IIn Master of the Senate, the third volume of his massive, still-unfinished biography of Lyndon Johnson, Robert Caro devotes a memorable paragraph to the great man’s fondness for exhibiting his sexual equipment, which, with characteristic humility, he called “Jumbo.”
If he was urinating in a bathroom of the House Office Building and a colleague came in, Johnson, finishing, would sometimes turn to him with his penis in his hand. Without putting it back in his pants, he would begin a conversation, still holding it, “and shaking it, as if he was showing off,” says one man with whom he did this. He asked another man, “Have you ever seen anything as big as this?”
Now, I don’t know the slightest thing about Governor Rick Perry’s endowment or whether he’s endowed it with a nickname, but when he entered the Republican presidential race in mid-August, he did so in the same spirit as a Method actor auditioning for the lead in Hung. Flaunting his broad shoulders and the overbearing smile of a man who jogs carrying a laser-sighted pistol, he swaggered onto the campaign trail reeking of what we might call Texastosterone, the time-honored Lone Star hormone that not only enhances the feeling of being manlier than other men but positively compels you to brag on it.
Perry instantly went to the front of the pack, much to the baffled horror of liberals. In a sane world, surely the presidency of George W. Bush would have accomplished one positive thing—inoculating even Republicans against voting for another provincial, evangelical Texas governor eager to pass himself off as a tough hombre. Especially when Perry soon showed all the symptoms of Bushean maladroitness, flubbing his attempts to label Mitt Romney a flip-flopper and calling Pakistan “the Pakistani country” much as Bush once delightfully termed Greeks “the Grecians.”
But if Perry’s fluffs were seized on by a media eager to write him off as unready for the national stage, his personal style—the strut, the cocky smile, the inflammatory words, the evident lack of concern over getting things wrong—remains one that tens of millions of Americans still find hugely attractive. Even as it gives liberals the heebie-jeebies, such barroom braggadocio is catnip to the right, which sees it as an antidote to the weaseling effeteness of the Democratic elite. Republicans love the idea of their candidate—be it Perry or the lamented no-show Chris Christie—debating Professor, er, President Obama and pulverizing his pedantry with straight talk. After all, what they loved most about Reagan wasn’t all that Morning in America shinola, it was Dutch snapping, “I paid for this microphone,” or intoning, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” (which, if we’re being honest, really was a rousing line).
Once vain about being more cultured than the left—think of William F. Buckley and his Latinisms, George F. Will and his Bartlett’s—today’s conservatives are happier with machismo, even when it comes from women: Sarah Palin blasting wolves from her chopper, Michele Bachmann telling Obama to “man up” about Israel. Naturally, this doesn’t mean that they actually want a woman to be president. That’s one reason the right-wing base was so stoked when Perry first entered the race. It wasn’t only that he’s on their side ideologically and theologically, brazenly saying the scary stuff that Bush kept hidden when he first ran in 2000. Perry fits their fantasy of what their side should look and sound like. He’s not an unelectable oddball like Ron Paul, an overreaching Sunday-school teacher like Google-tormented Rick Santorum, or a publicity-loving flash in the pan like Herman Cain, who, rather like his former company’s pizza, specializes in crustiness smothered with cheese. Above all, Perry isn’t the staggeringly synthetic Romney, who may look like a hologram of the perfect president but sounds like that old line from Groucho Marx: “Those are my principles, and if you don’t like them … well, I have others.”
In truth, Perry is himself far more opportunistic than his backers may think—he endorsed Al Gore’s 1988 primary campaign in Texas before shifting with the political winds. Yet what matters here is that he embodies a form of primal masculinity that has itself become a political stance. Ever since the feminist heyday of the 1970s, our culture has seen the whittling away of traditional male power, especially the power of white men, a process that, with almost Newtonian certainty, has produced a counterreaction in the culture wars—be it the fight over abortion (which is about women controlling their own bodies) or gay marriage (which is shot through with panic that familiar ideas of maleness are being replaced by unsettling new ones). The strapping Perry doesn’t need to say which side of these debates he’s on—although he does so all the time—because his body language and manner of speaking assert the prerogatives of white male control. The very qualities that cause many of us to squirm are what make him a force to be reckoned with. It’s not for nothing that, three decades after his death, America’s third most popular movie star is still John Wayne.
If any modern-day candidate would seem born to fill Duke’s saddle, it’s surely Perry, who is indisputably a true son of Texas. In this, he’s far different from Dubya, an Ivy League–educated country-club boy who always had to try too hard to establish his Lone Star bona fides—you know, pretending to enjoy being on that ranch he bought as a prop for the 2000 campaign. Hell, any real Texan knows that you don’t go on vacation and clear brush. Clearing brush is what you take a vacation from.
You wouldn’t need to tell that to Perry, who—from his country roots to actually doing his duty with the U.S. Air Force—is the authentic version of what Bush only pretended to be. (What could be more authentic than “Niggerhead”?) Perry grew up near Paint Creek in the West Texas plains just 250 miles from the birthplace of Lyndon Johnson. But while both Perry and Johnson were sons of struggling farmers, the lessons they took from their childhood could hardly be more different. Where Johnson believed that government had a duty to better people’s lives—he did more than any man since Franklin Roosevelt to help the poor—Perry sees government as an impediment, if not an enemy. If you read his overwrought book On My Honor: Why the American Values of the Boy Scouts Are Worth Fighting For—a far more naked look at his psyche than the better-known Fed Up!—you quickly grasp that here is a man who couldn’t possibly imagine, let alone try to create, a Great Society.
Of course, the more you know about the actual West, the less apt you are to be wowed by conservatives’ ritualized evocations of the cowboy virtues. Life on the range was far from the stuff of heroic, Marlboro-smoking individualism. Cowboys were exploited workers, poorly paid and prone to physical collapse in their thirties. Even in fiction, the myth of the cowboy doesn’t exactly jibe with today’s Koch brothers–dominated Republican politics. The great movie Westerns are shot through with mistrust of the rich and powerful. Big ranchers and oilmen are often the villains, cruel and greedy tyrants who use their money and hired gunslingers to control the lives of decent, God-fearing citizens. I can’t remember a single film in which Wayne, Gary Cooper, or Randolph Scott—whose characters take pride in their cussed independence and integrity—takes money from somebody powerful.
The same can hardly be said of Perry, one of whose strengths as a candidate is that he has rich donors ready to give his campaign plenty of dough—and did so to the tune of $17 million in the third quarter. Still, his close ties to the super-wealthy don’t stop him from playing the cowboy. He tells the press about shooting a coyote that menaced his dog. (One can imagine Wayne killing a dangerous animal, but not riding into town later to boast about it.) He has overseen 236 executions and basks in the applause when this unpleasant fact comes up in the Republican debates. And he takes pride in saying what he thinks even if what he thinks shows no evident signs of thinking—like calling Ben Bernanke “almost treasonous.”
Shooting from the hip does, of course, have its dangers, as Perry learned when he uttered the line that may well cost him the nomination—telling a debate audience that if you don’t want to help the children of illegal immigrants, “you don’t have a heart.” Although this was one of the few times I’ve ever liked him, I understood what bugged the conservative base. Not only did such a sentiment cut against Perry’s reputation for toughness but the notion of giving in-state tuition to undocumented kids suggested that social policy might actually be, you know, kinda complex.
That Perry should make such a tactical mistake was startling, for it’s central to his persona that he disdains egghead complexities in favor of talismanic bromides. In fact, part of what makes Fed Up! such a worthless manifesto isn’t merely its thoughtless stridency but the lazy way it assumes that, say, cutting off money to public schools will somehow lead to a system of mixed public and private education that’s better than what we now have. Reading Perry flail away at government, I kept thinking of my favorite Texas governor (fictional, alas), Arthur “Goddamn” Fenstemaker, the looming center of Billy Lee Brammer’s great 1961 novel, The Gay Place. At one point, Fenstemaker (based on LBJ) gives a young liberal politician some advice: “You want to overturn the existin’ institution, that’s fine. But you got to be sure you know how to build a better one.”
Perry clearly doesn't and doesn’t even care that he doesn’t. This would be enough for me to write him off as a clown—except for two things. First, despite his lackluster debate performances, he may well be facing Obama next November. He’s still much closer to the Republican base than Romney, and the president’s advisers are foolish to see him as their dream opponent—a bad economy is demagogue time. Second, Perry’s way of walking and talking points to one of the Democratic Party’s—indeed, the whole left’s—ongoing problems. The Democrats lack a visceral connection with white blue-collar voters, especially men, in an era when unions no longer provide a solid institutional connection and Democrats are thought to be as deep in Wall Street’s pocket as Republicans.
Style matters as much as ideology, and right-wingers like Perry and Chris Christie exude the aggressive, slightly grumpy bravado that’s been a proud part of the working-class attitude for decades. In contrast, the left tries to avoid the macho style, partly for proper reasons (including its official embrace of the women’s movement) and partly for snobbish ones: It has long preferred the erudite wit of an Adlai Stevenson or even the pulse-free blandness of a Harry Reid to the hearty, sometimes coarse good sense of an Ed Rendell. In particular, the big national Democrats—Obama, Kerry, Gore—not only smack of Ivy League privilege but surround themselves with faces that only highlight the point. Tim Geithner, anyone? The one recent exception is Bill Clinton, not only in his ability to feel our pain but in his obvious pleasure at feeling other things as well. Although millions of white working guys still didn’t vote for him, they got him. He was a man with manly appetites, not some sort of alien.
Curiously enough, it’s no longer only conservatives and disgruntled working-class dudes who find themselves drawn to politicians who exhibit an old--fashioned, two-fisted virility. These days, so do many on the left. A few months ago at a party, I met a lifelong Democrat who despaired of the president’s endless willingness to negotiate on the other side’s terms.
“Carter, Clinton, and now Obama,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s the last time I’m ever going to vote for a brainy Democrat. We need a fighter, not the smartest guy in the room.”
He’s hardly alone. Over the last year, it’s amazing how often I’ve heard liberals pillory Obama for being too remote, too intellectual, too harmless—like a Mr. Spock who doesn’t know the Vulcan Death Grip. Almost inevitably, such criticisms are followed by the wish that, just for once, our side could elect a president who’d rather be feared than loved, a politically astute ass-kicker who would not only do what it takes to win but then govern as if our side had won, the way those fanatics on the right always seem to.
Which is to say, I keep meeting people who dream of another Lyndon Johnson.
If you’d told anyone in 1968 that the left might one day be filled with nostalgia for LBJ, they would have thought you were tripping—and back then, they didn’t even know about Jumbo.