In June 2011, when a race for president was still just a gleam in Rick Perry’s eye, the swaggering Texas governor tried to impress a secret gathering of billionaires and millionaires, convened in Beaver Creek, Colo., by the oil magnate Koch brothers.
But all Perry could do was brag about Texas. And when he went to lay out a four-point plan, he held up five fingers — “leaving one digit extended awkwardly in the air” by the time he completed his remarks, according to Double Down: Game Change 2012, a new book about the 2012 presidential race by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann.
“In the back of the room, one of the Kochs' political advisers thought, If this dude runs, he’ll be done after the second debate,” the authors write.
It turned out to be a prescient observation: Once he entered the race, Perry’s debate performances went from bad to worse, culminating in the famous “oops” moment in November 2011, when the governor famously couldn’t remember all three of the federal departments he wanted to shut down. Before his campaign came to an inglorious end in South Carolina in January 2012, the governor’s health and sleep problems, warring aides and a series of gaffes turned Perry's once hopeful presidential bid into an unmitigated disaster.
Double Down, while chiefly focused on nominees Mitt Romney and Barack Obama, chronicles Perry’s rise and fall in rich and colorful new detail. And it’s hard to escape the conclusion that the governor had no business ever getting in the race for president: When Perry decided to run, in July 2011, he and his team had conducted no survey research, no polls and no analysis of his Texas record, the authors write. Nor did they have a clue about how debilitating his July 1 back surgery would be.
But Perry was not encumbered by any self doubt. Less than a month after telling his aides he would run, Perry jumped in with both boots.
“The degree of his confidence was stratospheric — and rooted in delusion about how prepared he and his team actually were,” the authors write.
The book brings new insight, too, into the deep split between the Bush family and Team Perry. While Perry and his staff generally downplay any tension, Double Down provides compelling evidence that it’s real and visceral.
While at a dinner party in Washington, for example, former President George W. Bush said to an ally of eventual nominee Romney: “You can’t take Perry seriously. … He’s a chicken-shit guy.”
Bush's mother, former first lady Barbara Bush, also gets a cameo in the Bush vs. Perry narrative. According to the book, she was incensed about a quote Perry gave Parade magazine about her son, the 43rd president (and Perry’s predecessor as governor).
“You don't have enough pages. We grew up differently. We have different value sets,” Perry told the magazine.
Barbara Bush took that as “an affront to her parenting” and was “on the verge of going nuclear on Perry,” the authors write. The episode prompted a call from Bush consigliere Karl Rove to Perry aide Ray Sullivan, himself a former Bush aide.
“There’s a gray-haired little old lady who spends half the year in Kennebunkport and half the year in Houston, and I’m giving you fair warning that she is no longer under control,” Rove told Sullivan, according to the book. “I’ve spent nearly 40 years trying to stay on her good side. You think you’ll win a battle with Barbara Bush? You go ahead.”
It’s easy to see now that Perry had too many problems and too little preparation to ever become a real threat to Romney, but that’s not the way the former Massachusetts governor initially perceived him.
“Perry burst into the race as if he had been shot out of a cannon,’’ Halperin and Heilemann write. “Everything about Perry made Romney anxious.”
Romney’s whole campaign was rattled, too, with one notable exception: His chief consultant, Stuart Stevens, who thought Perry was a “paper tiger.” As Stevens saw it, Perry was running against government but had been in government all his life. He was touting the state’s jobs record, yet the unemployment rate in Texas was lower when he first took office. Stevens also thought Perry was “clueless" on foreign policy and would be hit by Michele Bachmann from the right.
Then Stevens read Fed Up!, Perry’s book about the excesses of Washington governance.
“Once he did, he changed his view of Perry from paper tiger to clay pigeon,” the authors write. The campaign eventually began referring to the book as “Effed Up,” and Stevens would regale staffers with passages off his Kindle, from Perry’s assertion that Social Security was a pyramid scheme to suggestions that states should be allowed to legalize marijuana.
The impolitic passages in Fed Up! weren’t the only wounds Perry had to deal with. Complications from his back surgery quietly took their toll, too.
“In the fortnight after going under the knife Perry was ingesting painkillers and having trouble sustaining his attention during meetings with potential bundlers and policy experts,” the authors write.
Confirming and expanding on an account of Perry’s health woes in the e-book Oops! A Diary From The 2012 Campaign Trail, Double Down delves into a couple of debilitating side effects from the surgery that Perry was experiencing: painful sensations in his foot and leg, and insomnia. (Oops! was written by this reporter.)
The authors disclose that Perry took the drug Lyrica, designed to calm nerve pain, to deal with the painful sensations in his foot and leg. He also tried warm baths. All to no avail.
There was another health worry: Perry, a light sleeper most of his life, was battling serious sleep issues, leaving him constantly tired. The governor had for years used strenuous exercise to relieve stress and help him get to sleep at night, but after the surgery he was sidelined from the gym.
During a retreat with evangelical leaders in late August, a doctor friend visited Perry and suggested he see a sleep specialist, Halperin and Heilemann write. So after his first debate in early September, Perry checked himself into a facility in Austin where he could be tested for sleep disorders.
“The doctors strapped probes to him and monitored his behavior overnight,” the book says. “The result was a diagnosis of apnea — blockages of the upper airways that caused temporary lapses in breathing, robbing him of REM sleep.”
Perry doubted the diagnosis but was nevertheless treated with a CPAP machine, which entailed strapping a mask over his face to correct the sleep apnea problem. But that, too, ended up being a “washout,” the authors write, and “Perry’s wakefulness continued.”
“His campaign was less than a month old, and he was already comprehensively out of gas,” the authors write.
While Perry’s failure to recall the third department he wanted to shutter stands out today as the defining moment of this campaign — the “oops” heard around the world — the authors describe how, for all practical purposes, his presidential hopes came crashing down weeks before on the debate stage in Orlando in late September.
Sleep woes once again were front and center: Perry didn’t get a wink the night before, and he had been “distant, unfocused, and uncommunicative” in meetings with donors leading up to the debate, the authors write.
During the nationally televised forum, when Perry was trying to defend his support of providing in-state tuition rates to young undocumented immigrants, he insulted opponents of the law by saying they don’t “have a heart.” Then, toward the end of the debate, Perry tried to portray Romney as a flip-flopper, but the attack was so badly flubbed that it sounded, in the words of the authors, like the “ravings of a drunk.”
“Nothing would ever be the same for Perry after Orlando,” the authors write. Perry had become “the walking dead,” they conclude, “a victim of a hair-trigger Republican electorate, a hyper-drive media, and his own catastrophic foibles.”