He has always had it, an ease and a charm that only the naturals possess, a confidence that bears the stamp of a man aware of his gifts.
Never were Rick Perry’s talents more evident than during the opening weekend of his Republican presidential campaign — a heady period that seems long ago now, overshadowed since by his debate slip-ups and other rhetorical gaffes that have sent his prospects tumbling. He had traveled to the New Hampshire town of Greenland for a meet-and-greet, with his poll numbers at their zenith. Beaming, he waded into the throng. Sometimes, he worked the people two at a time. He gently clasped the hand of someone to his side — essentially holding the appreciative stranger until ready to turn and woo her — while looking deeply into the eyes of the person straight ahead. He lingered, making conversation about lives, hobbies, jobs. Finally, he turned back to the person whose hand he held. Many of the previously uncommitted there pledged support on the spot to the man then regarded as the chief threat to Mitt Romney.
Watching the candidate that August day was David Hurst, the 31-year-old chairman of the New Hampshire Young Republicans. He had never seen another politician forge bonds more quickly.
“Perry came away with a lot of supporters, which you don’t often see in New Hampshire this early,” Hurst said the next afternoon. “Perry establishes an amazing emotional connection.”
Hurst, who has not endorsed any candidate, had simply discovered what old Texas friends and rivals of the 61-year-old Perry had long known: Few others could match his allure in one-on-one encounters. What Hurst did not know was that Perry’s charisma belied an uncertainty he had about his presidential bid. Back in Texas, the governor had vacillated about a White House candidacy for months.
Royal Masset, a former political director of the Texas Republican Party, observed that Perry didn’t seem to have “the fire in the belly” for such an endeavor. But then Masset went further: “I am not talking only about this campaign. . . . I don’t think Rick ever really has had the killer instinct. People always had to talk him into races. I think things came to him too early and easily here. Being confident doesn’t always mean being around-the-clock ambitious, which you need to be for this. . . . Not even Rick’s confidence can make up for that.”
That confidence sprung from no crossroads moment that anyone around him could see. It was always just there, friends say, as if coded in Perry’s DNA from the time he came of age on his family’s farm. His father and great-grandfather had served as county commissioners in Texas; a great-great-grandfather had been a judge. Perry grew up hearing stories of his father’s public service. Leadership was in his blood.
Despite the titles, Perry’s family had little money. His parents, Ray and Amelia Perry, were tenant farmers in Texas’s tough Haskell County, and Perry was raised in a small house without indoor plumbing during part of his childhood. Separated by long distances from other farms, he spent a lot of time alone with his dog and a family horse. But he never seemed to want for anything. The little community of Paint Creek was hugely supportive of children, and Perry thrived.