For Texans, the infant presidential campaign by our governor, Rick Perry, is going to be unsettling. Texans love Texas and anybody who talks bad about the Lone Star State is not going to be appreciated.
Better get used to it.
The only true way to beat Perry is to beat up Texas. Or at least his version of Texas. A Texas of success, of wealth, of jobs creations, of liberty.
Only when it’s not.
The presidential candidates have to attack Texas to attack Perry. It’s not hard. Texas ranks near the bottom in many national categories, including lack of health insurance, children living in poverty, dirty air and funding for public education. Now the rest of America will hear this. Again and again.
There’s a model for this. In 1988, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis ran on what he called “the Massachusetts miracle.”
In a famous TV ad, his opponent, Vice President George H.W. Bush, took that idea apart. The ad was called “The Harbor” and it showed the polluted state of Boston Harbor with the memorable tagline: “And Michael Dukakis promises to do for America what he’s done for Massachusetts.”
Switch Texas for Massachusetts and you can imagine what’s about to happen.
Watch the famous 1988 ad here.
Perry has one more problem he must overcome and overcome quickly if he wants to become the nation’s 45th president. He described his shortcoming in his Aug. 13, 2011 presidential candidacy announcement when he said:
“I am also the product of a place called Paint Creek. Doesn’t have a zip code. It’s too small to be called a town along the rolling plains of Texas.”
Obviously, Perry doesn’t see that as a shortcoming. Why should it be? Coming from a small town is heartwarming and wonderful. You develop strong values and a caring for others that’s impossible to duplicate in a big city.
But the problem is when the adult doesn’t expand his horizons. I fear that Perry has difficulty understanding the rest of us. This is a big country with lots of different people. I base my worry on my experience when I met him during his first run for governor in 2002.
At the time, for fun, I ran my then 5-year-old son in a campaign for governor against him. Using my metro column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as the vehicle, I publicized the mock campaign by printing buttons and selling them to readers to support my Summer Santa charity that sends kids to summer camps. We raised about $1,500 off those little buttons and sent a bunch of little Texans in need to camp the next summer. When I told Perry about it and showed him the campaign button, he didn’t even crack a smile. In fact, he turned his back on me and returned the button by passing it over his shoulder without looking at me.
Contrast that with then-House Speaker Pete Laney, who, going along with the fun, actually “endorsed” my son for governor. (He liked the name Austin, Laney said.)
But it was another part of my first meeting with Perry that left me unsettled and showed me how far he had to go when meeting people from places that do have zip codes.
I described the encounter in a 2002 column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. It’s also reprinted in my collection of stories, The Dog of My Nightmares: Stories by Texas Columnist Dave Lieber.
Stereotypes are hard to overcome – just ask the governor
The first time I met Gov. Rick Perry at a campaign rally in Southlake seven weeks ago, we had a pleasant conversation, but he said something that surprised me. We were standing in the third-floor hallway of Southlake Town Hall when I introduced myself.
“Hi, Governor Perry,” I said.
“Hi,” he replied.
“My name is Dave Lieber, and I’m a columnist for the Star-Telegram.”
He asked, “Is that L-E-I-B-E-R?”
“No sir,” I said. “That’s L-I-E-B-E-R.”
Then he said, “Did you ever live in Israel?”
In my life, I have never been asked that question. The governor is either an incredible mind reader or he looked at me, learned how to spell my name and quickly tagged me as Jewish, which I happen to be.
I say he might be a mind reader because I was holding an envelope that contained a 2-year-old column I had written about being Jewish in Texas. But he didn’t know that yet.
I had wanted to share this column – “Bible Belt can sometimes feel too tight for comfort” – with the governor because of an incident that occurred a year ago at Palestine Middle School in East Texas. Perry had prayed publicly at a mandatory school assembly, and afterward, when he was criticized for his apparent violation of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling against organized prayer in public schools, he said he didn’t agree with the court ruling.
Many don’t agree with that ruling. But as the state’s highest elected leader, Perry, I would have thought, had a responsibility to lead by example. Instead, at the time, he said, “Why can’t we say a prayer at a football game or at a patriotic event like we held in Palestine. I just don’t understand.” He said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks make public prayers more appropriate and necessary.
I wanted to share my column with Perry to help him understand a different view. The column was my favorite, and my favorite experience in Texas – not because of what I wrote, but because of the extraordinary reaction from readers. I heard from dozens, and hardly anyone had a negative word. It was not what I expected.
A North Richland Hills woman wrote me, “I am embarrassed to say that I had never thought of what my Jewish, or for that matter, any other non-Christian brothers might be feeling when the words ‘in Jesus’ name’ are used. I do believe in school prayers, but I see your point. Tolerance of each others’ beliefs is the only way the human race is to survive, and I thank you for opening my eyes.”
A Fort Worth woman wrote: “Having lived in North Texas my entire life I never had the exposure to other religions until I was an adult and felt comfortable asking questions of close friends. . . . I looked at prayer as a positive thing to bring people together, but now I realize it can be hurtful to people not of the same religion. Your column made me feel your pain and realize that what we need to unite on is a common respect for all people as human beings.”
Because the governor had said, “I just don’t understand,” I wanted to show him a different side. I didn’t expect to change his mind.
But after he asked “Did you ever live in Israel?” my mind flashed to an image of a black person standing in front of him and the governor asking, “Did you ever live in Africa?” But I remembered that I was there for a reason.
“No, sir,” I said. “I haven’t lived in Israel. But it’s funny that you mention that because I have an envelope here for you that has an old column I wrote after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling about organized prayers at public school events. It’s about being Jewish in Texas, and I thought maybe you’d enjoy it.”
“Oh, I would,” he said. “Thank you very much. I’ll read it.”
We were walking down the stairs and I said, “Because you know, governor, you and I really come from different worlds.”
“We really do!” he said. “We really do!”
Then he started to talk about the Israeli air force pilots he met while he was in the Air Force. “I just always admired those guys,” he said.
He talked about how he once led a trade mission to Israel. “It’s just the most incredible place,” he said. And he spoke about President Bush’s strong support for Israel, which, he said, surprised many American Jews. “He never projected that support before,” the governor said about his predecessor. “He did some really positive things for them.”
We shook hands, and I said, “Please read my column and let me know what you think.”
“I will,” he said.
Weeks went by, and I didn’t hear from the governor. But I talked to a communications professor at University of Texas at Arlington about the governor’s question about my living in Israel.
Alex Mwakikoti told me that the governor had stereotyped me. “Because of stereotypes we have, we don’t understand much about others,” he said. “We use preconceived ideas of what we have from others, and then we use that with everyone else we meet. That type of stereotyping is really dangerous, especially when you are dealing with individuals who are in leadership positions. Leadership ought to learn about other cultures, so they don’t make those kinds of mistakes.”
Last week, I caught up with the governor again before he made a speech at Texas Motor Speedway. He remembered me.
“Did you ever get to read that column?” I asked.
“What did you think?”
He answered, “I don’t necessarily agree with you that [public prayer] is a slap in the face to individuals of the Jewish faith. I’m a big fan of us talking about our faiths openly.” He said that talking about our religion publicly was more important after Sept. 11.
“I’m a Christian,” he said. “I have a very biblical connection with Israel. The Israelis are God’s chosen people. My political support of Israel is because of my Christian beliefs. I don’t have a problem with a rabbi coming to schools, the Legislature, or, for that matter, a Christian preacher coming and saying a prayer. I think that is good for America to get back and grasp our values.”
I said, “Governor, you know it means a lot to me that you read it, and I appreciate it. One more quick question. When we met for the first time and I introduced myself to you and you asked about my name and how to spell it, you said, `Did you ever live in Israel?’ I was a little taken aback by that. It was like, maybe you saw me just as a Jewish guy standing in front of you.”
The governor’s voice became higher pitched when he quickly said, “No.”
He changed the subject and asked if I had heard about a young Jewish man from Dallas who had died last month fighting for the Israeli army. I told him I hadn’t.
“Anyway,” he said, as he walked away to give his speech.
Later, I talked to the communications professor about the encounter.
Mwakikoti said, “I tend to forgive a lot of individuals who I believe don’t understand what they are talking about. I try to call to their attention what they are doing wrong, just as you did. They don’t want to be found in that situation again with someone else. But not everyone will accept what you are calling to their attention to correct.”
Candidates running for office are carefully protected in a campaign bubble. Sometimes, only the briefest of encounters can illuminate a candidate’s personality or beliefs. In this instance, I only wish that the governor of Texas could have looked at me in a different way the first time we met.
October 6, 2002
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