Personality-wise, Rick Perry is a flip-flopper

December 11, 2011

“Americans are lookin’ for somebody who’s consistent,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry said in an interview with Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity last month. “They’re lookin’ for somebody that’s tough as nails.”

And they’re lookin’, in the candidate’s view, for someone who shows he’s all of the above by droppin’ his g’s.

A casual speaking style is one of Perry’s constants. One of the few. At times he seems to be splitting his personality. Are we meant to take him as John Wayne or Jerry Lewis? As the governor might put it, Americans don’t know sometimes which Perry they are dealing with.

We can’t help but recall that awkward debate moment when Perry was trying to scold Mitt Romney for changing positions. But the Texan tripped over his words. His confusion was understandable. Personality-wise, Perry himself is a flip-flopper.

Here’s Perry the tough guy: He stands on a hay bale and hollers, “Government, get outta the way!” He swaggers. Lined up onstage with the other GOP presidential candidates before one debate, he seemed to be channeling Ethan Edwards in “The Searchers”: chest puffed out, arms held away from his sides and legs splayed. So ready for a shootout!

Later during the exchange, Perry turned aggressive, chopping at the air to pump up the drama as he confronted Romney on immigration. Romney’s position, Perry told his rival hotly, was “the heighth of hypocrisy.” No matter the irregular pronunciation; Perry fixed his opponent with a look meant to signal he could whip him to a frazzle.

Unfortunately, Romney spoiled Perry’s macho moment by bursting into a belly laugh.

Maybe the former Massachusetts governor got Tough Guy Perry mixed up with Loosey-Goosey Perry. The one who, in October, delivered an animated, arm-flapping speech in New Hampshire peppered with jokes and guffaws. You half-expected him to whip out a salami and slap himself in the face with it.

Perry the comedian also emerged during his most embarrassing gaffe in the race: the debate in which he couldn’t recall one of the three government agencies he wants to eliminate. As he blanked on the name, he pointed a self-deprecating pistol finger to his head and joined in with the audience’s laughter — before it faded to an eerie silence. Then he ducked his head. Dropped his hands. Dropped his argument.

There is a kind of cruel consistency here. Whether he’s playing tough or lighthearted, Perry doesn’t appear relaxed in debates. He looks hammy. His wavering performances imply that he’s wavering inside, that he’s uneasy with the facts, the complexities and the case he’s making for the Republican nomination.

The most compelling communicators look composed as well as confident. They appear comfortable with themselves. Take Wayne. The actor’s languid nonchalance was essential to his allure of toughness. It suggested that he wasn’t looking for a fight, but could darn well win one that came his way.

Wayne knew about the perils of a false persona. He regretted playing Genghis Khan in a flop called “The Conqueror,” remarking that the lesson learned was “not to make an ass of yourself trying to play parts you’re not suited for.”

That’s cowboy wisdom Perry can take to heart.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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