Rick Perry: Philosopher King

Cedar Rapids, Iowa

GOP front-runner Rick Perry is known for his staunch conservatism, rugged good looks and, according to his critics, lack of smarts.  “He’s like Bush only without the brains,” one Republican governor quipped about his Texas counterpart, according to Politico’s Jonathan Martin.

In a campaign stop in this small city in the heart of America’s Heartland billed as the world’s corn processing capital, Perry seemed to run the risk of reinforcing questions about his intellect by playing up his lack of coastal polish. “I ain’t no Ivy League elitist ruining your life from Washington, District of Academia,” the Texas governor told a crowd gathered at a downtown park.

Yet judging by his audience’s jubilant reaction, what some are calling “Perry Populism” touches a chord.  “He’s so authentic,” cooed Roberta Minkus, a homemaker who had traveled several hours from her home in Bloomfield near the Missouri border to see Perry speak.  “He’s not some uppity type who thinks he’s got all the answers.  He doesn’t condescend, if you know what I mean.  He’s one of us.”

While Perry’s man of the people image is undoubtedly an asset on the stump, it may be severely tested by events over the past 24 hours.  Just as Perry was being introduced at a Rotary Club in Davenport, Iowa, Keith Nahigian, an experienced Republican hand managing Michele Bachmann’s campaign, began speaking at a hastily arranged news conference in Keene, New Hampshire.  Nahigian announced that he was in possession of “revealing” items belonging to the Texas governor the were mistakenly left behind at a hotel in Cedar Rapids.  They included an iPod and several books.  How they got into the hands of the Bachmann campaign is unclear, but Perry’s aides later acknowledged their authenticity while declining to comment further.

For Nahigian, whose boss’ fortunes have flagged following Perry’s entry into the presidential contest, getting hold of the Republican frontrunner’s personal effects was like manna from heaven.  It showed.  “Apparently, Governor Perry likes opera,” Nahigian said with obvious glee.  On cue, an aria from La Bohème was broadcast over the loudspeakers, over which Nahigian sarcastically added, “I think the hard-working of people of Texas might want to know what Mr. Perry finds so appealing about bohemian artists.”

Then in an apparent allusion to Georges Bizet’s Carmen, which was also found on Perry’s iPod (a complete list of the device’s playlist was passed out by Bachmann aides at the news conference), Nahigian acerbically remarked, “And maybe the governor could enlighten us on whether he believes the values of a demonstrably unbalanced and conniving Gypsy are the sort we should be teaching our children.”

Nahigian was not done.  He then dramatically held aloft a copy of Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky.  “Ladies and gentlemen,” he boomed, “Mr. Perry wants you to believe he’s tough on crime,” saying this about someone who has overseen more capital punishment executions than any other governor in modern history (234 and counting), “but why is he reading a depraved novel that glorifies a sociopath?  To paraphrase the governor, I think he’s got some splainin’ to do.”

That the Texas governor apparently enjoys opera and reads Russian literature may surprise many.  The former university cheerleader’s lousy scholastic record, history of gaffes, and reputation as a lightweight among many who know him best are well established.  “The guy doesn’t believe in evolution or global warming, and he compares gays and lesbians to alcoholics,” observed Claire O’Leary, director of the AFL-CIO field office in Dallas.  “No wonder so many people think he’s an idiot.  He is!”

Lars Brekk, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, isn’t so sure.  “America is deeply anti-intellectual.  It’s in our DNA.  It goes back to the anti-federalists, who assailed the framers of the constitution as out-of-touch elitists.  To be seen as too smart is the kiss of death.  It wouldn’t surprise me if Perry, aware of our darker impulses, is playing the simpleton for all it’s worth.”

Veteran Houston Chronicle reporter Chuck DeVoss agrees.  “You’ve to give Perry credit.  He’s got razor sharp political instincts.  When a new generation of Democrats was on the move, Perry served as Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign chairman for Texas.  Now the Tea Party is ascendant, and he’s one of them.  A political opportunist?  Absolutely.  Stupid?  No way.”

The purportedly closeted intellectual governor of Texas might weather this storm.  But Perry, a favorite among evangelical Christians, may face a far more embarrassing revelation.   Rumors are circulating that aides to Bachmann are waiting for the right moment to announce that they also are in possession of another book belonging to the governor: Christopher Hitchens anti-religion polemic, God is not Great.

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