Rick Perry might have been a safe pick as Energy Secretary, but it’s hard to argue that he was a smart one.
There are valid reasons—beyond the fact that he once argued that the U.S. Department of Energy should be shut down—that would, in a healthy democracy, disqualify Perry as the CEO of a federal agency with 13,000 employees, plus 93,000 contract workers, and an annual budget of $30 million.
Perry is, to put it kindly, not that bright. He lacks the experience to lead a large bureaucracy, despite the fact that he served as governor of Texas for 14 years. And he may be corrupt.
Trump was onto Perry’s questionable intelligence quotient when the Republican primary field was shaping up in July 2015 and Perry was a fresh and eager contender, just leaning into what would become his second failed attempt to win his party’s presidential nomination.
“He should be forced to take an IQ test before being allowed to enter the GOP debate,” Trump tweeted in mid-July 2015.
“He put glasses on so people will think he’s smart. And it just doesn’t work. People see through those glasses,” Trump said at a South Carolina rally a week after his Twitter swipe at Perry.
Trump was aiming at Perry’s Achilles’ heel: his head.
There was the “Oops” moment during a debate that undermined Perry’s 2012 primary campaign, when he could only name two of the three federal agencies he had promised to eliminate. The one that slipped his mind was the Department of Energy.
There was the college transcript, which his appointment to lead the DOE again brings into high relief.
The two men who preceded Perry as Energy Secretary were Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize–winning physicist on the faculty at Stanford University, followed by Ernest Moniz, who earned a Ph.D. in theoretical physics at Stanford and chairs the physics department at MIT. Perry struggled to obtain an undergraduate degree in animal science at Texas A&M, a struggle evident in a college transcript riddled with C’s and D’s, and one F (in organic chemistry).
And there was the fact that Perry had, indeed, failed an IQ test of sorts, four years before being muscled out of the 2016 primary by Donald Trump.
Today’s American presidential primary is its own test of intelligence (and stamina), although the 2016 race was exceptional, with Trump’s thuggish assaults on the other candidates, and their determination that they could rope-a-dope the heavyweight, absorbing all the punishment Trump could direct at them until an establishment candidate emerged and the vanity candidate punched himself out.
Perry’s IQ test was a “normal” Republican primary in 2012, when a much more agile (and intelligent) Mitt Romney prevailed as Perry stumbled again and again, incapable of holding his own in debates, then staggering through painfully histrionic speeches at CPAC in February 2011 in Washington, and nine months later in New Hampshire, where a bizarrely manneristic soliloquy began with Perry theatrically whipping a four-by-six facsimile flat-tax application out of his jacket pocket and waving it about, then concluded with his embrace of a can of maple syrup.
As chairman and CEO of Exxon, Texan Rex Tillerson has at least run a large organization. Rick Perry has not. The 1876 Texas Constitution created a plural executive, dividing authority among more than 20 independently elected statewide officials. The governor, as defined by the state constitution, doesn’t have a lot of power, while the independently elected lieutenant governor does.
The Texas governor’s power derives from the constitutional authority to make thousands of appointments to the boards and commissions that make the rules and render the decisions by which the state is governed. Perry used his 15 years in the governor’s mansion to enhance the power of the office, appointing every state board member and commissioner, sometimes twice—all of whom were indebted to him.
Many of those debts were paid off as Perry’s campaigns were financed, in part, by $17,115,865 in campaign contributions from 921 political appointees or their spouses, according to the non-profit Texans for Public Justice.
An appointment to the Texas A&M Board of Regents went for $610,000, the largest one-day contribution in the state’s political history, as former U.S. Senator Phil Gramm donated what remained in his campaign fund after Perry appointed Gramm’s wife Wendy Lee Gramm. San Antonio Spurs owner Peter Holt contributed $450,000 to Perry after being named to the Parks & Wildlife Board, a commission whose appointees donated $2 million to Perry during his tenure as the state’s chief executive.
Other contributors purchased agency rulings or permits. For $1,120,000, Perry’s second largest career contributor, Dallas billionaire investor Harold Simmons, got expedited approval of a nuclear waste disposal site situated in West Texas and underlain by four major aquifers.
Eight of Perry’s environmental staffers were opposed to permitting the dump, because the massive Ogallala Aquifer flows 14 feet below the lower extremity of the excavated pit. Three staff members (not political appointees) of the state’s Texas Commission of Environmental Quality resigned when Simmons, known before his death in 2013 as the “king of Superfund sites,” secured his permit in 2011.
Perhaps there is a logic to Trump’s appointment of Perry. Texas is the sort of unregulated, small government, tort-reformed, low-tax state that provides a model for what the United States would look like at the end of a Trump presidency.
Perry’s years of experience in a state where political money greases the granting of government contracts could be useful at an agency that in the 2015 fiscal year handed out $26 billion to private contractors, an embarrassment of riches in potential political contributions for the national Republican Party.
The friendships Perry cultivates with contractors at the DOE might be helpful in the future, when he begins to raise money for a Senate race against Ted Cruz in 2018. As Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen might observe, for old political hustlers like Rick Perry, “the road goes on forever and the party never ends.”