POLITICS SEPTEMBER 15, 2011
Anyone interested in understanding the ongoing feud between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney—indeed, between the belligerent Texan governor and any of his many political adversaries, Democrat and Republican—would do well to look past the presidential debates of the previous week, and look instead to a book that was written by Perry several years back. No, not Fed Up, Perry’s 2010 manifesto, which Romney has been busily (and successfully) mining for discrediting material. It’s his previous book, the heartfelt tribute to the Boy Scouts that he took time away from his gubernatorial duties to publish in 2008, that provides the real key to understanding Perry’s Manichean temperament.
Where Fed Up was a feat of opportunism, an attempt to pander to the newly-founded Tea Party, his earlier book was both a true labor of love (he received no advance and donated all proceeds to the Scouts’ legal defense fund) and a stirring call to protect the integrity of the nation’s traditions. For the Perry of On My Honor: Why the American Values of the Boy Scouts Are Worth Fighting For “culture war” is no mere euphemism: He not only thinks of military siege as an apt metaphor for the state of American culture—he’d like to enlist Boy Scouts as his preferred ground troops.
In that way, On My Honor’s odd mix of autobiography and polemic underscores what truly animates Perry—and, needless to say, it isn’t tax policy. His real political passion is the protection of traditional American institutions against elitist attacks. It’s no accident that even though Perry’s campaign is supposed to be founded on his economic record as governor of Texas, he’s been having trouble staying on message.
In making his book-length indictment, Perry paints with a startlingly wide brush. “Student campus unrest, rejection of authority, the ‘self-esteem’ movement, moral relativism, and the demands of secularists all gradually fused into a series of attacks on American institutions,” he writes in the book. We learn that he disdains “secular humanism,” the “self-esteem movement,” and youth sports leagues that don't keep score. For good measure, he compares homosexuality to alcoholism, and supports corporal punishment of children.
Ultimately, for Perry, the Boy Scouts are the litmus test in adjudicating sides in this culture war. (Perry, it bears mentioning, is a proud Eagle Scout; he’s known to still wear his Eagle pin on the lapel of his suits.) As Perry tells it, the Scouts are at the center of two of the main fronts in the culture war: religion and homosexuality. The group has long barred participation by atheists or “avowed homosexuals.”
But it also becomes clear (to the reader of On My Honor, if not the author) that Perry’s fervor to protect traditional American culture—the reason he sees it as simultaneously fragile and central to the country’s fate—is motivated by his own nostalgia for an idealized childhood he can’t recover. Perry emphasizes that he learned to love the Scouting movement as a boy in the rural isolation of west Texas. There is poignancy here in his inability to distinguish between the personal and the political, the parochial and the historical. “Growing up in Paint Creek, I thought the things we were taught as Scouts—to do our best to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent—were pretty much what the Founding Fathers had intended for succeeding generations when they created our nation,” he writes.
If the focus on the Boy Scouts feels oddly dated, that's because it is right now—and it was in 2008, too. The Boy Scouts have faced a number of anti-discrimination cases, but their heyday was in the 1990s. Boy Scouts of America vs. Dale, the case that upheld the Scouts’ no-gays-allowed policy, ended in a 5-4 Supreme Court decision in 2000. But Perry is insistent on placing the Boy Scouts in the context of a larger historical struggle within American society between traditionalists and “the forces of nihilism and self-centeredness.” “If we believe our technology, firepower, and educational attainment will save us from licentiousness, godlessness, and undisciplined living,” Perry writes, “we bet on a losing proposition according to the history of civilization (Rome, Greece, and Babylon, to name a few).”
Perry’s most explicit target in this fight is a familiar Republican Party bogeyman: the ACLU. The ACLU, mentioned over 100 times in On My Honor, is Perry's favorite foil and he proceeds to reduce it to the caricature of cliche. (One sample: “Whether it is protecting the rights of pornographers, molesters, perverts, terrorists, garden-variety thugs, or those merely hostile to a belief in God, the ACLU is there to provide aid and comfort, in addition to a well-funded legal arsenal.”)
But for Perry the operative dividing line in the national culture war is between traditionalists and relativists, not Republicans and Democrats: party loyalty is secondary to ethical correctness. In that way it’s telling that long before they began sparring over Social Security, Perry and Romney butt heads over the Boy Scouts. When Romney, as head of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, barred the Boy Scouts from participating in the events, Perry seethed.
“Several years have gone by, and neither Mitt Romney nor anyone else who served as an official of the 2002 Winter Olympics has given a clear and logical explanation of why the door to volunteerism was shut on a willing ‘army’ of Boy Scout volunteers,” Perry later wrote in On My Honor. At the time, a Romney spokeswoman claimed that Boy Scouts weren’t old enough to work at the Olympics, but Perry was having none of it. He suspected Romney was taking a politically expedient pass on a crucial battle in the culture war.
On My Honor is a strange book, but a useful guide to candidate Perry. It clarifies why the governor of Texas, notwithstanding his state’s purported economic miracle, has been unable to resist questioning whether President Obama loves America, or suggesting that the military doesn't respect their current commander-in-chief. If Perry wins his party’s nomination, the President should prepare for a general election that’s going to be about a lot more than the recession.
Justin Elliott is a staff writer at Salon.