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Rick Perry’s Cowboy Rhetoric: Asset or Liability?

To those of us in Texas, the shitstorm kicked up by Rick Perry’s “we’d treat him pretty ugly” advisement to Fed chairman Ben Bernanke largely missed the point. Perry wasn’t threatening a literal lynching; he was talking the way he has throughout his undefeated political career, which gets at a far more essential fact of his fledgling presidential candidacy. As you may have already noticed — what with Perry’s constant claims to having authored a “Texas Economic Miracle,” or the footage of him leading thousands in prayer at the Houston Texans’ football stadium, or the wire photos of him waving a pistol over his head at a NASCAR event in Fort Worth in April — Rick Perry is from Texas.

Treat him pretty ugly” is, in fact, the way we talk down here. We’re prone to violent imagery, typically without the intent to actually hurt anyone. Ann Richards’s Republican opponent when she first ran for governor, Clayton Williams, actually survived a campaign-trail rape joke. (She didn’t pass him in the polls until he refused to shake her hand after a debate.) What’s more, we use terms like “shitstorm” in public as naturally as “y’all.” Though Perry has avoided that specific bit of profanity with the press, he was once caught on-camera mocking a reporter at the close of an interview by saying, “Adios, mofo.” He’s also shown an inclination to our trademark Big Talk, as evidenced by his willingness to consider secession at an Austin tax day event in 2009. When people say everything’s bigger in Texas, they don’t mean to exclude the rhetoric.

All of which has worked to Perry’s advantage at home, where much of the electorate considers itself born in the blood of the Alamo martyrs, and where the occasional historian’s suggestion that Davy Crockett may have surrendered and been executed — instead of going down swinging Ol’ Betsy overhead like a club — is apt to bring a much more believable invitation to bodily harm than the one Perry issued to Bernanke. Oil riches aside, Texas history is filled with hard lives spent in an unforgiving place, and for the people who’ve survived it, the coarse language and swagger is considered a well-earned and unifying point of pride. That’s why our hero myth is contained in Larry McMurtry’s bloody cowboy epic Lonesome Dove, and not his better-written, three-hanky novel about a Houston housewife, Terms of Endearment. Lawmen killed by Indians fit the state’s self-image better than women felled by breast cancer. Perry, a fifth-generation Texan who grew up on a farm in a tiny West Texas town called Paint Creek, knows how to talk to people who have that self-image. He’s one of them. And when he sounds like them, which is all the time, they love it.

In another presidential primary season, that might have been a good thing. The notion of a Lone Star independent streak fueled the Western movies that helped build Hollywood and later propelled George W. Bush into the White House. He relied on it to place himself above the beltway fray. And he could get away with sounding like a gunslinger when he said he wanted Osama bin Laden “dead or alive” because he was expressing an anger shared by the entire country. He harked back to a time when the fights were simpler and the guy in the white hat won. Still, some of us cringed. His wording played a little too simple. He sounded like he was borrowing from the stereotype, which is worse than embodying it.

The latter would be Perry’s problem. His cowboy rhetoric, however organic, reads differently when he crosses the state line. It sounds to many ears like he’s come unhinged. But worse for Perry, when he points his tough Texanese at the federal government, he’s not addressing the economic frustration of the nation as a whole, he’s tapping into a populist rage that belongs to the tea party. It’s not clear there are enough of them to win a national election. It’s even less likely that the rest of the voting populace is itching to spend four more years knee-deep in Texas bluster.

John Spong is Senior Editor at Texas Monthly.

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Rick Perry’s Cowboy Rhetoric: Asset or Liability?