pointed at that camera. You see yourself, follow the back of your own bald head, threading through the crowd.
Lunching on peanut butter crackers and diet root beer, got at the Piggly Wiggly discount store, between the faux-colonial drive-in bank and a sushi restaurant done in half-timbered Tudor, a picnic on the faded blue chenille bedspread, looking out the window at the kidney-shaped pool, the water slowly going green; it all seemed to make a lot more sense.
The whole scenario would have had David Lynch saying “too much, no, way too much”, but it worked as a sort of Rick Perry scope. Amid this nowhere on the way to nowhere, where all the buildings are advertisements of themselves, designed to look good in a rearview mirror, Perry filled the screen, looking expansive and at-ease, filling the room. His rolling anecdotes and folksy manner was the perfect warmth for television, the medium cool. He had the quiet authority to be president.
Who was this hickory-smoked political televangelist, and where had he been that morning, as a Texas governor in a dying campaign stumbled through the latest whistlestop on the road to nowhere?
VFW #15001 had been the venue, the Veterans of Foreign Wars clubhouse, a warm and homely shack with a weird pressed metal mansard roof and bottle-bottom glass in the windows. Everything around appeared to have been made in Seoul and shipped out in one unit. The VFW hall by contrast seemed to have been built by having everyone add an extra piece of panelling each time they arrived. Precisely at 9.25, team Perry’s fleet of black SUVs barrelled up and screeched to a halt in front, all but knocking it flat or so it seemed. (“He’s the only one we’ve had here who was on time,” the barmaid said later. “He ain’t got nowhere else to be,” came the reply.)
Inside, there was an old horseshoe bar in one room, an assembly room of sorts next to it, themed ads for beer (‘Budweiser supports the army!”), noticeboards (“sick parade: comrades/staff”), a giant Uncle Sam surrounded by red, white and blue flowers, and in the assembly room a large “POW:MIA” silhouette poster, part of the campaign that suggests Vietnam is still holding onto US prisoners from the war. A dozen good old boys around the bar, the beer-pitchers already out, and about 60 people in the assembly room. There were no country-club Republicans, or even Tea Party ageing southern belles here. This was a hinterland crowd, vets and their wives, with the club officials in blazers, and all the rest dressed for another day behind the fishing line.
They are that distinctive American class, poor folk raised up one level by military service, and grateful for it. They do a full tour, and then either go on to security work or the like, or simply retire, on the pension and the excellent socialised medical system that American vets enjoy. Their conception of America, of its essence, is almost wholly martial. They are fine about defending the constitution, but what they are really about is defending the flag, the bunting that bears a whole people with it, but without content, signifying nothing, except we ourselves, here. Loyalty is the ultimate virtue. Loyalty to what? To loyalty. Semper fi.
This was Perry’s solid 10%. They would go for Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum, and perhaps, if they have to, they will vote for Mitt Romney, but the bobble-headed serial adulterer former speaker, and the creepy tanktop man from the north, don’t command their devotion. That is left wholly for the Texas governor, the former Air Force pilot, the handsome and rugged new defender at the Alamo, all that stands between the republic and a hundred-million Mexicans.
He’s smaller in real life than on screen, more compact, near European in the neatness of his lines, with the perfectly placed nut-brown hair. Sitting in the front row of folding chairs, waiting to be introduced, he looks more personable; there’s no swagger or sprawl in his demeanour. As he bounds up to applause — “the next Preyesident foth Yewnited Stays, Governor Rick Perry” — something else becomes obvious: he’s shit at this.
Seriously how can a Texas Republican governor lose an audience of vets? But he was doing it, after 10 minutes, the unmistakeable sound of people in nylon shifting in plastic chairs accompanied by the odd cough. Starting from the usual palaver — “I grew up in a little place called [Something] Creek, there was a Baptist church one side of the road, Methodist another, that was it …” — and into something about learning about being a conservative from learning to conserve water, and living the “purpose-driven life” and “this country is about giving back”, and by that point I wasn’t the only one wondering where all this was going.
Introducing a military historian, apparently: “Tom Hatfield, everyone. Say hi, Tom.” Tom snaps off a salute. And then we were off again, about the Keystone pipeline, the Canada-Houston pipe that would go straight through Nebraska’s lake system and which that state’s Republican governor has begged the federal government not to build, in its current form — “I don’t have a problem with green energy, I just don’t want the govmint tell me I have to do it” — and then we had the idea of a “wounded warrior tax credit”: anyone wounded in action pays no income tax for five years, after recovery.
Then Mike Thornton was introduced — “the only winner of the Congressional Medal of Honour to save the life of another winner of the Congressional Medal of Honour” — and Perry, out of, it seemed, a desperate desire not to talk, got him up to the podium.
And that was a mistake, because Mike Thornton blew the room away. He was genuinely big, six five, beefy, white haired, with the medal around his neck like a blue ribbon choker. He was gently jingoistic — “I been to 76 countries in my life, there’s nothing like the USA” — he was humorous — “I was an ex-Navy SEAL; you either go into security or become a hit man for the Mafia” — and he took all the power in the room and sent it back out to everyone there — “this medal, this medal I won, this medal belongs to each and every one of you” — and by that time, hell, I would have voted for him. But we only had Perry, who was back, saying what should be done by “the next president of the United States … who I hope is me”.
Who I hope is me? Jesus. When Gingrich talks about 2012, he speaks like he’s already picked out his White House parking space. Perry talks like he might win the lottery. His speech has no focus, his policy recitative has no structure, and his proposal for a five-year wounded warrior tax credit appears to me to offer troops a $75,000 incentive to shoot their own toes off.Perry had impressed in the previous night’s debate — more than he had in previous debates, which had killed his chances. But even there he’d screwed up, taking a leading question about Turkey’s Islamic government way too far, calling the Erdogan government, a NATO member and ally in the Libya operation, “Islamist terrorists”. Why? Because the question had mentioned the (rubbery) statistic that since Erdogan came to power, murder of women had gone up by 1400% (it is far more likely the reporting of crime has improved dramatically in Turkey, creating this statistic). “Well,” said Perry, “if they’re killing their own people …” In other words, he simply misunderstood the question.
He is that rara avis, a candidate who is not merely slow, not merely populist, but genuinely stupid. Wandering lost through the sagebrush of his absurd stump speech, Perry is another candidate who has lost the juice. He at least had it — Jon Huntsman, his moderate mirror twin, never did — but that made the loss all the greater, when the 2011 debates revealed to millions that he was simply not personally qualified for the job.
But the millions don’t matter. The revelation is most killing to the one man there, on the spot, before a podium in a shack by the freeway, applying for a job he has already been refused. Gingrich and Santorum are both in the hunt because these early primaries are proportional — they can gather some delegates, stay in position, and who knows what the hell might happen. With Mitt Romney, now fighting off the scandal that he pays only 15% tax, and describes his $350,000 speaking fees as “not that much”, they are right to do so.
But Perry’s delegate accumulation will be derisory, his chance of a VP slot non-existent. Why is he still here? Sitting in a folding chair, watching the empty space where he would soon be speaking, he appeared to be wondering the same thing himself. Watching him watching himself from the comfort of the Knights Inn, one wondered the same thing. Why was this mythology failing, even as its champions became ever more insistent?