"Anita was all in, not only as a confidante and surrogate, but as an adviser and protector. This wasn’t another race for governor. The kids were grown. The klieg lights were on. She and her husband would be beamed into people’s living rooms from Boca Raton to Seattle."
— Excerpted from Oops! A Diary from the 2012 Campaign Trail.
From Chapter 15: "The Missus"
When Gov. Rick Perry ran for re-election in 2006, one of his opponents, the humorist and writer Kinky Friedman, commissioned the manufacture of an action figure in his own likeness.
When you pushed a little button on the back of the cigar-toting doll, it played some of Kinky’s most famous sound bites: “May the God of your choice bless you,” “Why the hell not?” and so on. Not long after Friedman’s doll rolled off the assembly line in China, Perry found himself in a conference room at Dallas Love Field, having lunch with journalists and campaign staffers before his next 2006 campaign kick-off rally.
A reporter asked Perry if he, like Friedman, would produce a talking campaign toy. Perry put his arm around his wife, Anita, who sat next to him. Grinning from ear to ear, he said, “I’ve got my action figure doll right here.” Anita tilted her head to the side and rolled her eyes, then settled them on the box lunch in front of her husband. Her lips formed a tight grin. “I think you need to put that sandwich in your mouth,” she said.
Only Anita Perry can talk that way to the governor of Texas. She knows how to put him in his place. She isn’t scared of him. “She doesn’t want to be directed,” said a former gubernatorial aide who has seen how the Perrys work together at the Capitol. “She doesn’t want anybody to tell her what to do, including her husband. Anybody.”
While Rick Perry wields power publicly, his wife exercises it deftly behind the scenes. When Perry was inaugurated for a third term, organizers were debating slogans for the celebration. Mrs. Perry liked the one that extolled Texas as a place where “opportunity still looms large.” Some in the governor’s office thought that sounded negative, as if a brooding, hulking cloud hung over the state. But nobody dared buck her. She got her slogan.
“Everybody was scared of her,” the former aide said. “If you piss off the governor, you won’t work in the governor’s office anymore. If you piss off the first lady, you won’t work for the state of Texas, ever.”
Daughter of a respected country doctor from Haskell, Anita Thigpen grew up in a rural Texas town at a time when people left their keys in the car and the doors unlocked. She first saw Rick Perry at a piano recital in the late 1950s, when both of them were in elementary school. It wasn’t love at first sight, at least not for her. She was 14 and he was 16 when they went on their first date, to a football game in Moran. His arm was in a sling, but he still rode on the school bus that carried Paint Creek’s six-man football team to the stadium; she caught a ride with his parents. They dated in high school, then drifted in and out of each other’s lives. They always kept in touch, though, even after he joined the U.S. Air Force and she attended nursing school in Amarillo.
“In my heart, I always knew he was the one,” she told Evan Smith in a Texas Monthly interview that aired in 2005. “I could never get him out of my mind and my heart.” They finally married, in her hometown, in 1982. Today, they still call each other by their childhood nicknames, Nita and Ricky. If they have disagreements, they keep them behind closed doors. Anyone who has watched the two interact with each other in a relaxed setting comes away with the impression that, as she told Parade magazine last year, they “know each other inside-out.”
Throughout Rick’s career in state government, Anita has made her opinions known, but she generally played the role of traditional political spouse during campaigns. She would show up at the kickoff and final stretch rallies. She hit the trail as a surrogate speaker when called upon. And she always made sure their children and home life were enveloped in a protective cocoon. The formula changed when Rick Perry ran for president.
Anita was all in, not only as a confidante and surrogate, but as an adviser and protector. This wasn’t another race for governor. The kids were grown. The klieg lights were on. She and her husband would be beamed into people’s living rooms from Boca Raton to Seattle.
“In the governor’s races, she seldom if ever inserted herself into staff and those discussions,” a senior Perry adviser said. “But to her this was such a big deal. She was intimately a part of it.” After Rick began to talk openly about his interest in the presidential race, in the summer of 2011, he repeatedly claimed that Anita had provided the initial spark that ultimately propelled him into the race.
“My wife was talking to me,” he said in July 2011, “and saying: ‘Listen … get out of your comfort zone. Yeah, being governor of Texas is a great job, but sometimes you’re called to step into the fray.’” Reporters generally discounted this story as contrived spin, but in retrospect it should be viewed as the first of several major campaign decisions in which the first lady played a central role.
She was not only a major catalyst in Rick’s decision to run. She helped engineer a major campaign shakeup in October, and later urged her husband to stay in the race after senior advisers concluded his dismal showing in Iowa made it pointless to do so.
Anita was not initially present on that Jan. 3 evening in Iowa, as TV news reports trickled into their hotel suite in the Sheraton West Des Moines. Joe Allbaugh, by then the de facto campaign manager, summoned longtime pollster Mike Baselice to the governor’s room to provide some numerical context for his collapse in the Iowa Caucuses. Perry’s son, Griffin, and communications director Ray Sullivan were on hand, too. It was clear that Mitt Romney, who hadn’t spent much time in Iowa, would place either first or second in the caucuses. They all agreed there was little reason for Perry to keep flailing away.
“I think this is Romney’s race to lose now,” Perry told those gathered. They collectively decided that he would not pull out right there on the spot that Tuesday night, but he would return to Texas and do it in front of his own people. Downstairs at the Sheraton, speechwriter Eric Bearse, who had been awaiting instruction, was asked to type up some remarks that Perry could deliver. Then Anita arrived.
The first lady was not pleased that she had not been included in such an important conversation. She asked that the aides go over the analysis again, this time with her input.
“She didn’t know that we were meeting the first time, and made it clear that she wanted to be involved in the discussion and in the decision,” recalled Sullivan. “Which is one of the reasons there was a subsequent discussion.” That second conversation did not immediately change the direction that had been set, even though Anita and Griffin had expressed support for continuing on to South Carolina. Finally, the governor got up and went downstairs to the hotel ballroom, where supporters were awaiting his arrival.
With Anita at his side, he told supporters that, after some “prayer and reflection,” he was going home to rethink this presidential thing. The next morning, while staffers and reporters nursed their hangovers and planned campaign afterlives, Rick Perry went for a run in Raccoon Creek Park in Des Moines. His wife remained at the Sheraton, where she traded text messages with the Perry team in South Carolina. South Carolina campaign director Katon Dawson and consultant Walter Whetsell told her that he was still a beloved figure in South Carolina, that he shouldn’t pull out before giving it a whirl there. They were preaching to the choir.
When her husband returned from jogging, Anita showed him the upbeat texts from South Carolina. She made it clear where she stood, and that was all the reassessing Rick Perry needed.
“Here we come South Carolina!!!,” the governor Tweeted, along with that goofy picture of him on the jogging trail. Nearly all of the campaign honchos — including Allbaugh — did not know of Perry’s plans until he broadcast them on the Internet for all the world to see. But Anita knew. Later, she said she was surprised that everyone had concluded, prematurely, that her husband would soon exit the race.
She had seen it on their faces, and she didn’t like it. Ironically, it was Joe Allbaugh, supposedly the campaign’s Mr. Fix It, who had called that first impromptu meeting without Anita. Only a few weeks earlier, Anita had been the one who desperately wanted Allbaugh to come on board, and part of his mission was to keep her in the loop. That was back in October, when her husband couldn’t sleep and needed relief from his punishing schedule.
Something drastic needed to happen, she had insisted, and Allbaugh, a former transportation official from Oklahoma, was supposedly a logistical genius. The decision to hire Allbaugh took place a few days after the governor limped back home from the CNN debate in Las Vegas. Aides thought the debate had gone great, because Perry hadn’t seemed to run out of gas halfway through as he normally did, and he finally knocked Mitt Romney off his game.
After attacking him for hiring a lawn maintenance company that once employed illegal aliens, Romney responded, memorably, that he would never have done so knowingly: “I’m running for office, for Pete’s sake,” he said. “I can’t have illegals.” The rare Romney blunder didn’t do much to improve Perry’s mood. Things were coming to a boil. The governor was physically spent and unhappy about his campaign’s direction.
Anita had been getting calls from donors and supporters agitating for a shakeup. Allbaugh, they said, had the resume and experience the campaign needed. After returning from Vegas, the Perrys hastily invited Allbaugh to the governor’s residence on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 23. They quickly struck a deal for him to become a top paid adviser, to do whatever it took to right the listing ship. He was given carte blanche.
It was a deliberate end-run around the longtime campaign aides who Anita felt had worn her husband down to a frazzle. And it would quickly backfire. “She orchestrated the Allbaugh thing,” a senior Perry adviser said. “And from that moment forward, hell was unleashed upon the internal dynamics of the Perry campaign.”