07.20.11

Rick Perry’s Divine Calling

The Texas governor is the latest politician to claim God’s guidance on running for president. Michelle Cottle on why cloaking your ambition is smart politics.

Are you there, Rick? It’s me, in Heaven. I appreciate everything you’ve done for the good people of Texas these past 10 years, but I’m thinking it may be time for you to take it to the next level. I know. I know. You have no desire to be president, and I share your distaste for Beltway living. Still, I want you to seriously consider running. Roll the idea around a bit and see if it feels comfortable. I’ve always stressed the importance of having a servant’s heart, and this may be your time to sacrifice for the greater good.

Speculation about Rick Perry joining the 2012 Republican primary smackdown spiked this week after the Texas governor’s sitdown with the Iowa press. “I’m not ready to tell you that I’m ready to announce that I’m in,” Perry teased the influential Des Moines Register. “But I’m getting more and more comfortable every day that this is what I’ve been called to do. This is what America needs.”

With those words, a shudder passed through the current crop of GOP contenders. Because, when a conservative pol starts talking about The Call, you know he or she is serious about taking that next step.

Perry is hardly the first to receive a presidential summons from his Heavenly Father. George W. Bush used to speak of how God had made clear that He wanted W. to become commander in chief.

And lest you think the Lone Star State has the only direct line to the divine, note that, in this presidential cycle, both Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain have said they are running at God’s behest. So, for that matter, has Paul Sims, an ex-firefighter and self-proclaimed “George Washington of today” from Rolla, Missouri, who shared his plans via a YouTube video posted in March. In a less-conventional move, Mike Huckabee explained that his decision not to run for president was based on God’s guidance.

Just how much credence you give a candidate’s claim of receiving holy communiques is, of course, more likely to depend on your own beliefs than those of the candidate. Spirituality aside, however, the whole called-to-run line confers practical advantages in the starkly temporal realm of politics.

Most straightforwardly, when a conservative candidate is looking to woo conservative voters, it’s useful for him to show that he is one of them, that he knows the lingo. (Bush was a master of this.) While to secular ears Perry’s being “called” may sound odd, it is a concept with which conservative Christians are entirely comfortable, says Gary Bauer, president of the conservative group American Values and a onetime White House contender himself. Being called is basically about praying and trying to discern God’s will, explains Bauer. “That’s a very normal way to talk about any big decision in your life.”

And it most certainly does not mean that Perry believes God has anointed him the winner, assures Bauer. “Sometimes it’s presented in media that the individual believes that God has picked him to be president. That would be very jarring to people, and would not be a wise thing for candidate to say—since the voters would certainly like their chance.” He adds with a laugh: “That would mean God would go before Iowa!”

Better still, Perry’s assertion that he has been “called” also sends a signal that the governor is not unnaturally fixated on this whole presidential dream. He’s running because he sees it as God’s will, not because he needs an ego boost or a purpose in life. He is not, God forbid, personally ambitious—like say, the cold-blooded meritocrat currently inhabiting the White House or a certain flip-floppish ex-governor frantic to hold onto his front-runner status.  

Despite being a nation of strivers, Americans find naked ambition distasteful.

You could see Perry pushing this message in another quote to come out of his interview: “I’ll be real honest with you,” he told the Register. “I don’t wake up in the morning—never did and still don’t today—and say, ‘Gee, I want to be president of the United States.’”

Now, my gut reaction to this statement is that a) Perry had better be lying, or b) the guy is nuts to even consider running. It takes a raging fire in the belly to survive the White House trail. Candidates need to be driven by ideological zeal, near messianic levels of ego and ambition or, at the very least, an all-consuming personal grievance.

For many Americans, however, Perry’s professed ambivalence will be as irresistible as ice cream on a hot day. It is an enduring political irony that, despite being a nation of strivers, Americans find naked ambition distasteful. Especially in presidential candidates, visible hunger can be a turnoff, an indication that the pol in question is too desperate for the job, too power-hungry, or just plain needy. 

“There is something a little scary about the lust for power,” contends conservative activist Grover Norquist. “This comes up in Frederick von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom. People who want power are scary with power.”

Plus, they tend to be plain unbearable, jokes Norquist. “My position is that anybody who ran for student body president in high school probably be kept away from power. We all went to school with these people. We know what they’re like. They’re not any fun to be with. You wouldn’t want them running the prom—or your life.”  

This bias was on graphic display during the 2000 presidential race. Al Gore alienated more than a few voters with his lifelong preparation and blatant thirst for the job. George W., by contrast, looked like he’d be content to spend the rest of his days clearing brush on his ranch. Bush’s easy, breezy confidence won over a huge chunk of the electorate—and the media—in those early days.

The issue resurfaced in 2008 with the candidacy of Fred Thompson. As the erstwhile actor made ready to run, even much of the political elite was charmed by his laid-back, take-it-or-leave-it attitude toward the Oval Office. Unfortunately for Fred fans, this wasn’t a political strategy so much as actual apathy, which wound up sinking the Thompson campaign almost before it had begun. “There was an unhealthy lack of drive in the Thompson campaign,” observes Norquist. “It came across as though he didn’t want to run.”

Lesson: To win the presidency, a candidate needs to have fire in the belly; he just needs to keep it well-hidden.

Thus the genius of being “called” to run. It allows Perry to commit himself wholeheartedly, even passionately, to a presidential bid, all the while saying it’s not a job he’s ever personally desired.

Norquist offers up a simpler translation:  “He’s said he’s been called, which means he wants to do it.”