Reporter's e-book gives in-person account of Perry's presidential run

Posted Thursday, Sep. 27, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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Finding "Oops!"

For information on Oops! A Diary From the 2012 Campaign Trail, by Jay Root of The Texas Tribune, go to byliner.com/originals/oops.

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"Rick Perry probably had it coming. ... Thirty years in politics and not a single loss. It was like some karmic time bomb had finally gone off. And when the smoke cleared from his ... campaign disaster, nobody remembered the [win streak]. What was left could be reduced to [one] word: oops." -- From "Oops! A Diary From the 2012 Campaign Trail," by Jay Root.

Editor's note: Jay Root is a former Star-Telegram Austin bureau chief who has covered Gov. Rick Perry for most of his record-setting political career. Here are excerpts from Root's first-person e-book on his experiences covering Perry's short-lived presidential campaign for The Texas Tribune:

From Mitt Romney's slap at 47 percent of the population that he says mooches off the government to President Obama's heavily mocked quote about businesses that take too much credit for their success, gaffes are all the rage on the presidential campaign trail these days.

Invariably we are told these verbal boo-boos are bad enough to bring a presidential campaign to its knees, that somehow the blunder in question has set a new low, a dubious milestone.

Two words: Rick Perry.

I am not making light of the fallout from the nominees' recent gaffes. They surely have incurred -- or will incur -- a political cost.

The point is that, having covered the Texas governor's botched presidential campaign from mid-August 2011 through mid-January 2012, I have witnessed the birth of a whole new level of faux pas. Think of it as the political equivalent of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The Super-Gaffe, if you will.

It is not just the magnitude of Perry's face plants that make them so different from what we are seeing out of the Romney and Obama camps. It is the reasons they happened in the first place.

Despite the grass-roots enthusiasm and financial support that greeted Perry when he joined the race last year, he was not anywhere near ready for the presidential campaign spotlight. His late entry and lack of debate experience clearly hurt him.

What is not widely known is that Perry, 62, had major health issues too -- a serious but previously undiagnosed sleep disorder that was discovered just as the front-runner label was slipping from his hands, and painful sensations in his leg and foot that also kept him up at night.

By the time he started sleeping again and feeling better, all of the efforts to right the ship -- like firing his top political adviser and bringing in new hands -- had unleashed so much internal dysfunction that the campaign split into rival factions, made up of people who could not stand to be in the same room together.

At this point you may be wondering why anyone would write a book about a presidential candidate who made the word "oops" his calling card. The short answer is that "Oops! A Diary From the 2012 Campaign Trail," began not as a book but as a diary -- a behind-the-scenes look at life on a modern presidential campaign. ... I had every reason to believe I was covering the eventual Republican nominee when Perry immediately shot to the top of the polls in the summer of 2011. By the time his campaign ground to a halt five months later, the words of the Democratic strategist James Carville, spoken on CNN in January, seemed like the most apt description of what I had witnessed: "the worst presidential campaign/candidate in American history."

Front-runner stumbles

I like to say that going to a debate is the worst way to actually cover it as a reporter. We don't get anywhere near the studio, where you could, say, gauge the audience reaction.

We're stuck in the press filing center, generally a sea of banquet tables with chairs and power strips, with strategically placed televisions all around so you can watch the debate -- only in far worse conditions than the average voter sitting in his living room. It's usually noisy and there's no DVR attached to the TVs, so you can't play back the clip. You end up putting your digital audio recorder as close to the TV speaker as you can get, but if you're far from the screen it can be hard to hear. The wireless signal slows to a crawl right when you need it the most. Murphy's Law.

Then there is the post-debate "spin room," somewhere between the studio that's off limits to you and the filing center. A few minutes after the debate, all the top campaign aides come out and interns hold signs over their heads so you'll know their names. They stand there like mules and say in rehearsed sound bites how handily their candidate won. I can't think of anything we do that feels more ridiculous and useless. You have to cover it because everybody else is doing it. Occasionally, I suppose, you could use that time to question campaign honchos who never call you back. But then again, other reporters are crawling all around and you're on deadline. It's just inane.

I hate Orlando, by the way. ... But I'll say this: The Fox News-Google debate there on Sept. 22, 2011 had the best press filing center I've ever been in. ...Arlette Saenz, a reporter for ABC News, was popping gummy bears and drinking Cokes and hadn't had much sleep, as usual, so she was bouncing off the multicolored walls. ... "This is boring," she said about 20 minutes in. I nodded as I polished off my Google bacon cheeseburger. When political junkies are bored by a presidential debate, you know it's bad. But the fireworks started about 10 minutes later, first on Social Security and then immigration.

... Under pressure from Romney, Perry delivered a truly awful answer about why he believes so strongly that Texas should let illegal immigrant teenagers pay lower in-state tuition rates. In a sort of irritated tone, he said anyone who opposes that policy didn't "have a heart." I thought that was noteworthy, but Twitter told me it was bigger -- monumental.

People were talking about it in the elevators. It was radioactive. And that's not all they talked about in the elevators. Perry suffered some kind of spell onstage when he tried to launch an attack on Romney for being a flip-flopper. He got tongue-tied; incoherent, really.

When that happened, Arlette turned to me, dumbfounded. "Was he like this in Texas?" she said. All the Perry embeds look to me from time to time to explain the governor. I usually can oblige. Not this time.

"Honey, we're in uncharted waters," I said.

... The next day I didn't have to wonder what to write. Just a straight-up reaction piece to Perry's awful performance. The pundit class unloaded. William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, penned a special editorial entitled "Yikes." "No front-runner in a presidential field has ever, we imagine, had as weak a showing as Rick Perry," Kristol said. "It was close to a disqualifying two hours for him."

Perry "isn't sleeping"

Trouble had announced itself in Perry's hotel room on the morning of that Orlando debate.

"I didn't sleep a wink," he said to his travel aide, Clint Harp.

A Republican Florida state committeewoman, Liliana Ros, was shocked by Perry's apparent physical distress when she greeted him during a commercial break at the debate. "He grabbed my hand and held on to it," Ros told reporters. "His hand was so cold, like ice. And he was sweating. I don't know what it was, but something was definitely wrong."

It showed onstage. Toward the end of the debate, Perry had scrawled down on a sheet of paper an attack line he wanted to use against the ever-waffling Mitt Romney. But then he proceeded to botch it, turning his rambling answer into a late-night comedian's dream.

Back at headquarters in Austin, Perry's health -- his severe lack of sleep, mainly -- became a central focus. "Our guy's not sleeping," Dave Carney said in the office in a brainstorming session about the governor's condition.

Perry had kept in touch with his medical team, and by early October, days after the Florida fiasco, he had urgently consulted sleep specialists. After conducting overnight tests on Perry, they produced a rather startling diagnosis: He had sleep apnea, and it had gone undetected for years, probably decades. The ailment, which affects one in 10 men worldwide and becomes more common as people age, causes loud snoring and temporary lapses in breathing that disrupt normal sleep.

After the diagnosis, doctors prescribed for Perry a machine known as a CPAP -- short for continuous positive airway pressure -- which exerts air into the nose and mouth through a plastic mask to ensure constant breathing.

Perry, almost unreasonably fit for his age, had considered himself a light sleeper his entire adult life. He also was an obsessive exercise nut. ... The way he told it later, all that rigorous physical activity over the years had kept his sleep apnea in check. Then back surgery he underwent in July 2011 sidelined him, kept him out of the gym, and he went from light sleeper to insomniac.

"The missus"

... When Gov. Rick Perry ran for re-election in 2006, one of his opponents, the humorist and writer Kinky Friedman, commissioned the manufacture of an action figure in his own likeness.

When you pushed a little button on the back of the cigar-toting doll, it played some of Kinky's most famous sound bites: "May the God of your choice bless you," "Why the hell not?" and so on. Not long after Friedman's doll rolled off the assembly line in China, Perry found himself in a conference room at Dallas Love Field, having lunch with journalists and campaign staffers before his next 2006 campaign kick-off rally.

A reporter asked Perry if he, like Friedman, would produce a talking campaign toy. Perry put his arm around his wife, Anita, who sat next to him. Grinning from ear to ear, he said, "I've got my action figure doll right here." Anita tilted her head to the side and rolled her eyes, then settled them on the box lunch in front of her husband. Her lips formed a tight grin. "I think you need to put that sandwich in your mouth," she said.

Only Anita Perry can talk that way to the governor of Texas. She knows how to put him in his place. She isn't scared of him. "She doesn't want to be directed," said a former gubernatorial aide who has seen how the Perrys work together at the Capitol. "She doesn't want anybody to tell her what to do, including her husband. Anybody."

While Rick Perry wields power publicly, his wife exercises it deftly behind the scenes. When Perry was inaugurated for a third term, organizers were debating slogans for the celebration. Mrs. Perry liked the one that extolled Texas as a place where "opportunity still looms large." Some in the governor's office thought that sounded negative, as if a brooding, hulking cloud hung over the state. But nobody dared buck her. She got her slogan.

"Everybody was scared of her," the former aide said. "If you [anger] the governor, you won't work in the governor's office anymore. If you [anger] the first lady, you won't work for the state of Texas, ever."

Beginning of the end

... Perry would come in fifth in Iowa, at barely 10 percent--behind Romney, Santorum, Paul, and Gingrich.

What a collapse. The guy who had raised $17 million in forty-nine days--a bigger third-quarter haul than even Mitt Romney--and who had spent way more on TV here than all the other candidates. The former front-runner who once seemed like the inevitable conservative alternative. Fifth place? Given the damn-the-torpedoes attitude of late, I fully expected Perry to step onstage and give a defiant speech, to proclaim that this was a minor setback. Onward to South Carolina. He's been saying that repeatedly. But that's not what happened. Instead he got pretty emotional, started talking about how it was all worth it, how there is "no greater joy" than his experience out there on the trail.

And then: "I've decided to return to Texas to assess the results of tonight's caucuses, and determine whether there is a path forward for myself in this race." ... Everybody seemed to be feeling the catharsis of nearly five months going up in smoke.

Postscript: After a reassessment, Perry returned to the presidential campaign but dropped out Jan. 19.

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