Putting down the plow: On Cincinnatus, George Washington and Rick Perry

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Good morning Austin:

On Friday, the day after Rick Perry announced for president, Anita Perry sent out this “Dear Friend,” fundraising letter:

The last 24 hours have been truly amazing, and I am so proud that Rick has once again responded to our nation’s call to service. I’ve known Rick since I was a young girl, and I have watched him consistently put others’ needs ahead of his. This was true in our family as a husband and father, in Texas as Governor, and to our nation as an Air Force pilot. Growing up together in our small Texas community, I knew there was something very special about Rick – and I’m happy that America will get to see that too.

Rick used to tell our son and daughter, Griffin and Sydney, that sports don’t build character, they reveal it. I expect the same could be said about the campaign trail, which bodes well for Rick: he’s the most principled man I’ve ever known. After our experience in 2012, Rick has applied himself to preparations that put him in the top-tier on day one and will keep him there throughout.

The “call to service,” was a guiding theme of Perry’s announcement.

His speech began with an evocation of World War II.

Thank you, I was born five years after the end of a global war that killed more than 60 million people.

I am the son of a veteran of that war, who flew 35 missions over war-torn Europe as a tail gunner on a B-17.

When dad returned home, he married mom, and they started a life together.

They were tenant farmers.

They were raised during a time of great hardship, and had little expectation beyond living in peace, putting a roof over our heads and putting food on our table.

Home was a place called Paint Creek. Too small to be called a town, but it was the center of my universe.

For years we had an outhouse, and mom bathed us in a number two washtub on the back porch. She also hand-sewed my clothes until I went off to college.

I attended Paint Creek Rural School, grades one through 12. I played 6-man football. I was a member of Boy Scout Troop 48, became an Eagle Scout, and went off to Texas A&M where I was a member of the Corps of Cadets and an animal science major.

I was proud to wear the uniform of our country as an Air Force officer and aircraft commander.

After serving, I returned home to the rolling plains and big skies of West Texas, and I returned to farming.

There is no person on earth more optimistic than a dryland cotton farmer. We always know a good rain is just around the corner, no matter how long we’d been waiting.

The values learned on my family’s cotton farm are timeless: the dignity of work, the integrity of your word, responsibility to community, the unbreakable bonds of family, and duty to country.

Perry’s father left home to defend his country and then returned home to plow the unforgiving West Texas land. Perry returns home after serving his country – I returned to farming – only once again leaving his field after being called to service in Austin – as a state representative, agriculture commissioner, lieutenant governor and governor.

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Now, as Anita Perry put it, Rick  has once again responded to our nation’s call to service.

But how had the nation manifested this call?

Here is where Perry’s speech, which the former governor delivered flanked by retired Marines and Navy SEALS of storied valor, indulged in some canny rhetorical sleight-of-hand.

And among our great people, there is a spirit of selflessness – that we live to make the world better for our children, and not just ourselves.

It was said that when King George the Third asked what General Washington would do upon winning the war, he was told he would return to his farm and relinquish power. To that, the monarch replied, if he did that, he would be the greatest man of his age.

George Washington lived in the service of a cause greater than self.

If anyone is wondering if America still possesses the character of selfless heroes, I am here to say, “Yes, I am surrounded by such heroes.”

They are of different generations, but they are woven together by the same thread of selfless sacrifice.

They are heroes like Medal of Honor Recipient Mike Thornton, who survived an ambush by enemy forces in Vietnam, and made it back to the safety of a water rescue, only to find out a fellow team member had been left behind, presumed dead.

He didn’t leave though, he returned through enemy fire and retrieved Lieutenant Norris who was still alive – and then swam for two hours keeping his wounded teammate afloat until they were rescued.

Heroes like Marcus Luttrell, who survived a savage attack on the side of a mountain in Afghanistan, losing his three teammates and 16 fellow warriors shot down trying to rescue him.

He is not just the lone survivor, to Anita and me he is a second son.

And Taya Kyle, who suffered the deep loss of her husband Chris, an American hero. When I think of Taya Kyle, I think of a brave woman who carries not just the lofty burden of Chris’ legacy, but the grief of every family who has lost a loved one to the great tragedy of war, or its difficult aftermath. Anita and I want to thank her for her tremendous courage.

 

Jennifer Mercieca, a professor of communication at Texas A & M University, decoded this for me.

(From her faculty page: Jennifer Mercieca is an historian of American political discourse, especially discourses about citizenship, democracy, and the presidency … Her scholarship combines American history with rhetorical and political theory in an effort to understand democratic practices.  She is the author of Founding Fictions and the co-Editor of The Rhetoric of Heroic Expectations: Establishing the Obama Presidency. )

Of Perry’s George Washington passage, Mercieca said, “That’s a reference to Cincinnatus.”

Cincinnatus is the great Roman statesman who had retired to his farm and the Senate decides that he must come and save Rome from its enemies.

“No, no I’m plowing my field, I’m not interested.”

“No, no, we need you.”

He takes on the obligation and puts down the plow and he goes and wins the battle and rather than become a tyrant, which would be owed to him for the service he had rendered, he give up the power.

George Washington consciously modeled himself on Cincinnatus. He very consciously gave up great power.

cincinnatus-receiving-deputies-of-the-senate.jpg!Blog(Cincinnatus Receiving Deputies of the Senate. Artist: Alexandre Cabanel)

Here from the official Mount Vernon site:

“You have often heard him compared to Cincinnatus,” the French traveller Jacques-Pierre Brissot de Warville wrote after visiting George Washington at Mount Vernon in 1788. “The comparison is doubtless just. The celebrated General is nothing more at present than a good farmer, constantly occupied in the care of his farm and the improvement of cultivation.”

Brissot’s classically-educated readers would have been familiar with the story of the Roman general Cincinnatus from the Roman historian Livy, or from contemporary works like Charles Rollin’s popular history of Rome, published in 1750. According to the story, powerful enemies of Rome, the Aequians, were threatening an invasion of the city. The Roman Senate, finding the current consul unprepared to meet the crisis, voted unanimously to confer the extraordinary powers of dictatorship on their most distinguished former general, L. Quinctius Cincinnatus.

At the time, Cincinnatus was living in retirement on his four-acre farm outside of Rome and representatives from the Senate found him working in his field. When he learned of the emergency facing Rome, he left his plow standing in the field, bid farewell to his wife, and led the Romans to victory against the Aequians. Fifteen days after assuming the dictatorship, Cincinnatus resigned and returned to his plow.

The parallels with General George Washington were not lost on his contemporaries. Called up from his retirement at Mount Vernon to lead the Continental Army, Washington dramatically resigned his commission and returned to his farm once the war had been won. In emulating Cincinnatus, Washington allayed real fears that he might use his position as a successful general to retain power as a military dictator. In the process Washington illustrated that he placed public service above personal gain.

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(From MountVernon.org)

For Romans and Americans alike, Cincinnatus represented the ideal republican simplicity, an enlightened poverty that spurned luxury and cultivated a simple nobility of spirit. As the historian Rollin wrote of Cincinnatus: “Happy times! admirable simplicity! Poverty was not universally practiced, but it was esteemed and honoured, and not considered as a disqualification for the highest dignities of the state. The conduct of Quinctius [Cincinnatus] during his Consulship… [shows] us what a noble nature, what constancy, and what greatness of soul, inhabited a poor wretched cottage.”

For the Revolutionary generation, the republican simplicity of the American farmer provided a pointed contrast with the perceived luxury and decadence of the British empire. As the American Cincinnatus, Washington embodied America’s agricultural self-sufficiency, which he saw as a crucial element in its economic and political independence from Great Britain.

Now back to Mercieca,

Because of Cincinnatus, the founding generation believed that you ought to never seek power; that ambition and self-serving seeking of power disqualified you for office, it made you the last person that we should ever put in power.

So for Rick Perry to be invoking the legend of Cincinnatus while he’s announcing the fact that he’s seeking the presidency is a little weird, but he tries to do it in such a way that he’s gesturing to those around him as being the Cincinnatuses here.

So he says, George Washington lived in the service of a cause greater than self, so that’s the anti-ambition thing, and then he says,  If anyone is wondering if America still possesses the character of selfless heroes, I am here to say, “Yes, I am surrounded by such heroes.”

So, he’s not presenting himself as Cincinnatus. He’s presenting the veterans that he’s got on the stage as Cincinnatus, but it’s awkward.

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I don’t think Rick Perry can position himself (as Cincinnatus), not in 2016.

There hasn’t been this, Run Rick Run PAC, (just RickPAC) “Oh, please, I hope Rick Perry runs.’ Maybe I missed it, but I don’t think so.

25809v              (Grover Cleveland as Cincinnatus.)

Ah, but here is where Perry’s speech makes that last ingenious rhetorical leap, with its stirring conclusion

America is an extraordinary country. Our greatness lies not in our government, but in our people.

Each day Americans demonstrate tremendous courage. But many of those Americans have been knocked down and are looking for a second chance.

Let’s give them that chance. Let’s give them real leadership. Let’s give them a future greater than the greatest days of our past.

Let’s give them a president who leads us in the direction of our highest hopes, our best dreams and our greatest promise.

Thank you, and God bless you.

It seems to me that what he is saying here is that he is being called upon to once again leave the plow – or at any rate that nice piece of property that he and Anita bought out in Round Top – in service of those Americans (who) have been knocked down and are looking for a second chance. But, of course, it is Rick Perry who is looking for a second chance, who hopes, in the political realm, to become the patron saint of the second chance.

In other words, Rick Perry, the modern Cincinnatus, the latter-day Washington, is being called back to service on behalf of … Rick Perry.

I like it.

 

SHOTGUN TOTER/REPUBLICAN VOTER

Perry strode to the stage at his announcement to the strains of Colt Ford’s slightly revised version of his country rap song Answer to No One.

Here was Perry being asked about it by Dana Bash on CNN’s State of the Union:

BASH: Last question, I have to ask you about the Rick Perry country-rap. Where did that come from?

PERRY: Colt Ford is – you know, Colt’s actually a golfer by (INAUDIBLE) but, he’s turned into quite a very good country-rapper, so – Pete Scobell who’s a dear friend, Navy SEAL, is a close friend of Marcus – Marcus Luttrell. He too came to me and said, listen, I got an idea for a song for your campaign, and so, anyway, that’s what it turned out.

Matter of fact, it’s on iTunes today, first day, so go to iTunes and buy it. Get a little country-rap going.

BASH: Alright, well, one day I’ll have you do your Rick Perry rap for me. Not today.

(LAUGHING)

PERRY: Not today.

BASH: Thank you, Governor.

Here are the lyrics. I think the only change from the original is substituting Rick Perry supporter for Hank Junior supporter. and subbing Rick Perry all the way, for ‘Cause this is what I say

FIRST VERSE:

Shotgun toter / Republican voter

Rick Perry supporter / Let’s protect our border

To heck with anyone who don’t believe in the USA / Rick Perry all the way!

CHORUS:

I won’t back up / I don’t back down

I’ve been raised up to stand my ground

Take my job but not my gun

Tax my check ’til I ain’t got none

Except for the good Lord up above

I answer to no one

SECOND VERSE:

Give me right to vote / My right to tote

The weapon of my choice / Don’t censor my voice

Hate me if you want / Or love me if you can

If the truth is what you want then you’ve found your man

I ain’t backin’ down / I ain’t backin’ up

If you think like I think then crank it on up!

At the Houston Chronicle, Lisa Falkenberg panned the song and, indeed, the genre, describing country-rap as “an abomination.”

What bothers me most, though, about the pro-Perry rap song isn’t the notion of artisans as partisans. It isn’t the hard-core conservative, pro-gun, anti-government values. Those are as elemental as a steel guitar.

It’s the fact that this song tailored for Perry doesn’t really describe Perry.

Take the title: “Answer to No One,” to which the songwriter makes only one exception, and that’s for the “good Lord up above.”

As Texas’ longest-serving governor, Perry made quite a few exceptions.

Harold Simmons, the late Dallas billionaire, donated more than $1.1 million to Perry and got a radioactive waste dump permit approved for a West Texas site abutting an aquifer without so much as a hearing to consider the risks.

Underlying greed

Bob Perry, the late Houston-based homebuilder, gave millions to Perry, and the governor gave the billionaire’s top lawyer a seat on a watchdog board that was supposed to protect consumers from unethical homebuilders but actually set up hurdles that kept homeowners from resolving disputes over defective houses. The Legislature abolished the agency in 2009.

Rick Perry’s long-touted Emerging Technology Fund allocated more than $400 million to companies and universities over a decade, but a 2011 state audit found the program lacked transparency and nobody was tracking its performance. An investigation by The Dallas Morning News found that more than $16 million was awarded to companies with investors or officers who were large campaign donors to Perry. To his credit, Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed a bill to get rid of the fund.

It goes on.

But maybe Perry is changing.

In his interview with Dana Bash, and with John Dickerson, the new host of CBS’s Face the Nation, the former governor was asked about the Perry Populist who emerge in a few lines in his announcement speech.

BASH: Let’s talk about the economy. In your announcement speech this week, you sounded like a populist. You said, “Capitalism is not corporatism,” you said it’s, “not a guarantee of reward without risk. It’s not about Wall Street at the expense of Main Street.” I’ve seen it written that you sounded more like Elizabeth Warren than members of your own party.

PERRY: I think I sounded like a boy who grew up on a dry land cotton farm in a house that’s – didn’t have running water.

I grew up in a place where my Mom and Dad both had to work really hard, and I don’t think it’s right for Wall Street to be able to walk away from bad mistakes, and the people on Main street have to pay for it. That’s – if that’s populism, than I’m proud to be a populist on that issue.

The bottom line is we need to be putting policies into place where Main street folks – Dodd-Frank’s a great example it right here in Iowa. These bankers – these small community banks are being strangled by regulations, and they can’t loan money to their farmers or small businesses. That’s just not right.

BASH: So, what would you do about Wall Street? Would you do – would you try to break up the big banks? How would you actually –

PERRY: – Well, listen, if a bank makes bad decisions, they’ll fail. Nobody ought to be too big to fail, and all these regulations did was codify in the law, and I’d certainly get rid of those. You make a mistake, and you make bad choices, you need to pay a price in this country. I don’t care who you are, or whether you’re a big Wall Street firm, or you’re a big bank. You know? That’s what our bankruptcy laws are for.

I wasn’t for G.M. getting a restructure. They should have been – gone through bankruptcy just like everybody on Main Street would have, Dana. I mean – this is pretty simple from my perspective. Treat everybody the same.

OK, but as recently as the end of last year, there was the decidedly less populist Perry in this interview with Philip Rucker of the Washington Post:

Last week, Perry studied income inequality and economic mobility with experts Scott Winship, Erin Currier and Aparna Mathur. In the Post interview, he was asked about the growing gap between rich and poor in Texas, which has had strong job growth over the past decade but also has lagged in services for the underprivileged.

“Biblically, the poor are always going to be with us in some form or fashion,” he said. He cited statistics showing that since he took office in 2000, wages have increased among all four income quartiles. He said a young man who dropped out of high school in South Texas could make more than $100,000 a year as a truck driver.

Perry acknowledged that the richest Texans have experienced the greatest amount of earnings growth, but dismissed the notion that income inequality is a problem in the state, saying, “We don’t grapple with that here.”

His announcement speech seemed, at the very least, to set a different tone. Now I understand Hillary Clinton buckling to the Bernie Sanders steamroller and talking more about inequality and sounding more populist notes. But Rick Perry?

Here from his exchange with Dickerson:

JOHN DICKERSON: I’m going to ask you about something, Governor, you said in your announcement.  You said, “The American people see a rigged game where insiders get rich and the middle class pays the tab.”  Now, that’s coming from you.  We talked to Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York.  It could’ve come from him.  It could’ve come from Senator Warren of Massachusetts.  So talk about that a little bit.
             
GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: As a boy who grew up on a dry-land cotton farm, the child of a couple of tenant farmers, I grew up in a house that didn’t even have running water.  I relate to people who struggle and work hard to get ahead.  And when we see these Wall Street bankers, when we look back at General Motors getting sweet treatment, if you will, I believe in the bankruptcy laws in this country.
 
There is nothing too big to fail from my perspective when it comes to banks, or when it comes to big corporate entities.  And I think Americans are fed up.  I am.  We’re fed up by seeing Wall Street get treated specially.  And you can’t even get a loan from your community bank because of Dodd-Frank banking regulations.  All that has to change, John.  I’m telling you, American are fed up with that type of inside where the rich get richer and the folks out on Main Street have to pay the bills.
             
JOHN DICKERSON: What are you going to do about Wall Street then?
             
GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Well, regulate them.  I mean, regulate them, make sure that that doesn’t happen.  If they make bad decisions, let them live with those bad decisions.  Don’t bail them out.
             
JOHN DICKERSON: All right.  But isn’t that what Dodd-Frank is?  Regulations?  You were just saying that was bad.
             
GOVERNOR RICK PERRY: Yeah.  Dodd-Frank is killing.  Dodd-Frank is killing the community banks.  Overregulation in that sense.  There needs to be some wisdom.  My home state, one of the things that we were successful with was finding that balance between protecting the citizens and allowing the freedom for folks to grow, to be able to get loans, to be able to do the things that really matter.
 
And Dodd-Frank just codifies into place these regulations.  Big banks, they hire all the lawyers, they hire all the accountants, and then they write it off and we pay for it.  Community banks that are the real core of lending for small businessmen and women, for farmers in Iowa, you’ve got to give them the freedom to loan to these people.

Got it? No problem. But Colt Ford might want to add a new verse to his Rick Perry anthem:

Regulate them/ I mean regulate them

Too big to fail?/ I say put them in jail

Big banks are bad/Community banks are chilling

Yeah, Dodd-Frank is killing/Dodd-Frank is killing

The game is rigged/And now I’m pissed

I’m a Perry populist/A Perry populist

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