Magazine article The American Prospect

Manning Up: The Rick Perry Problem

Magazine article The American Prospect

Manning Up: The Rick Perry Problem

Article excerpt

In Master of the Senate, the third volume of his massive, still-unfinished biography of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro devotes a memorable paragraph to the great man's fondness for exhibiting his sexual equipment, which, with characteristic humility, he called "Jumbo."

   If he was urinating in a bathroom
   of the House Office Building and a
   colleague came in, Johnson, finishing,
   would sometimes turn to him
   with his penis in his hand. Without
   putting it back in his pants, he
   would begin a conversation, still
   holding it, "and shaking it, as if he
   was showing off," says one man
   with whom he did this. He asked
   another man, "Have you ever seen
   anything as big as this?"

Now, I don't know the slightest thing about Governor Rick Perry's endowment or whether he's endowed it with a nickname, but when he entered the Republican presidential race in mid-August, he did so in the same spirit as a Method actor auditioning for the lead in Hung. Flaunting his broad shoulders and the overbearing smile of a man who jogs carrying a laser-sighted pistol, he swaggered onto the campaign trail reeking of what we might call Texastosterone, the time-honored Lone Star hormone that not only enhances the feeling of being manlier than other men but positively compels you to brag on it.

Perry instantly went to the front of the pack, much to the baffled horror of liberals. In a sane world, surely the presidency of George W. Bush would have accomplished one positive thing--inoculating even Republicans against voting for another provincial, evangelical Texas governor eager to pass himself off as a tough hombre. Especially when Perry soon showed all the symptoms of Bushcan maladroitness, flubbing his attempts to label Mitt Romney a flip-flopper and calling Pakistan "the Pakistani country" much as Bush once delightfully termed Greeks "the Grecians."


But if Perry's fluffs were seized on by a media eager to write him off as unready for the national stage, his personal style--the strut, the cocky smile, the inflammatory words, the evident lack of concern over getting things wrong--remains one that tens of millions of Americans still find hugely attractive. Even as it gives liberals the heebie-jeebies, such barroom braggadocio is catnip to the right, which sees it as an antidote to the weaseling effeteness of the Democratic elite. Republicans love the idea of their candidate--be it Perry or the lamented no-show Chris Christie--debating Professor, er, President Obama and pulverizing his pedantry with straight talk. After all, what they loved most about Reagan wasn't all that Morning in America shinola, it was Dutch snapping, "I paid for this microphone," or intoning, "Mr. Gorbaehev, tear down this wall" (which, if we're being honest, really was a rousing line).

Once vain about being more cultured than the left--think of William F. Buckley and his Latinisms, George F. Will and his Bartlett's--today's conservatives are happier with machismo, even when it comes from women: Sarah Palin blasting wolves from her chopper, Michele Bachmann telling Obama to "man up" about Israel. Naturally, this doesn't mean that they actually want a woman to be president. That's one reason the rightwing base was so stoked when Perry first entered the race. It wasn't only that he's on their side ideologically and theologically, brazenly saying the scary stuff that Bush kept hidden when he first ran in 2000. Perry fits their fantasy of what their side should look and sound like. He's not an unelectable oddball like Ron Paul, an overreaching Sunday-school teacher like Google-tormented Rick Santorum, or a publicity-loving flash in the pan like Herman Cain, who, rather like his former company's pizza, specializes in crustiness Smothered with cheese. Above all, Perry isn't the staggeringly synthetic Romney, who may look like a hologram of the perfect president but sounds like that old line from Groucho Marx: "Those are my principles, and if you don't like them. …

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