Was I fair? Did I get him right? These are the questions reporters ask ourselves when we try to capture a candidate. I had to wonder anew at the Gridiron Dinner Saturday night as Governor Rick Perry of Texas gave one of the best speeches ever delivered there.
A candidate is more than the jokes he tells, but it was revealing to see Perry in command of a stage. "I can't tell you," he began, "what a relief it is to be on a stage with just one podium.” He recalled how weird it was to stand next to Mitt Romney at the debates. “You know, I kept waiting for him to say, ‘Pardon me, would you have any Grey Poupon?’" Not that he didn’t like the guy. “I mean, I like Mitt Romney as much as one really good-looking man can like a really good-looking man, and not break Texas law."
His problem, Perry explained, was different from Romney's, who had lost the Louisiana primary earlier in the day but remains the inevitable nominee. “Mitt would say things like his wife drives a coupla Cadillacs, or his pals own NASCAR teams. Y’know, my problem was sayin’ stuff that wasn’t right. Mitt's problem is sayin’ stuff that is.” He lamented that it was “the weakest Republican field in history and they kicked my butt!”
Perry got up to perform about an hour after serving as the butt of many of the evening’s jokes including one from President Barack Obama, who weighed in by tape. "Enjoy the rest of your evening, especially tonight's three speakers: Secretary [of Defense Leon] Panetta, [Democratic National Committee Chairwoman] Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and -- um -- (looks off-camera) ... who's the third speaker?"
That would be Perry, and the reference was to that maddeningly elusive cabinet agency Perry would ax if only he could remember which one it was. For his part, Perry expressed regret that the president couldn’t be with him in person. "I read that he is in Korea, at the DMZ -- would somebody tell me: Why do ya have to go all the way to Korea to get a driver’s license? Must be something to do with that birth certificate thing."
Speakers at the Gridiron haven't written their own jokes in decades, of course. But demeanor, delivery and self-awareness play a big part in how it goes over. It’s a stilted rite in which the press joins official Washington in devouring lobster pate, rare meat, petit fours and, supposedly, each other, but in fact it is the journalistic elite poking fun at the powers that be and then basking in the reflected glory of having the powers that be poke back.
Perry's problems with the English language and Texas's terrible record on education and health care go on. But the evening nonetheless started Perry's rehab.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow her on Twitter.)
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