The Oops Diaries: Sleep Disorder Helped Derail Perry

"Rick Perry probably had it coming to him. All that swagger. Thirty years in politics and not a single loss. It was like some karmic time bomb had finally gone off. And when the smoke cleared from his presidential campaign disaster, nobody remembered the uninterrupted winning streak. What was left could be reduced to a single word: oops."

— From Oops! A Diary From the 2012 Campaign Trail, by Jay Root.

From Mitt Romney’s slap at 47 percent of the population that he says mooches off the government to President Obama’s heavily mocked quote about businesses that take too much credit for their success, gaffes are all the rage on the presidential campaign trail these days.

Invariably we are told these verbal boo-boos are bad enough to bring a presidential campaign to its knees, that somehow the blunder in question has set a new low, a dubious milestone.

Two words: Rick Perry.

I am not making light of the fallout from the nominees’ recent gaffes. They surely have incurred — or will incur — a political cost.

The point is that, having covered the Texas governor’s botched presidential campaign from mid-August 2011 through mid-January 2012, I have witnessed the birth of a whole new level of faux pas. Think of it as the political equivalent of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The Super-Gaffe, if you will.

It is not just the magnitude of Perry’s face plants that make them so different from what we are seeing out of the Romney and Obama camps. It is the reasons they happened in the first place.

Despite the grass-roots enthusiasm and financial support that greeted Perry when he joined the race last year, he was not anywhere near ready for the presidential campaign spotlight. His late entry and lack of debate experience clearly hurt him.

What is not widely known is that Perry, 62, had major health issues too — a serious but previously undiagnosed sleep disorder that was discovered just as the front-runner label was slipping from his hands, and painful sensations in his leg and foot that also kept him up at night.

By the time he started sleeping again and feeling better, all of the efforts to right the ship — like firing his top political adviser and bringing in new hands — had unleashed so much internal dysfunction that the campaign split into rival factions, made up of people who could not stand to be in the same room together.

At this point you may be wondering why anyone would write a book about a presidential candidate who made the word “oops” his calling card. The short answer is that “Oops! A Diary From the 2012 Campaign Trail,” began not as a book but as a diary — a behind-the-scenes look at life on a modern presidential campaign. The “embed” reporters. The bus. The way news is really gathered in the age of Twitter and YouTube.

I had every reason to believe I was covering the eventual Republican nominee when Perry immediately shot to the top of the polls in the summer of 2011. By the time his campaign ground to a halt five months later, the words of the Democratic strategist James Carville, spoken on CNN in January, seemed like the most apt description of what I had witnessed: “the worst presidential campaign/candidate in American history.”

Excerpt: A Front-Runner Stumbles

I like to say that going to a debate is the worst way to actually cover it as a reporter. We don’t get anywhere near the studio, where you could, say, gauge the audience reaction.

We’re stuck in the press filing center, generally a sea of banquet tables with chairs and power strips, with strategically placed televisions all around so you can watch the debate — only in far worse conditions than the average voter sitting in his living room. It’s usually noisy and there’s no DVR attached to the TVs, so you can’t play back the clip. You end up putting your digital audio recorder as close to the TV speaker as you can get, but if you’re far from the screen it can be hard to hear. The wireless signal slows to a crawl right when you need it the most. Murphy’s Law.

Then there is the post-debate “spin room,” somewhere between the studio that’s off limits to you and the filing center. A few minutes after the debate, all the top campaign aides come out and interns hold signs over their heads so you’ll know their names. They stand there like mules and say in rehearsed sound bites how handily their candidate won. I can’t think of anything we do that feels more ridiculous and useless. You have to cover it because everybody else is doing it. Occasionally, I suppose, you could use that time to question campaign honchos who never call you back. But then again, other reporters are crawling all around and you’re on deadline. It’s just inane.

I hate Orlando, by the way. It’s like Vegas without gambling or scantily clad women. Sprawling hotel complexes. Flip-flop-wearing Disney-goers. I shudder. But I’ll say this: The Fox News-Google debate there on Sept. 22, 2011 had the best press filing center I’ve ever been in.

The décor screamed Google: multicolored beanbag chairs, plush white wall-to-wall carpet, leather furniture with Google-colored pillows, modular plastic chairs and plexiglass tables. They had a popcorn machine. A huge smoothie bar. Hamburgers with bacon strips. Pasta. All kinds of drinks and candy. A YouTube Live Streaming Lounge, inside a big red tent set up inside a room in the cavernous Orlando convention center.

Arlette Saenz, a reporter for ABC News, was popping gummy bears and drinking Cokes and hadn’t had much sleep, as usual, so she was bouncing off the multicolored walls. We took a seat in view of the smoothie bar. “This is boring,” she said about 20 minutes in. I nodded as I polished off my Google bacon cheeseburger. When political junkies are bored by a presidential debate, you know it’s bad. But the fireworks started about 10 minutes later, first on Social Security and then immigration.

Under pressure from Romney, Perry delivered a truly awful answer about why he believes so strongly that Texas should let illegal immigrant teenagers pay lower in-state tuition rates. In a sort of irritated tone, he said anyone who opposes that policy didn’t “have a heart.” I thought that was noteworthy, but Twitter told me it was bigger — monumental — like his Bernanke “treasonous” thing.

People were talking about it in the elevators. It was radioactive. And that’s not all they talked about in the elevators. Perry suffered some kind of spell onstage when he tried to launch an attack on Romney for being a flip-flopper. He got tongue-tied; incoherent, really.

When that happened, Arlette turned to me, dumbfounded. “Was he like this in Texas?” she said. All the Perry embeds look to me from time to time to explain the governor. I usually can oblige. Not this time.

“Honey, we’re in uncharted waters,” I said.

Arlette quickly transcribed the audio. Watching the video is painful, but seeing the words written out demonstrates the depth of the flub: “I think Americans just don’t know sometimes which Mitt Romney they’re dealing with. Is it the Mitt Romney that was on the side of against the Second Amendment before he was for the Second Amendment? Was it before he was before the social programs from the standpoint of he was for standing up for Roe v. Wade before he was against Roe v. Wade — he was for Race to the Top — he’s for Obamacare and now he’s against it — I mean we’ll wait until tomorrow and see which Mitt Romney we’re really talking to tonight.”

The next day I didn’t have to wonder what to write. Just a straight-up reaction piece to Perry’s awful performance. The pundit class unloaded. William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, penned a special editorial entitled “Yikes.” “No front-runner in a presidential field has ever, we imagine, had as weak a showing as Rick Perry,” Kristol said. “It was close to a disqualifying two hours for him.”

It feels like the air has gone out of the “front-runner” bubble.

Excerpt: ‘Our Guy Isn’t Sleeping’

Trouble had announced itself in Perry’s hotel room on the morning of that Orlando debate.

“I didn’t sleep a wink,” he said to his travel aide, Clint Harp.

A Republican Florida state committeewoman, Liliana Ros, was shocked by Perry’s apparent physical distress when she greeted him during a commercial break at the debate. “He grabbed my hand and held on to it,” Ros told reporters. “His hand was so cold, like ice. And he was sweating. I don’t know what it was, but something was definitely wrong.”

It showed onstage. Toward the end of the debate, Perry had scrawled down on a sheet of paper an attack line he wanted to use against the ever-waffling Mitt Romney. But then he proceeded to botch it, turning his rambling answer into a late-night comedian’s dream.

Back at headquarters in Austin, Perry’s health — his severe lack of sleep, mainly — became a central focus. “Our guy’s not sleeping,” Dave Carney said in the office in a brainstorming session about the governor’s condition.

Perry had kept in touch with his medical team, and by early October, days after the Florida fiasco, he had urgently consulted sleep specialists. After conducting overnight tests on Perry, they produced a rather startling diagnosis: He had sleep apnea, and it had gone undetected for years, probably decades. The ailment, which affects one in 10 men worldwide and becomes more common as people age, causes loud snoring and temporary lapses in breathing that disrupt normal sleep.

After the diagnosis, doctors prescribed for Perry a machine known as a CPAP — short for continuous positive airway pressure — which exerts air into the nose and mouth through a plastic mask to ensure constant breathing.

Perry, almost unreasonably fit for his age, had considered himself a light sleeper his entire adult life. He also was an obsessive exercise nut. It’s how he kept some balance in an otherwise stressful life.

The way he told it later, all that rigorous physical activity over the years had kept his sleep apnea in check. Then back surgery he underwent in July 2011 sidelined him, kept him out of the gym, and he went from light sleeper to insomniac.

“Once he got to exercising again, I think he had more energy and started to get back into the swing of things, but by then it was too late,” a top campaign aide said. “The narrative had already been set. He was becoming an afterthought.”

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