Gov. Perry Gets an Award

Gov. Rick Perry, not answering questions.
Gov. Rick Perry, not answering questions.
photography by William Neal

It promised to be an interesting evening at the Strait Lane mega-manse of Kenny and Lisa Troutt. Actress Janine Turner, now a conservative political sort, would be hooking up with left-of-center Hollywood type Richard Dreyfuss for a dinner honoring Gov. Rick Perry with something called the “Constitutional Champion Award.” Equally as intriguing was the rare opportunity to buttonhole the guv in person with a few questions.

Standing in the Troutts’ crowded living room Wednesday night, Perry, to his credit, agreed to an interview and said to fire away. But just then an aide materialized, whispering that the event organizers had stipulated that no questions were allowed. Perry deferred to the organizers, and the aide said the answers to the queries would be on file with the “press office” in Austin, anyway. You had to wonder: Why so damn skittish? As the governor was about to prove to the crowd of 600, he can probably perform about as well as anyone who ever occupied the office.

If Robert Altman were around to make another Nashville -style flick focusing on red-blooded, tea party-style conservative politics, circa 2011, he could have shot the Troutts’ hangar-like gymnasium last night and been done with it. Think red, white, and blue everywhere; marching musicians dressed in Revolutionary War-era outfits; a multi-racial group of teens singing an ode to love and individual dignity; and a tribute to fallen soldiers, complete with ramrod-straight marines. Out in the audience drinking it all in: Tom and Laura Leppert, Congressman Pete Sessions.

Turner, who’s hyper-enthusiastic–and very blonde these days–founded a nonprofit in 2010 called Constituting America, which aims to promote learning about “the U.S. Constitution and the nation’s founding principles.” With the help of conservative journalist Peter Roff she persuaded Dreyfuss, who has his own pet cause called The Dreyfuss Initiative, to turn up Wednesday and lend some extra star power to the event.

Talking before the dinner, the Jaws and Close Encounters star said he’s often considered a “liberal,” even though people aren’t exactly sure why. In reality he’s a civil liberties advocate who’s concerned that today’s students have no real understanding of civics, of the importance of respectful participation in American democracy. Meaningful civics studies have been abandoned since the 1940s or 1950s, Dreyfuss went on, resulting in a culture of yelling, screaming, and name-calling. “The most frightening thing,” the actor said, “is that there is no serious place to discuss serious issues in America seriously.”

On stage during the event that followed in the Troutts’ gym, Turner explained her bond with Dreyfuss. “Richard and I have both ventured away from Hollywood, because we’re both concerned about our country,” she said. Added Dreyfuss a moment later, of the country’s political climate: “We share far more than what we don’t. Yet all we hear [about] is what we don’t share.”

After Perry was given the big award by Turner and her foundation co-chair Cathy Gillespie–she’s the wife of former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie–the governor took the stage and gave a rousing, off-the-cuff stemwinder that was one part Winston Churchill, one part Jimmy Swaggart. He told about growing up in rural Haskell County, about visiting the big cities of New York and Philadelphia as a wide-eyed teenager, about attending Texas A&M, about flying C-130 aircraft in the Air Force and living abroad under monarchies and dictatorships.

It all made him appreciate America and our “incredible” form of government, Perry said. He thanked Turner for once giving him a book –it was titled The 5000 Year Leap–that opened his eyes for the first time to the power of the U.S. Constitution. (The book wasn’t that hard to comprehend, he added: “If an Aggie understands it, it’s gotta be pretty easy to understand, right?”) And that led the governor to tell how much he loves the constitutional amendments.

“I love the first amendment,” he said. “It allows me to talk about the current administration anytime I want to, without anything happening. [Big applause for that.] I love the second amendment. It allows me to go running and protect my daughter from any coyote out there. [Big laugh for that.] But my favorite? The 10th amendment. The simple but powerful statement that Washington, D.C., needs to have branded above every door … ‘The powers not delegated to the [federal government] are reserved to the states.'”

This, needless to say, brought down the house.

To wrap things up, the governor lauded “competition” among the various states. “If you want to live in a state with high taxes and a huge regulatory climate, move to California,” he urged. “But please, don’t make us do that in Texas.” And then: “I will suggest to you that … our future is bright. I truly believe that Congress will come together in the next two years and make decisions that are right for America. We are the greatest country ever devised in the history of the world. And the world is counting on us to get it right.”

But, what about those questions the governor was willing to answer, but didn’t? I’d wanted to ask him first about the abrupt departure of Rick O’Donnell, the reform-minded conservative think-tank guy, as a special adviser to The University of Texas System. And also about President Obama’s jab in Brad Watson’s White House interview about Perry’s “inconsistency” in criticizing Washington, yet accepting federal stimulus funds to help balance the Texas budget.

Turns out the answers to the questions weren’t exactly “on file” in Austin. But a Perry spokeswoman did phone back to discuss them. Katherine Cesinger said that since O’Donnell’s departure was a “university situation,” she couldn’t comment. And, as for Obama’s charge in the Watson interview about Perry’s stance on stimulus funds, Cesinger said that Texas is a “donor” state to federal coffers and so, as long as the feds were going to distribute taxpayer dollars back to the states, “you bet we went after” them.

Fair enough, I guess. But you still wondered why they didn’t want the guv handling things himself.

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