‘Oops’ Irony

Good morning, it’s Monday, Nov. 9, 2020. Authentic, a 3-year-old colt foaled in May 2017, is now the top race horse in the world, having won the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday. In other news, Joseph R. Biden Jr., who will turn 78 this month, is in line to become the 46th president of the United States.

Even before President Trump formally concedes, Biden will now start focusing on the myriad responsibilities of the president-elect, including identifying his choices for the Cabinet. I’m reminded this morning of Trump’s first energy secretary, a selection that was highly logical in one way and sublimely ironic in another.

James Richard “Rick” Perry, then the Republican governor of Texas, entered the 2012 GOP presidential primary season with great fanfare. With his Marlboro Man good looks and laissez faire economic views, he seemed a dream candidate. Tea Party types loved his small-government credo, while conventional conservatives could point to his executive experience in the governor’s mansion of a mega-state.

A national campaign puts candidates under a brighter spotlight than state politics, however, and the competition is usually tougher. Although Perry had a well-received, but breezy, stump speech, he didn’t distinguish himself in interviews or in the early debates of the election cycle. Then, on Nov. 9, 2011, in Rochester, Mich., things got much worse.

“It is three agencies of government, when I get there, that are gone,” Perry said as he launched into one of the staples of his standard pitch, in which he ticked off those three supposedly extraneous Cabinet-level agencies. But suddenly, on the debate stage with his GOP rivals, Perry had a brain freeze.

“Commerce, Education, and the… what’s the third one there? Let’s see,” Perry said as those in the audience squirmed nervously in their seats. The moment became so awkward that Mitt Romney tried to help. But Romney didn’t know either. “EPA?” he offered.

“EPA!” Perry repeated as the crowd cheered, as much in relief as anything else.

Then moderator John Harwood, who had done his homework, interjected, “Seriously? Is EPA the one you were talking about?”
“No, sir,” replied Perry, realizing that answer was wrong. “Commerce and, let’s see…I can’t. The third one, I can’t. Sorry. Oops.”

The correct answer was the Department of Energy, which Perry recalled by the time he got to the post-debate “spin” room, where he tried to make the best of it. “I’m glad I had my boots on tonight — I stepped in it out there,” he said. “I may have forgotten Energy, but I haven’t forgotten my conservative principles.”

The following morning, on NBC’s “Today show, Perry suggested that the mere fact that he had forgotten one of them bolstered his point that there are too many federal agencies. A clever response, despite the dubious logic behind it. It didn’t matter. By then, “oops” might as well have been stenciled on the man’s forehead.

The gaffe followed Perry even after he left the campaign trail. To rehabilitate himself he embarked on the ritualistic self-deprecation tour, with its familiar ports of call: the Gridiron Club in Washington, D.C., the David Letterman’s show, “Jimmy Kimmel Live.” At the May 2012 Gridiron dinner, Perry won the room over. “The weakest Republican field in history, and they kicked my butt!” he quipped. Later in the speech, he added, “Some have said that my debating style is very similar to that other Texas Cicero, George W. Bush. Only difference between George and me is that I say, ‘Oops.'”

Four years later, an unlikely Republican populist captured the White House. He did so, in part, by vowing to double down on fossil fuels. Donald Trump was all-in on oil, natural gas, and coal, so he needed a like-minded soul to run the Department of Energy. Enter Rick Perry, who would go on to serve nearly two years as secretary of the agency he wanted to abolish before stepping down at the end of 2019. Donald Trump hasn’t always parted on good terms with those in his employ. He did this time.

“I want to thank Secretary of Energy Rick Perry for the outstanding job he has done,” the president tweeted. “He will be leaving at the end of the year to pursue other interests. Rick was a great Governor of Texas and a great Secretary of Energy. He is also my friend!”

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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