Philip Rucker (c) 2014, The Washington Post.
AUSTIN, Texas — The man who could be president is ambling through the Texas governor’s mansion on his own, whistling “Frosty the Snowman” as he approaches the parlor room to greet a reporter.
Gov. Rick Perry, a Republican, leads a tour and points out a historically inaccurate depiction of frontiersman Davy Crockett in an oil painting in the foyer (“His coonskin cap — that’s a myth”). In Sam Houston’s bedroom upstairs, Perry lifts an antique upholstered settee, a gift from the French, to read an engraving signifying Texas’s early-1800s ties to France. He shows off a Civil War-era saber that belonged to a Union general and mentions having just read a thesis that his friend’s black father wrote in 1970 on race in America.
Rick Perry is trying to show that he’s not the Rick Perry you remember. Gone, it seems, is the blustery bravado, the empty rhetoric, the cowboy boots — and, yes, the “Oops” moments. This Perry comes across as studious, contemplative and humble. He said he is at peace with his 2012 presidential campaign, in which his shoot-first-aim-later approach proved catastrophic, but is hungry to redeem himself.
As Perry packs up his belongings at the governor’s mansion after 14 years in office, he is undergoing exhaustive preparations to run again for president in 2016. He is striving to make a better second impression than his first one.
“We are a substantially different, versed candidate,” he said. He noted that other politicians who endure such humiliation might “scurry off to the quietness and the comfort of some obscure place and I wasn’t interested in doing that. I think that this country is begging for leadership.”
Perry sat down with The Washington Post for a wide-ranging 90-minute interview over lunch here Monday. He discussed his political rehabilitation, which this month includes day-long tutorial sessions with conservative scholars.
Perry also is hosting seven dinners at the mansion this month for about 600 potential campaign donors from around the country. At each dinner — funded by Texans for Rick Perry — he plays a three-minute, amped-up video promoting his economic legacy of transforming Texas into “a haven of opportunity” with “unparalleled prosperity.”
Perry insists that he has not decided whether to run, and said he won’t announce a decision until May or June, but nonetheless offered a rationale for his candidacy.
“You want the guy in the front left seat to be more than a low-time, private pilot,” he said. “You’d like to have the person in the front left seat of your aircraft being a rather high-time, experienced aviator.”
Perry, who served as an Air Force pilot before becoming the longest-serving governor in his state’s history, said he sees himself as this metaphorical aviator.
“If you’re looking for that steady hand that’s going to make a clean break with the administration’s policies that are in place today, I am a very clear and compelling individual to support,” said Perry, 64.
He said he believed he could attract voters in a general election with an optimistic economic message centered on helping grow businesses and expanding educational opportunities. He argued that President Barack Obama won reelection in large part because Republican nominee Mitt Romney alienated voters, especially Hispanics.
“To make the statement of ‘self-deportation’ was very offensive to the people that we should have been reaching out to and giving reasons to be for us,” Perry said.
A potentially significant complication is Perry’s recent indictment on two felony counts of abuse of power. He and his supporters, as well as some liberal legal scholars, view the case as a farce. “It’s an affront to the Constitution,” Perry said. But a judge has not yet ruled on whether to dismiss the charges.
American Bridge, a Democratic opposition research group, published a guide to Republican contenders on Monday and wrote: “Will Perry be able to overcome a criminal indictment and the embarrassment from his last campaign to mount a serious run for president?”
Perry will be out of public office for the first time since 1985 and is losing his security detail and staff entourage. He and his wife, Anita, are moving into a two-bedroom condo in downtown Austin while construction is completed on a new house in Round Top, which Perry described as a rural oasis (“really dark and really quiet”).
After Republican Greg Abbott is sworn in as governor on Jan. 20, Perry’s immediate priority will be to make serious money, something he has never done. He is considering writing a memoir — how a Boy Scout from Paint Creek became governor and presided over “the Texas miracle” economic boom — as well as giving paid speeches and serving on corporate boards, his advisers say.
Perry has entrusted his political future to Jeff Miller, a strategist from California who has moved here and taken charge of the operation. Longtime national operatives Terry Nelson, Steve Schmidt and Henry Barbour also are advising Perry, while economist Abby McCloskey is organizing his policy preparations. David Carney and Joe Allbaugh, rival strategists on Perry’s 2012 campaign, are no longer in his circle, although 2012 manager Rob Johnson and longtime spokesman Mark Miner remain close.
This week, Perry began intensive media training, as advisers staged mock on-camera interviews with hostile questioning. Perry also has been working with speech coaches at Podium Master, a GOP firm run by an alumnus of the Royal Shakespeare Company, to improve his presentation skills. Perry’s advisers acknowledge that he will have little margin for error in next fall’s debates. In 2011, he imploded at a debate by forgetting the three federal agencies he said he wanted to eliminate, stammering and saying, “Oops.”
Experts at top think tanks have been flying to Austin to tutor the governor. On Thursday, he will sit down for six hours with former Bush administration economists Greg Mankiw, Keith Hennessey, Glenn Hubbard and Diana Furchgott-Roth to discuss economic growth, labor markets, taxation and regulation.
Perry recently held freewheeling, all-day sessions on health care and income inequality, and plans more this month on energy and environment, budget and entitlements, education, immigration and financial services.
“The governor is in the top tier in terms of the amount of preparation that he’s putting in,” said Avik Roy, a former policy adviser to Romney, who briefed Perry on health care and has met with other 2016 hopefuls. Perry, he said, “is asking questions throughout and interjecting throughout. . . . They’re absolutely not talking-point conversations.”
Last week, Perry studied income inequality and economic mobility with experts Scott Winship, Erin Currier and Aparna Mathur. In the Post interview, he was asked about the growing gap between rich and poor in Texas, which has had strong job growth over the past decade but also has lagged in services for the underprivileged.
“Biblically, the poor are always going to be with us in some form or fashion,” he said. He cited statistics showing that since he took office in 2000, wages have increased among all four income quartiles. He said a young man who dropped out of high school in South Texas could make more than $100,000 a year as a truck driver.
Perry acknowledged that the richest Texans have experienced the greatest amount of earnings growth, but dismissed the notion that income inequality is a problem in the state, saying, “We don’t grapple with that here.”
Perry has been invited to address the World Economic Forum in January in Davos, Switzerland, but has not decided whether to make the trip. He spoke at the forum a year ago.
Perry plans to keep up his busy itinerary in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. “Those first three states require a substantial amount of personal interaction that we had not done in 2011 or 2012,” he said. Since the 2012 election, Perry has held 33 events in Iowa over 15 days, more than any other 2016 hopeful, according to the Des Moines Register.
Perry also is courting funders. He knows it could cost $100 million or more to win the GOP primary and he will be at a disadvantage relative to 2012, when he controlled the governor’s office and thousands of related political appointments.
This month’s donor dinners are being held under twin chandeliers in a white tent in front of the governor’s mansion. Anita Perry, whom advisers said is pushing her husband to run, welcomes the guests and the legacy video is played. Then the governor answers questions and visits with each table.
There is no ticket price, although the guests have been sounded out about their willingness to back Perry and fund a super PAC on his behalf. Some of the donors have loaded up their private jets with associates so they can meet Perry.
The guest lists have included Andrew Puzder, chief executive of the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s fast-food chains; Larry Paul, co-owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers; “Papa Doug” Manchester, a San Diego real estate tycoon; and Steve Cortes, a Chicago financier.
At Monday’s lunch with The Post, Perry was in a chipper mood. His official portrait is being painted and will show him with two personal items: his Texas A&M ring and a bracelet memorializing Lance Cpt. Colton Rusk, a Marine who died in Afghanistan.
When Perry noticed that grilled pheasant breast was on the menu, he wondered aloud, “I’m curious if this is a pheasant that I actually . . .” He stopped himself before suggesting he had killed the bird himself.
Before food was served, Perry said a prayer that included a nod to Obama: “Be with the president, give him wisdom and open his eyes.”
Then Perry explained why he, the Texas governor with a newly acquired worldliness, is ready to be Obama’s successor.