Can Rick Perry close the deal?

Can Rick Perry close the deal?

Some see a gifted retail politician. Others just see a glib pitchman.

Published on June 5, 2015

When it happens, Rick Perry is speaking to a friendly crowd in a plaid-and-paisley living room in Greenville, S.C. He appears relaxed. His suit fits perfectly. Hair: just great. Glasses: starting to seem more natural.

Above: Former Texas governor Rick Perry (R) prepares to take the stage in January at the Freedom Summit in Des Moines. (Jim Young/Reuters)

He’s gotten nods talking about jobs in Texas, laughs with the line about flunking organic chemistry and claps when he says a brighter future “starts right here . . . today!”

Then a man poses a question about the importance of speaking plainly, and Perry pauses a moment before he answers by asking rhetorically, which is to say confidently: “Did I say anything today you couldn’t understand?”

Above: Former Texas governor Rick Perry (R) prepares to take the stage in January at the Freedom Summit in Des Moines. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Make or Break: Presidential candidates are a breed apart, often propelled by traits that have shaped their careers and have deep roots in their personal histories. In this occasional series, The Washington Post is exploring key characteristics of the leading contenders that could help make one of them the country’s next commander in chief -- or sink their presidential ambitions.

Also in this series:
Ted Cruz: Principled or know-it-all?
Rand Paul: Heir to a 'libertarianish' revolution
Marco Rubio: A man in a hurry
Mike Huckabee: Is this folksy showman willing to get meaner?
Hillary Clinton: She won't back down. Or go away.
Jeb Bush: A clan of ferocious competitors returns to the fray
Chris Christie: The human opera takes the stage

People laugh, and this is when it happens: Rick Perry winks.

Because Rick Perry is a winker, and has been for a long time.

“It’s something he’s always done,” said a friend who has known Perry since he was a Texas state legislator in the 1980s. “I’ve seen him do it at an inaugural, from a podium. It’s a way he communicates. He’s very good at it, and it’s very disarming. It’s real natural to him. Like some people can whistle with their fingers? Actually, he can do that, too.”

It could be argued that the Perry persona comes down to the wink, which friends and supporters describe as part of a broader repertoire of natural-born gifts that makes the 65-year-old former Texas governor one of the most instinctive retail politicians in the 2016 GOP field.

Other notable political winkers: George W. Bush, who winked at Queen Elizabeth II after he accidentally suggested she helped America celebrate its birthday in 1776 rather than 1976; Sarah Palin, who winked during 2008 vice-presidential debates; President Obama, who winked in his State of the Union speech earlier this year, after dressing down the congressmen who clapped when he alluded to the end of his term.

More recently, Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott apologized for winking at the host of a call-in radio show as a retiree explained that she was surviving by working for an adult sex line, an incident that came to be called “winkgate.”

The Rick Perry wink, though, comes with its own set of associations.

On one hand, it evokes his bona fide country upbringing, Texas swagger and ability to say things such as “I’m gonna love on you,” meaning flatter you, without sounding as though he is laying it on thick. Only a winker could sell T-shirts with his own grinning mug shot, as Perry did after being indicted last year on felony abuse-of-power charges that he has dismissed as politically motivated.

More fundamentally, the wink can seem to reveal a certain sensitivity — an ability to read a room, to feel for the right moment to reach in for the handshake, touch an elbow or a shoulder and close the deal.

Make or Break: Presidential candidates are a breed apart, often propelled by traits that have shaped their careers and have deep roots in their personal histories. In this occasional series, The Washington Post is exploring key characteristics of the leading contenders that could help make one of them the country’s next commander in chief -- or sink their presidential ambitions.

Also in this series:
Ted Cruz: Principled or know-it-all?
Rand Paul: Heir to a 'libertarianish' revolution
Marco Rubio: A man in a hurry
Mike Huckabee: Is this folksy showman willing to get meaner?
Hillary Clinton: She won't back down. Or go away.
Jeb Bush: A clan of ferocious competitors returns to the fray

On the other hand, a wink can evoke the overconfidence and cheap tricks of the used-car salesman, the sort of character that Perry’s critics have often cast him as, especially after his performance in the 2012 Republican primary. The infamous debate when Perry froze — trying for 45 seconds to remember the third federal agency he would abolish, before he finally gave up with an "oops" — has been read not just as a human fumble but the moment he was exposed as a lightweight.

All of which leads to the question: Which is it?

Is the wink the mark of Perry’s essential authenticity, possibly his greatest asset? Or does it represent his biggest challenge — overcoming the perception that he’s all flash and little substance? Or is it something more complicated?

What is the meaning of the Rick Perry wink?

[section headline="" description="" caption="Former Texas governor Rick Perry at a tavern in Deerfield, N.H., on May 7, 2015. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post) " credit="" src="" link="" align="full" ]

Part of the answer lies in Greenville, where the wink is playing well in a friendly room.

For one, Perry’s timing is impeccable. He deploys the wink at the moment the audience seems most with him, as they’re still laughing. Second, the wink isn’t strained; it seems natural, even through the lenses of his hipster glasses. Third, he aims it not at the man who asked the question but in the opposite direction — toward a cluster of women, including Racine Cooper, the bylaws chairwoman of the Greenville County Republican Women’s Club, who says later that he struck her as “a simple person who knows what it is to say something plainly. He’s not full of it.”

Rick Perry in Greenville, SC (Courtesy of Thomas Hanson)

After the wink, Perry grins and shifts back into a more serious tone.

“Good,” he says as the laughs die down. “All right. Hey, listen. I’m telling ya. We’re on the verge of the greatest days in America’s history. That’s not rhetoric.”

He thanks South Carolina for sending soldiers to defend the Alamo, then steps into a red-walled room for the meet-and-greet.

“Watch him,” says Katon Dawson, state chairman of Perry’s political action committee. “Whether you’re with Rick or not, you can’t not like him.”

“C’mon, man, get in here!” Perry is saying to a man in a blue blazer, shaking his hand then pulling him in for a photo, arm around his back in what seems less like a pose than a one-armed hug. “All right.”

To a man in a button-down shirt: “Get in here. . . . What kind of work you do?”

“I’m in property,” the man says.

To the man in khakis: “How old?”

“Twenty-nine,” the man says.

“Twenty-nine,” Perry repeats, taking the arm of a woman next in line while keeping eye contact with the man. “I got a daughter who’s 29 . . . ”

Rick Perry (R) at an early-April appearance at the Citadel in Charleston, S.C. For this series, Post photojournalists used a phone app with filters to capture the candidates as potential voters might. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

He turns to the woman, who shakes his hand with her two and holds it.

“We watched you in Spartanburg last time,” she says gravely, referring to the last days of his 2012 campaign. “Good to see you again.”

“Well,” Perry says, upbeat, “I’m healthy and prepared this time.”

He gives her shoulder a squeeze and moves on to a woman who says she is from Colombia.

“Medellin?” Perry guesses.

“Yes!” the woman says.

To a man with a buzz cut who appears to lift weights: “I bet I can guess your line of work.” Then Perry guesses correctly: security.

To a couple: “And who are you?”

“Seth and Mariah,” the husband says.

“And the wind was named Mariah,” Perry sings for a moment, riffing on lyrics from a Broadway musical far older than them, “Paint Your Wagon.”

“Pretty name,” he says to the woman, then turns to a young man. “C’mon in here!”

Rick Perry and his children, Sydney and Griffin, in Austin in 1989. (Perry campaign via AP)
Perry stops in Waco, Tex., as he campaigns for the job of state agriculture commissioner in October 1990. Perry traveled across the state in a vintage World War II B-25 bomber. (Rod Aydelotte/Waco Tribune-Herald via AP)

It all suggests an extroverted personality, and yet when asked how he prefers to spend his free time, Perry answers like an introvert.

“I’d rather spend time with my dogs,” he says in an interview at a Hyatt Place hotel in Greenville the morning after the fundraiser. “I just like being in the country and being with the dogs. It’s fun to watch the dogs.”

Asked about how he reads a room, or closes a deal, Perry shrugs.

“I don’t have a checklist I go down,” he says.

He grew up in the dusty flat sprawl of Paint Creek in West Texas, where his father, Ray Perry, was a cotton farmer and longtime county commissioner, so politicking was always in the air.

Perry’s mother, Amelia, told the Dallas Morning News that when Ray and other men would gather to talk before service at the Methodist church, her 7-year-old son was always there, trying to work his way into the circle. “He wanted those men to recognize him,” she said.

In elementary school, he campaigned for Halloween king by handing out candy.

There is the often-told but unverified story that when Perry, a popular high school football player, once got knocked flat out on the field and the coach went to ask if he was okay, Perry replied that he was fine but wanted to know how the fans were taking it.

At Texas A&M, Perry was known for elaborate pranks, such as dropping an M-80 firecracker down a toilet pipe.

He was popular, but he also wanted to be popular, winning election to be one of five “yell leaders,” a prestigious position at the school that is essentially like being a cheerleader.

Then there was his first job: as a Bible-book salesman.

During college, Perry worked for the Southwestern Co. in Festus, Mo., where he was dropped off with a friend from college, John Brieden, at a gas station with nothing but his dad’s old Army bag and a box of Bible encylopedias, dictionaries and Wycliffe commentaries.

The young men rented a room in town, ate breakfast at a diner and split up for long, hot days of knocking on doors in their sections of town, making the sales pitch they were taught during a week of training in Nashville.

“You’d do it so many times it became normal,” recalls Brieden, who went on to become an insurance salesman and is now a county judge in Texas. “We had a case we carried a set of books in. So you’d set the book on the case, hold the book so you’re looking at it upside down, flipping the pages, and then ask them to buy.”

At night, the two young men would sit at the diner and compare notes.

Photo gallery

Gov. Rick Perry embraces his wife, Anita, at an election-night watch party in Buda, Tex., in November 2010. The former Texas governor announced that he will make another bid for the Republican nomination. (Ben Sklar/Getty Images)

“John and I, we would support each other every evening when we got in,” Perry says in the interview, then leans in and lowers his voice to reenact the dinner-table scene. “ ‘You know how many super-sets I sold today? A bunch.’ And we might not have sold any.”

The former governor of Texas is a good bluffer.

“Got told no a lot,” Perry says, asked about whether selling came easily.

He pauses and leans in again.

“But I got told yes enough to buy a 1967 Catalina Pontiac!” he says, grinning. “I want to say it was $2,700, which, that is a huge amount of money in 1969!”

Perry always had a well of ambition underneath the charm, Brieden says, recalling a conversation at the washateria that summer. Perry asked Brieden whether he had goals; Brieden said he wanted to pay for college.

“He said, ‘No, no, what are your goals?’ ” Brieden recalls. “He said, ‘I’ve got three goals.’ ”

One was to graduate, which the chemistry-challenged Perry knew was no guarantee for him; two was to be a yell leader; three was to be a member of the Ross Volunteers at Texas A&M, an elite group of cadets who served as honor guard for the Texas governor.

“He did all of those three things,” Brieden says.

[section headline="" description="" caption="Perry talks to a Fox News reporter via speakerphone in December in his Austin office, a few weeks before the end of his term. (Julia Robinson for The Washington Post) " credit="" src="" link="" align="full" ]

After college, Perry joined the Air Force and flew C-130 cargo planes, duty that included rotations in England and Germany and missions to Saudi Arabia and South America.

Then something happened that could be considered out of character for someone as driven and cocky as Perry seemed: In 1977, he came home to Paint Creek, moved into his childhood bedroom and spent six years adrift.

“I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t happy,” Perry has said of that time, describing himself as “lost.”

He helped on the cotton farm, but Perry’s parents also recalled in an interview with the Dallas Morning News how their son would disappear for days with nothing but a bedroll, his horse and his dog. A neighbor recalledhow Perry would borrow his plane and just take off somewhere.

Eventually, he decided to apply for a pilot job with Southwest Airlines. But before he got hired, a group of young Texan politicos convinced him there was a better use for his rugged good looks and obvious gifts, and Perry entered a profession that chose him as much as he chose it.

He was elected as a Democrat to the state legislature, and then was persuaded to run as a Republican for agriculture commissioner, a campaign that included the famous “Marlboro Man” ad in which Perry is filmed in chaps, saddling up a horse and silhouetted at sunset.

He won, and kept on winning, eventually becoming the longest-serving governor in state history, a job he approached the way he knew best: as a salesman.

Perry’s critics and admirers alike say that his central achievement has been to sell Texas, luring companies from Toyota to eBay to Latex Foam International to the state with billions in incentives, face-to-face pitches and radio ads.

“This is Texas Governor Rick Perry, and I have a message for California businesses,” began one that aired in the state in 2013. “Come check out Texas . . . and see why our low taxes, sensible regulations and fair legal system are just the thing to get your business moving. To Texas.”

Perry set up the controversial Texas Enterprise Fund, which critics called a massive slush fund that has rewarded Perry’s political allies and which Perry called “the largest deal-closing fund of its kind in the nation.”

“Look, in powers of persuasion, he is among the top of all the governors, and I’ve worked with a lot,” says Dennis Cuneo, a former vice president for Toyota who was in charge of site selection for a new pickup-truck assembly plant soon after Perry became governor in 2000. “It’s his whole demeanor. The way he shakes your hand, how he looks you in the eye. He says, ‘I’m here to make you successful.’ ”

Cuneo says he was struck by the governor’s unbridled enthusiasm.

“Texas was a long shot,” he says. “So I paid a visit to Perry in 2002. It was supposed to be a half-hour meeting and turned into two hours.”

Perry onstage during a November 2011 Republican presidential primary debate in Rochester, Mich. Perry's stumble during the debate, when he struggled for 45 seconds to remember the third federal agency he would abolish -- finally giving up -- would come to define his failed bid for the GOP nod. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Cuneo says Perry knew he had grown up in Pennsylvania and struck up a long conversation about Pittsburgh. Perry told him that the pickup was “born in Texas” and that moving there would help with Toyota’s marketing. He upped the incentive package. He mentioned that he had spoken to the family that needed to sell the land for a potential site. He gave Cuneo his cellphone number, and when Cuneo called later, Perry answered.

“He’s governor of a pretty big state — that doesn’t happen often,” he says, laughing slightly at Perry’s aggressive pitch. “He knows how to close the deal.”

At the start of the 2012 GOP primary, Perry was closing deals all over the place, raising millions from the business community, winning the support of conservative Christians, bounding out of his bus in the South Carolina sun and soaring to the top of the polls.

The wink and all the confidence and swagger it embodied seemed to be working again — until the oops, and an especially animated speech in New Hampshire that was odd enough that some speculated that Perry was drunk or high on painkillers for a back condition, all of which Perry denied.

There was a last, awkward swing through South Carolina in which Perry wandered through an empty antique shop and, finally, in a moment that was the opposite of a wink, announced he was dropping out and returned to Texas.

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Only now here he is again, trying to get it all back.

He’s at a Pizza Ranch in Indianola, Iowa, where some voters say they can get past the oops if Perry can.

He’s at the conservative gathering called CPAC in Maryland, walking on stage to AC/DC’s “Back in Black” and delivering a speech during which his body language appears stiffer than it does in a small room. As he often does, he begins by saying the world is more dangerous now than ever before, and that “on three points, we must be clear” — and then successfully reels off the three.

And he’s in Greenville, at the Hyatt Place hotel, saying that he didn’t learn everything about retail politics in one place, and talking about Paint Creek, dust storms and his parents, the well-worn stories of his stump speech.

“So,” Perry is saying, “watching your—”

He stops himself. He pauses. Five seconds pass. Six. He’s squinting into the corner of the room. Seven seconds. Still pausing.

And this is the other thing about Rick Perry: As confident and swaggering as he can seem these days, there are still moments when he can seem lost. Not exactly lost in thought. Just lost, not unlike he appeared to be on stage during the debates in 2011 — far from Texas and the persona he created there, standing before crowds that were not always friendly, not necessarily buying what he was selling.

“We never had a lot of new things,” Perry says finally, and now he’s back to the familiar persona and stump-speech stories, talking about how the harsh life of west Texas taught him how to handle adversity, his father’s stoicism, and on until an aide tells him that it’s time to go.

And it is somewhere between then and Perry’s closing argument — that he’s better prepared this time, and that he’s certain voters “will see a very different individual when it comes to my performance” — that it happens again.

Perry winks and, a little while later, heads to New Hampshire.

Former Texas governor Rick Perry enters Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3041 in Lancaster, N.H., for a town hall meeting this March. (Paul Hayes/Caledonian-Record via AP)