Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Mr. Texas in the Granite State

Browsing through my photos from Rick Perry’s visit to Concord, NH this past Friday, I struggled to find a shot of him where it looked like he was speaking to those assembled around him. Even when he talks, Perry’s face hardly moves. In my reporter’s notebook I penned a single word to describe his demeanor that afternoon: “Languid.” Considering Romney’s ebullience and eagerness to shake hands with everyone around him at events, the contrast with Perry is striking.

So you can understand my surprise on Saturday morning as I hit the web to search for footage of Rick Perry’s keynote speech at the “Cornerstone” function in Manchester and found the now-viral video of him showcasing his sudden and absurd foray into comedic punchiness.

At the Barley House restaurant in Concord only hours before his evening speech, Perry settled down to talk with a small circle of supporters away from the mass of photographers. A man extended his hand and introduced himself as one of New Hampshire’s “best farmers.” Perry not so directly responded by musing whether or not Stonyfield Farm (whose organic yogurt Perry said he enjoyed) was a Vermont or New Hampshire company.

“New Hampshire,” the farmer retorted dryly, before pointing out that Stonyfield’s owner is an Obama-supporter.

I can’t tell you exactly what Governor Perry went on to talk about for the next two or three minutes, but it had something to do the dairy industry and the ethical complications when politics and charity intersect. Everyone nodded along, but Perry had taken the brief meet and greet moment in a direction that nobody could have expected, wandering onto whatever topic seemed to spring to mind.

When a girl approached Perry to shake his hand moments later, he asked what her name was.

“Isabel,” she said.

After noting that a relative of his shared the name (albeit with a different spelling), Perry trailed off by mumbling “Queen Isabella…” And with that he moved on to greet others. The girl looked at their mother with a confused smile. That was it.

“Was that really him? Did he really say that?” I imagined her thinking.

Earlier that day on the steps of the State Capitol, one of the Governor’s aides handed him a copy of his book to sign for a supporter. “What’s the name?” he inquired, unsheathing his Sharpie marker.

“Al,” the aide replied.

“A-L?” There was a pause before the aide confirmed the spelling. “Well, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a set-up,” Perry said before penning the name. Huh?

I can’t formulate a clear narrative on Perry, and I’m not alone among the media in this regard. Regarding his inconsistent behavior I’ve heard theories from reporters concerning everything from lack of sleep, uncharacteristic anxiousness, to prescription medication. More often, however, it’s been: “that’s just the way he is!” Perry indeed has a strange way of thinking, an utter lack of embarrassment, a willingness to tell people he won’t sign their photographs at one minute, and remarkable openness seconds later.

It is worth noting that Perry travels with a remarkably large (and beefy) cadre of security personnel, and his staff is visibly concerned with clearing a path for him to walk wherever he goes. The only Republican candidate monitored this closely is the elderly Ron Paul, whose aides busy themselves identifying stairs or icy spots that could send him toppling over. Before Perry entered the basement of the Barley House restaurant where supporters and the media waited for him, two of his staff discussed where they would “push” photographers when the Governor entered. They agreed that a lonely corner by the door would be an appropriate spot.

The venue chosen for the campaign reception was so crowded, and the media given so little space to get their shots, that a protracted argument broke out between a young woman wielding an amateurish video camera and a videographer from the local NBC News affiliate in Boston. Admittedly, there was a lack of professionalism on the part of the two quarreling, but it was the Perry team’s lack of preparation for the rush of media that created the situation in the first place. By comparison, the Romney team (whose security is also much less visible) has been praised for being so in tune with the media’s needs.

Luckily, I broke from the riser where I was told to remain (and where I would have had almost no opportunity to take a single photo) and moved to the other side of the room and waited for the candidate amidst his supporters.

As the Governor raced into the room, a television personality tasked with preparing a story about the event tried to get the Governor’s attention by asking about Mitt Romney’s weaknesses in the state. There was no way Perry would answer him, and I doubt he even heard the question over the noise of the room, but a campaign staffer accosted the reporter anyway and warned him not to ask such questions.

I can’t help but think: what was the point of that? Perry’s hardly visited the first in the nation primary state, and now is no time to burn bridges with the media before their candidate (presumably) starts to visit with greater regularity in the months ahead.

“You really ought to have him talk to each of these cameras. It’s not smart to pick and chose here,” the exasperated reporter quipped back to the young and suited staffer. I couldn’t agree with him more.

My picture of Perry is an incomplete one. His character is an affable one, and that video of him cracking wise and displaying a perplexing punchiness in Manchester is evidence enough that this side of his personality may be one he intends to emphasize in contrast with Romney’s straight-laced seriousness, but Mr. Perry’s campaign staff (at least in New Hampshire) does not seem in tune with how best to create the kinds of environments where their candidate can show off.

In the quiet company of supporters, Perry rambled on about a range of issues, which, had a national reporter been nearby, surely would have made a headline—such as Perry’s equating himself with Galileo because both were “doubters” of the scientific status quo (referring, in his case, to climate change)—but as the frustration of the media assigned to cover him mounts, the likelihood increases that the portrait painted of him to the masses unable to meet him in person could be an embarrassing one. Then again, if Perry continues to generate the type of questionable video highlights as he displayed at the Cornerstone Dinner, they won’t have much digging to do.

A photographer friend of mine was waiting outside the restaurant when I emerged after an hour of scrounging around for a good photo.

“Were you inside?” I asked, referring sarcastically to the madhouse of the basement.

“What’s the point?” he said. “Those guys don’t know what they’re doing.” And with that I headed South on I-93 to prep for a Mitt Romney event that, thankfully, felt like it was taking place in the Granite State.

(All photos: Luke N. Vargas. 2011. All Rights Reserved)  

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