Don't Mess with Texas

Article excerpt

Byline: Evan Thomas and Arian Campo-Flores

What Gov. Rick Perry's hard-right turn says about America in the age of Obama.

The myth of the once and future king is as old as Camelot, as ancient as the Bible. If only someone could pull the sword from the stone and free the land, restore it to its former greatness! If only Bonnie Prince Charlie could sail back from across the sea and drive away the English oppressors! If only a new Saladin could sweep away the infidels and restore the Muslim Caliphate! If only Bobby could vanquish the usurper Lyndon Johnson and restore the mythical Kennedy Camelot! If only the Messiah could come again! In dark times, the memory of a lost golden era beckons, and the people look for their redeemer.

In Texas, his name is Rick Perry. Raised in a ranch house with no running water in the West Texas town of Paint Creek, yell leader at Texas A&M, Air Force pilot, longest serving governor in Texas history. Ruggedly handsome in a Marlboro Man sort of way, with a rich mane of brown hair, slightly tinged with silver gray. Perry, 60, stands for less government and more growth, for freedom and against bureaucracy, for Texas and against Washington. It's a message that has made him a very popular politician in Texas, particularly among conservative white males.

And if he's good for Texas, why not America? Could Perry be the second coming of Ronald Reagan, the plain-spoken man from the West who presided over a new "Morning in America" by cutting taxes, reducing government (well, promising to), and standing tall against the nation's enemies? As the tea-party movement gains momentum, as more Americans are mad as hell and not going to take it anymore, Perry is their kind of hero, an avatar of a lost age that could come again, if only Washington politicians and other undesirables were put in their place.

These days, people leave California--seemingly ungovernable, staggering under taxes and debt--and come to Texas. More people moved to Texas than any other state between 2008 and 2009, a time when Texas somehow avoided the worst of the Great Recession. "I'm willing to tell anyone that will listen that the land of opportunity still exists in America, and it's in Texas," Perry declared on the campaign trail last fall as he was on his way to crushing his opponent in the Republican primary, U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. Once thought to be a political powerhouse in Texas, strongly backed by the Bush dynasty, Hutchison was fatally tarnished by her ties to Washington.

Perry's Democratic opponent in November will be Bill White, the popular three-term mayor of Houston. White couldn't be more different from Perry. He went to Harvard. He speaks fluent Spanish. He's pasty white, with a bald pate and big ears. He talks in an even, slow monotone and refrains from gunslinging rhetoric. He's kind of like President Obama without the good looks and charisma--a cerebral man who craves consensus and relishes tackling problems by gathering a roomful of smart people with diverse views to hash things out. In an interview with NEWSWEEK at his home in Houston last week, White cast the upcoming election as a choice between the past and the future. "Perry is likely to appeal to those who think Texas's best days are behind us," said White. "I'll get the support of Texans who think our best days are ahead of us."

But not a few Texans wish the past to be their future--if only Rick Perry can show the way. As these people see it, America is turning into a multicultural hodgepodge, sapped of moral strength, run by government bureaucrats. But Texas, they believe, is different and always has been. "We don't want to become like them," says Shuck Donnell, general manager of Coyote Lake Feedyard in Muleshoe, Texas. (By "them" he means people living in big metropolitan areas, especially on the East Coast.) "Out here, we're the kind of people where if the world fell apart, we would still eat. …