Something about Rick Perry seems to inspire conversation that is awfully elemental. First, he was praying for rain. Then there were the Texas wildfires last month, and the question of whether or not they were related to the man-made climate change in which Perry does not believe. And now comes the rock. We'll leave it to others to litigate just exactly when a certain offensive word was visible on the boulder at the entrance to piece of land that Perry and his father starting leasing as a hunting ranch starting in the 1980s. But we can attempt to provide some additional context to the incendiary revelation, little as context may matter when a word such as this explodes onto the scene.
One Perry friend and resident of Throckmorton County, where the ranch is located, east of Perry's home county of Haskell, told me today that the offensive name for that parcel of land was as deeply ingrained as it gets -- "that pasture was called that for at least 100 years," said this person, who did not want to be quoted by name to avoid getting caught up in the controversy. This person went hunting there often with Perry but told me he does not recall seeing the rock. The Perry men "leased it to hunt, but didn't own the land and didn't have the grazing rights and I don't know if they had the authority to paint the rock or unpaint the rock or put up a sign or take down a sign," said this person.
This person also said that Throckmorton County was unquestionably even more rural and more conservative on the matter of race than adjacent Haskell, where the black population was larger, albeit still small. "When we moved to Throckmorton [in the 1960s] it was generally very prejudiced," this person said. "There was certainly some of that there. Haskell was just a better town, with a better kind of business, an economy based on doing other things, whereas Throckmorton was lots of old-time ranching families."
I also called Riley Couch, who has known Perry as long as anyone -- he was in the same Boy Scout troop in Haskell County, he went to Texas A&M with him, and he sold Bibles with him in Missouri one summer during college. Couch is not a hunter and has not been to the ranch in question. But he told me without hesitation that Rick Perry simply is not the type to traffic in the ugly side of Old South lingo. "All I know is in my experience with Rick of 50 years, I’ve never heard a word near like that uttered by him, have never heard him saying anything like it or close to it," said Couch, now a banker in Dallas. "He's just not like that."
Couch, who graduated from high school in 1967, a year ahead of Perry, noted that the schools in Haskell County were desegregated while he and Perry were in high school, though that had more of an impact on Couch's larger high school in Haskell, the county seat, than on Perry's tiny school in Paint Creek, 14 miles away. As Couch recalls it, the transition happened relatively smoothly in Haskell, where most of the black families lived on the north side of town, not far from where his own family lived. He saw the transition mostly through the frame of the high school sports teams he was on: "They were teammates, and good guys are good guys and if they're not then they're not." Couch said his father owned a small cotton warehouse near the high school where several of the town's black residents worked, and that he helped one of the first desegregated students, a young woman whose younger brother would go on to be a football standout, go to college.
Couch noted that Perry would have far more interactions with African-Americans at A&M, which was growing more diverse around the time he and Couch were there, and especially in his five years in the military. "It just never was a conversation topic in any form or fashion with us," said Couch.
It remains to be seen what kind of impact the story of the rock will have on a Perry campaign that was already starting to list. To my mind, this detail only confirms the sense I got after several weeks digging into Perry's political career, that Rick Perry is even more than most people the product of a place -- a West Texas political culture that, as one Perry friend put it to me, is a "sort of Confederate-based, anti-federal, anti-telling-me-what-the-hell-to-do kind of deal," and a Texas political culture as a whole that has kept Perry remarkably sheltered, in a state large enough to be its own country, with no real political opposition to speak of and a press corps too fractured to provide thorough scrutiny. Moving from this world to the national stage was going to be Perry's biggest challenge, not his ideology or the limits of his abilities. And so it is proving to be.