Rick Perry: the man who might unseat Barack Obama
It is a pocket of rural America that has changed little in a century and is about as far removed from the bustle and marble monuments of Washington DC as one could imagine.
But Paint Creek, where ranches and wooden homes, some now abandoned, are dotted beside cotton and wheat fields, is the place that defines the man who some Republicans believe could unseat President Barack Obama next November.
Governor Rick Perry was part of the fifth generation to work the land at Paint Creek, some 200 miles west of Dallas on the flat expanse of plains known as “the Big Empty”.
It was here that he was imbued with the country values of church, family, neighbourliness, thrift and hard work that now seem part of a bygone America beyond places like West Texas.
“There were three things to do in Paint Creek: school, church, and Boy Scouts,” Mr Perry said last year, looking back on the late 1950s. “That’s it. And it was plenty.” Paint Creek was “one of the most beautiful places or it could be one of the most desolate” depending on the weather. As a child, he ventured, it was the home of “some of the most principled, disciplined people in the world, and faithful”.
Back in the late 1950s, he was known as Ricky Perry, a mischievous boy, always smiling, who lived with his parents and older sister Milla in a rented wooden house that lacked indoor plumbing. He wore a cowboy shirt hand sewn by his mother, a locally renowned quilter, and his highest ambition seemed to be to become an Eagle Scout.
Now 61 and governor of Texas since 2000, Mr Perry is the longest-serving chief executive of the state in its history and a man who has held elected office for almost 27 years. This weekend, he is expected to announce a bid for the American presidency, an office that until recently he had steadfastly maintained held no attraction for him.
Thus far, Mr Perry’s life has been characterised by uncanny good fortune and an ability to seize an opportunity and capitalise on it.
He left the Democratic Party in 1989 to run as a Republican against a prominent liberal who was the strong favourite to keep his post as Texas Agriculture Commissioner.
In 2000, he was a little-known lieutenant governor who was automatically elevated to the state’s top post when George W. Bush won the presidency.
For 2012, he finds himself almost ideally positioned as the photo negative opposite of Mr Obama, a cerebral liberal with an exotic upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia who had no executive experience before the White House and had spent his adult life in academia and Democratic-controlled cities.
Many believe that changes within the Republican party could also play to his advantage.
Mr Perry was one of the earliest major politicians to embrace the anti-tax, small-government Tea Party movement.
His suspicion, bordering on hostility, of the federal government is in line with the more conservative, populist tilt the party has taken.
A proud Christian who recently held a national prayer event to call for “God’s help” in rescuing Americans “adrift in a sea of moral relativism”, he is unafraid to mix matters of church and he is likely to win over many evangelicals.
And while his slashing of the health and education budgets in Texas as part of a radical austerity programme might alarm swing voters, they fit the mood of Republicans rising up in protest over debt and deficits.
Yet as a big state, established governor many establishment figures and large donors will be comfortable with him.
Another possible advantage is the opponents he needs to beat to capture the Republican nomination.
Mitt Romney, the current front-runner, has switched from being a moderate on key issues like abortion and is regarded with suspicion by the Tea Party and right wing talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh.
Michelle Bachmann, a congresswoman for just four years and who has surged in polls, is seen by many senior Republicans as erratic and untested.
In contrast, Mr Perry, who has championed Israel and called for a muscular foreign policy, has the ability to appeal to all five elements of the party – fiscal, social and national security conservatives plus the Tea Party and the Establishment – without alienating any.
That fiscal element should resonate most – his state is experiencing phenomenal growth and job creation at a time when the national economy is slumping amid fears of a double-dip recession.
But critics will be quick to argue Rick Perry’s policies come with a price. Texas has some of the lowest high school graduation rates and highest poverty rates in America. The danger is that he will be seen as too right wing, too religious and too Texan to win a general election.
Texas is much more conservative than most of the US and memories of Mr Bush, the last Texas governor and wearer of cowboy boots to seek the Oval Office, could be a problem.
Mr Perry has publicly mused about the possibility of Texas seceding from the Union and has sanctioned a record 232 executions as governor.
The cotton fields at Paint Creek are empty this year because of the fearsome drought. But amid the dust and searing heat, beneath a vast blue sky, the farmland of Mr Perry’s youth is still being worked. Life here is as hard as ever.
At the school, from which Mr Perry graduated third in a class of 13 in 1968, Don Ballard, the school superintendent, reflected on the place that had made Mr Perry what he is.
“We had farm values,” he said “We got up, we worked and we knew what the dollar meant. There was no squandering money here there and yonder. Everybody struggled.
“You’d have a good crop one year and maybe a bad crop the next. Rick Perry understands being up and being down and that if you’re down you’ve got to work to get back up. Most of the families round here want their kids to be better and have more than what they had growing up.” Mr Perry is descended from Confederate veterans of the Civil War on both sides. In an old interview, his grandfather Hoyt Perry, who died in 1992, recalled how his father arrived at Paint Creek in 1887.
“The whole country was covered with prairie dogs. The buffaloes were killed in about the 1870s. I did a lot of farming with the mules. We made our own toys. We made a wheel with an axle and rolled it around.” The future Texas governor spent his teens living in a brick bungalow that his father built a field away from the wooden frame home. J.R. “Ray” Perry and his wife Amelia, now in their mid-80s, still reside there.
Outside the house, beside a dusty farm road, the elder Mr Perry, who was out fixing his irrigation system, describes how he took a bus from Paint Creek after graduating from the school in 1943 and joined the US Air Force.
He was subsequently stationed at RAF Horham in Suffolk, from which he flew missions over Germany in B-17 bombers.
“Rick took us back there four or five years ago and we went to the old base. Of course there was nothing there, just a little strip of runway that they didn’t destroy. The rest they turned back into fields.
“I flew 35 missions as a tail gunner and never got a scratch. We had one gunner killed and one wounded. They got damn close to me but they missed me.” His son followed him into the Air Force in 1972 and became a transport pilot, flying C-130s in Europe and the Middle East.
Bob Earles went to Paint Creek School with Mr Perry and was a fellow Boy Scout. They both went to Valley Pennsylvania for the Boys Scouts of America Jamboree of 1964 and visited Washington, where they were given a tour of the Capitol.
“It was different world,” he says. “Back here we’d water ski on the lake in summer and camp out. If we did something wrong and got in trouble, the scoutmaster would call a board of education â “ a wooden paddle. It was a real Christian place. Baptist or Methodist, everyone was one or the other.” In the summer of 1966, Bob Earles introduced Ricky Perry to a girl called Anita Thigpen, who lived in the town of Haskell about 10 miles away and was staying at a lake cabin. “I saw a lot less of him after that,” Mr Earles joked. After a 16-year courtship, the two married and today Anita Perry is First Lady of Texas.
At the Double A Drive-In restaurant and the Rodriquez Inn, where the Texas governor still dines when he visits, there is still talk of Mr Perry’s antics as a youngster.
Bob Earles remembers the time when the two of them climbed on the school roof and built a snowman, intending to push it off on top of the girls’ basketball team. Unfortunately, the snowman landed on the head of the school superintendent.