For the first time in a 27-year political career, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is about to lose an election. Here, maybe, is one reason why: there’s a certain unease in the man that covers an insecurity that causes him to inflate rather than temper. It’s just a gut feeling based on one little moment, a second I can’t get out of my mind all these years later.
This is a story about how he had the chance to grin like a small dog with a big bone. But instead he got as tight as a 38 bra on a 44 frame. This is a story of Rick Perry’s youngest opponent.
I write this not as a journalist, a columnist, a sometime political analyst. No, I write this as a dad who was having some fun, yes, admittedly a little at Rick Perry’s expense, for sure, but not that it really mattered. I never met a politician — and I’ve met ‘em by the thousands — who couldn’t laugh at a good joke. At least smile a bit. The good ones turn it back on you, make you the butt of your own joke. But then I never met anyone like Rick Perry who sells himself like Corny dogs at the State Fair.
This all began when my youngest son, a proud native son of Texas, just like Perry, was 5 years old. The year was 2002. I was watching television with Austin. A Rick Perry commercial came on. He was running for his first full term of governor. An announcer said that his opponent, Tony Sanchez, laundered money through his bank. Another ad came on. This time, an announcer said Perry pocketed $1 million from the insurance industry. Neither charge was actually true. Enough already.
At that moment, Austin turned to me and said, “I feel good, Daddy. I feel like a chicken.”
This comment made no sense, but certainly it made more sense than anything the two candidates for Texas governor had said in their ugly campaigns against one another. The boy’s comment was more authentic and heartfelt than anything said in these political ads.
Then it came to me. The best idea I had in years. Perry and Sanchez were conducting their campaigns like little children. As long as I had a little child myself, I figured, why not run him for governor?
So Austin and I traveled to the Alamo. He wore a Texas flag shirt. I photographed him. Then a friend made several hundred campaign buttons that showed that picture and had these words: “Austin J. Lieber for Governor.”
I wrote about the little jokey campaign in my newspaper column in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I sold the buttons for $5 each for a charity I started in 1997 that has become one of North Texas’ largest children’s charities. It’s called Summer Santa. We sold 300 buttons, and with that $1,500, we sent a dozen area children in need to summer camps the next year who never would have gone.
The campaign did better than I could have imagined. In one story for my paper, I quoted the Speaker of the Texas House of Representatives — Pete Laney — commenting that he supported Austin for governor, or more accurately, the idea of it.
Laney told me, “What I like about his candidacy is his first name because I have a grandson named Austin. Hopefully, he will be part of the generation that won’t succumb to the negative politics that’s going on now.
“A lot of it is consultant-driven. It’s a lot easier for a paid consultant to say negative things than it is to say positive things. The neat thing about somebody like Austin is that in a campaign he would probably say what he thinks.”
When I told the speaker that the idea began when Austin said, “I feel good, Daddy. I feel like a chicken,” Laney replied, “The honesty of a young man like this is what we all want in politics. If you do what you think is right for the system and you do what you think is right for your constituents, 99 times out of 100 the politics takes care of itself.”
Surprisingly, the whole affair struck a nerve. Dozens of people, when they met Austin after the election, told him that they had voted for him as a write-in. Austin would look up, smile shyly and explain, “Aw, that was just a joke with me and my dad.” But voters were frustrated by all the negativity, just as they are today. Some of them really did vote for the 5-year-old. But when I called the county elections office to get a vote total, I was told that they didn’t bother counting write-in votes. Oh, well.
This whole endeavor worked so well that four years later, in 2006, when Austin was 9, we did it one more time. This time we got sophisticated. We got our friend Chris Gomersall, a talented videographer, and made an actual campaign commercial. You can watch it here. I promise it will crack you up, especially the scenes from the TV debate.
But now back to Perry. One time, in 2002, a few weeks before his election, I got a chance to tell him about this. We were in an elevator at Texas Motor Speedway. I had just interviewed him seriously for another story, which you can read about here. But then, when the elevator was about to open, I switched gears and said, “Governor, there’s something else I want to share with you. You have an opponent that you may not know about. For fun and for charity, my 5-year-old son is running for governor, too. Here’s one of his campaign buttons.”
I whipped the button out of my pocket and handed it to Perry. He took a look at that little boy in that Texas flag shirt standing in front of the Alamo. Then he turned around so all I could see was the back of his head. His arm quickly popped back over his shoulder and he handed the button back to me. The elevator door opened, and he scooted out without saying a word.
Maybe he was as angry as a preacher with the devil camped out in his backyard. But I wouldn’t know. I never saw his face. Only saw him charge out of that elevator into a ballroom filled with Texans.
As I’ve said, I’ve met thousands of politicians in my lifetime. I’ve covered city councils and school boards, county officials and state leaders, congressmen and women, state legislators, even written a few stories from the White House. But I never met one who couldn’t look at something cute, something done for fun and make a little joke about it.
In my mind, if that had been Perry’s predecessor, George W., whom I’ve met and liked, he would have smiled and said, “Mind if I take this home and show Laura? She might even want to vote for him.”
But not so with our Gov. Perry, a man about to lose his first race, and maybe not his last.
# # #
Dave Lieber‘s newest book, Bad Dad, is a personal memoir that’s a true Texas thriller about parental responsibility, small-town corruption and the consequences of being a public figure. Read Chapter One here. Dave is The Watchdog columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. This first appeared on his personal book blog.