Rick Perry and Get-'er-Done Politics

A tired-looking Gov. Rick Perry listens to a reporter's question at the Bastrop Civic Center during a press conference on the wildfires on September 5, 2011.
A tired-looking Gov. Rick Perry listens to a reporter's question at the Bastrop Civic Center during a press conference on the wildfires on September 5, 2011.

Rick Perry’s dad served as a county commissioner in a rural county. Those are the people who command the road crews and do the other nuts-and-bolts work in local politics.

Most of them don’t mess with grandstanding and showboating. Their media consists of a folksy weekly newspaper and a small radio station; news conferences are as rare as interesting crimes and state football championships. It’s the get-’er-done level of government, where officeholders roll up their sleeves in real life and not just on commercials, drive pickup trucks and do without political consultants and image-buffers and security details and chefs.

Most of the time, it’s the opposite of being a governor. The late Bob Bullock, a powerful Texas comptroller and lieutenant governor, used to claim he wasn’t interested in the top job because he didn’t like ribbon cutting. Governors are the Wal-Mart greeters of state government.

There was something to Bullock’s observation. But Ray Perry’s son apparently learned a little something at home from the county commissioner. As governor, Perry is at his best — and many Perry haters will grudgingly confirm this — when there’s a hurricane, a tornado, a flood or other natural disaster.

It might be that governors are always necessary, even when the residents are happily ignoring them. At a moment of crisis, however, politicians become visibly needed, even if they’re just standing there in their street clothes in front of a microphone reading off a list of what’s being done.

 

This time, it’s a drought-ravaged state that suddenly burst into flames, killing four people and destroying hundreds of homes in Central Texas.

Perry aborted his political schedule and came home to Texas, where he hung up his campaign coat and tie and went to work.

The politics of this are interesting, even if the governor doesn’t have politics in mind. Everything else shrinks when there’s trouble, and Mitt and Ron and Michele and Jon and Newt and Herman and (the other) Rick don’t have anything like that to talk about right now. Perry’s opponents got smaller and less important as the fires got bigger and more homes burned. They look small throwing things at Perry while he’s preoccupied with threats to people’s lives and their homes. And Perry, for a moment, looks bigger, dealing with real things instead of political things. Dealing with real things, as it happens, is good politics.

Some of Perry’s best moments have come during the state’s worst times — like when hurricanes hit. Perry and Mayor Bill White of Houston, who later became a rival, basically invited Louisiana to come stay in Texas after Katrina hit. Perry, again with White and others like then-Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, was in the middle of things when Hurricanes Ike and Rita hit, overseeing huge and problematic evacuations and returns to home, the logistics of health care and housing and on and on and on.

Even White, who lost the 2010 governor’s race to Perry, said nice things about him after their joint hurricane efforts. Not so much since: He told The Washington Post this week that Perry was kicking the federal government at a time when he should be working with federal officials on a response to the state’s fires and drought.

Now, of course, the context has changed, and what one faction would label as leadership in a time of crisis appears to another group to be running toward the cameras in a crowded fire.

Disasters can go either way for politicians. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani was politically remade by his response to the Sept. 11 attacks 10 years ago. President George W. Bush’s bungled reaction to Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans became a permanent part of his reputation, and not in a good way.

Perry is good at this, as he has to be: voters will put up with a lot if they think you’re doing your job.

 

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