Opinion writer September 26, 2011

Iam beginning to feel about Rick Perry the way Fay Wray felt about King Kong. The big ape is starting to grow on me. First I was shocked and then I was scared but now, the more he gets attacked by those on his right (imagine!), the more a certain sympathy stirs in me. Here and there, the big lug is downright lovable.

A touch of sympathy swells within me when I see him on some debate platform, squinting hard to explain to a conservative audience how, on occasion, he has let his feelings get the better of him. He unaccountably felt a need to protect teenage girls from cervical cancer, and he wanted the children of illegal immigrants to get a good education.

Richard Cohen writes a weekly political column for The Washington Post. View Archive

He vainly tried to explain his compassion. But his audience remained cold. His biggest crowd-pleaser came in the Sept. 7 Republican debate when he took credit for 234 executions — “more than any other governor in modern times,” moderator Brian Williams said. The audience cheered.

It was downhill after that. Perry reeled, disoriented, chained to some of the more reckless actions he has taken in his three terms as Texas governor. He was pummeled for wanting to inoculate prepubescent girls against the human papillomavirus. This was the smart, sensible, humane thing to do, since about 6 million Americans get infected every year, and an estimated 12,000 of them will get cervical cancer. Of those, more than 4,000 will die from it.

Perry looked dazed. He virtually pounded his chest and proclaimed his hate for cancer. He acknowledged that he had erred — hatred of cancer can do that to an hombre — and should have left the good fight about HPV to the state legislature, which wouldn’t have passed it anyway. He had been slow to appreciate how conservatives felt that such vaccinations were the immunological equivalent of rape. They believe that vaccinating sixth-graders will somehow make these girls sexually promiscuous. As seventh-grade boys can tell you, there is no evidence for this.

Next came immigration. Once again, the party turned on him for lacking ideological purity. What was happening? All he had done was treat the children of illegal immigrants as ordinary students, but he was excoriated by his fellow Republican presidential candidates. Even Mitt Romney, a virtual Bolshie by GOP standards, came down on Perry as, in effect, . . . not conservative enough. Perry squinted. He smiled. What in Sam Hill was going on?

Rick Perry was being hogtied by a bunch of conservative Lilliputians. He was being lectured by the high-living Newt Gingrich, who was most definitely not still married to his high school sweetheart. He was being pummeled by the shifty Romney. Jon Huntsman was snippy, Rick Santorum was sanctimonious, Herman Cain was verbose, and Ron Paul — well, Paul is beyond adjectives. Michele Bachmann, who sometimes goes days without lying, kept referring to “innocent little 12-year-old girls,” making Perry seem like a guy in a raincoat. My God, what has happened to American conservatism?

Perry stood on the stage and tried to get words out. They clotted in his throat. They came out like spit teeth. His conservatism was being questioned! How was that possible? He had stood his ground on global warming: The science was lousy. Human beings were not responsible. Lots of scientists said so. He’d get the names.

He stood his ground on evolution. It was a theory, sort of like Keynesian economics. He rued the ratification of the 16th and 17th Amendments to the Constitution — the former permitting the federal income tax, the latter calling for the direct election of senators. How can you get more conservative than that? Repeal of both amendments would bring Washington to its knees. And these are not new debating positions. They are laid out — actually, sketched out — in Perry’s book “Fed Up!” It must have taken days to write.

Then came the Florida straw poll and Perry lost to . . . Herman Cain. He almost got beat by Romney. He was being mocked by the pundits, scorned by party activists (who had booed a gay soldier) — and held responsible for taking some principled positions. He was right about the HPV inoculation and he was right about the kids of illegal immigrants, and he was being attacked for the sheer decency of his positions. I felt sorry for him. The big lug may not have much of a brain, but he sure has a heart.

cohenr@washpost.com

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