On GOP Hopeful Rick Perry: Interviews with Historians Edward F. Countryman and Greg Cantrell

Edward Countryman, history professor at SMU's Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, contributes to analysis of Rick Perry as Governor and politician.

Alexander Heffner, a freelance journalist, conducted and curated interviews with leading academics on the top GOP hopefuls. They will appear as part of an ongoing series on HNN.

Edward F. Countryman, University Distinguished Professor, Southern Methodist University, and author of The American Revolution.

In the larger context of American political history, what is most noteworthy to you about Governor Perry’s candidacy?

One way to see the whole current impasse is as a rerun of the city and country opposition that runs right back to the respective visions of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson for America’s future.  Hamilton’s vision turned on the presumption that the power established by the Constitution was there to use and presumed an active government, and it continued through Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, both Roosevelts, Lyndon Johnson and, now, Barack Obama.  Jefferson regarded that power as something to fear (though he did not hesitate to use it during his presidency).  It’s no accident that Ronald Reagan had Jefferson prominently on display in his Oval Office.  I realize that Jefferson, not Hamilton, is celebrated as the progenitor of the modern Democratic Party, but the use the power/fear the power dichotomy runs deep.  Perry also draws on an anti-intellectual (and overtly anti-city and anti-immigrant) tradition that found its strongest expression in Prohibition.

Much has been made of Perry’s threat to secede if liberal policies impede Texas’s rights.  Has the nation ever had a presidential candidate who spoke favorably about possible secession?

Sadly, Jefferson flirted with this notion during the Civil Liberties crisis of 1798, drafting the Kentucky Resolutions.  James Madison, who had crafted the Constitution itself in good part, did not take such a position in his Virginia Resolutions.  John C. Calhoun had presidential ambitions, but his turn toward sectionalism during the nullification crisis ended that.  The election of 1860, with four candidates, one of them a southern Democrat, is a special case.

Over his gubernatorial tenure and now into his presidential campaign, how do you interpret Perry’s relationship with Hispanics and Mexico (in terms of the troubled border situation)?

I find his position inconsistent.  Unlike its California counterpart, the Texas Republican Party has not tended to have an overtly anti-Hispanic attitude, possibly from the recognition of the strong Hispanic population in the state.  As a presidential contender, however, Perry is pandering to the larger anti-Hispanic mood among much of his target demographic.

What’s the most interesting fact about Perry’s career that mainstream media outlets have overlooked?

Unquestionably, his assault on the quality of intellectual life at all levels, from school education to the attempted re-making of the public universities on a business cost-center model.  He claims to want to make education available widely and cheaply.  In reality, if he had his way, school students would waste their time on the non-existent “debate” or “controversy” over so-called intelligent design in an atmosphere reminiscent of the grim schoolroom with which Charles Dickens opened his novel Hard Times.  The universities would cease to be places of innovation and creativity and would merely deliver well-socialized workers to corporate America.

In a wider historical backdrop, how would you compare Perry’s and Bush’s respective visions for Texas?

During the Bush presidency I astonished myself with the realization that I missed Richard Nixon.  Flippancy aside, it’s a commonplace that while Bush was in Austin he could work with its politicians, not a quality he showed in Washington.  Perry represents the current belief within his party that the very notion of arriving at common ground and building from it is wrong....