Meet the New Rick Perry—Is He the Same as the Old Rick Perry?

Many pundits give the Texas governor slim odds in 2016 after his disastrous presidential run in 2012. Maybe they're missing something.
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Mike Theiler/Reuters

Let's start with the glasses. You know what I'm talking about: the dark-rimmed, nerd-chic eyewear that, since last summer, has emerged as the symbol of the new Rick Perry—serious, thoughtful, vaguely hipsterish. Perry critics mock them as a desperate ploy to make the governor look smarter, to erase the unflattering conventional wisdom, cemented during his 2012 presidential flameout, that he isn't all that bright. Republicans and Democrats alike joke about whether the lenses are simply clear glass. Recently, when Perry and Senator Rand Paul got into an op-ed spat over foreign policy, Paul snarked that the governor's "new glasses haven't altered his perception of the world, or allowed him to see it any more clearly."

I'd been wondering about the glasses, too. When I spent time with Perry in South Carolina a few weeks ago, the governor had accidentally left his spectacles back in Austin. "This is the first time I haven't had them in months!" he complained to me after I pulled out my own pair to read the logo on his black golf shirt. "I see fine at a distance," he explained. But reading things close up, like notes for a speech? Forget it. (Shortly after our conversation, an aide was dispatched to a North Charleston shopping mall to procure an identical replacement from a one-hour optical shop.)

A couple of weeks later, I emailed the governor's office to confirm that his much-discussed eyewear is used primarily for reading. Instead of a simple "yes," "no," or "not exactly," I received an email saying Perry would phone me himself to chat about "the details on the eye stuff."

And chat he did. On July 25, en route home from the Republican Governors Association's three-day confab in Aspen, Perry spent a generous 15 minutes or more walking me through his ophthalmological history—the gist of which really should be conveyed more or less verbatim:

"In 1967, when I was a young senior in high school, I was hit in the eye with a rock thrown across a football field by my best friend." The offending projectile "was a smooth stone, the size between a 50-cent piece and a silver dollar. It hit me directly in the left eye. I lost complete vision in that eye."

"Living where we lived, I didn't have access to an ophthalmologist for a period of time. Long story short, Michelle: My eye miraculously was healed. I don't know why. My left eye had filled with blood. I lost complete vision. And the eyesight came back after a period of time." He clarifies: "We're talking about over the course of a month or so."

Eventually, Perry received a proper eye exam. "I think an ophthalmologist took a look and said, 'Your vision's fine.' And so I went on about my life. I went to school. I got a contract with the United States Air Force to fly planes. Obviously, an eye exam is one of the most rigorous parts of that type of physical exam. My eyesight was 20/20." In all his flyboy days, Perry assures me, "there was never, ever any ophthalmologist or eye exam that ever questioned anything about my eyesight."

"So I go on through life. I hit my 40s, which is when eyesight starts to deteriorate. I never really had any deterioration. Then in my mid 50s—around 2004 or 2005—I start noticing that I needed some 1.25 or 1.5 reading glasses in the evening, like if I'm reading the Bible or a little something before I go to bed. Then I used the little ones you get at Wal-Mart." He chuckles. "Being a very frugal fellow, I would buy three for $10 at Wal-Mart. I'd leave them laying around."

Fast-forward to shortly after the 2012 presidential election. One night, sitting in his office at the state Capitol, the governor noticed that some air vents running along the wall no longer looked straight to him. "So I did a little self-exam and figured out that in my left eye there was some distortion in my vision. I went to see an ophthalmologist. She said, 'You know what, I'm going to send you to a retina expert. I'm seeing some things in here that are troubling.' "

And so off Perry went to Austin's Dr. Armie Harper. "He diagnosed me with what is referred to as pre-retinal fibrosis. For a layman, what that is—that injury that occurred 45 years ago was starting to manifest itself." Unlike the smooth, concave curve of a normal retina, explains Perry, "mine went up and then dipped down and went back up. It looked like somebody had pushed the retina in. What it is, it was the scar tissue that had never been readily visible from an eye exam. He said, 'It's like Saran wrap, when you heat it and it crinkles up. That's what's happening to your retina. There are two ways to deal with this. Try to correct it with glasses. Or have surgery.' "

Harper told Perry the surgery was "pretty technical." "He said, 'I do it. I'm pretty good at it' "—more chuckling from the governor—"as most doctors would say. But he said, 'I think you will be more comfortable if we try to address this with glasses.' So anyway, there's the story of how it came for me to make the decision to wear glasses."

From there, Perry went on to explain how he is right-eye dominant, how his vision will fade with age much like everyone else's, what happens when he closes one eye or the other, how his progressive lenses help in various situations, and how, minus his teenage injury, "you'd still see me with little peeper things we buy at Wal-Mart." As for his stylish new trademark, Perry's wife picked out the frames, and the governor is well aware of all the snickering. "From time to time, someone says, 'You need to get rid of the glasses,' " he tells me. "And there's a certain amount of people out there who say, 'He got the glasses to change his appearance.' I don't know whether it changed my appearance or not, but I'm pretty comfortable. I like being able to see."

I relay this extraordinarily comprehensive story because, first of all, I figure most everyone in Washington has wondered at some point about Perry's glasses. But I also share it because, at least in my experience, it's somewhat unusual for a (potential) presidential candidate to call up and lead a reporter so far into the medical weeds. That Perry did so speaks to a key aspect of his rehab mission: This is a guy seen as having mailed it in the last time he ran for president, stumbling and bumbling his way to disaster. This time around, whether it's finding the time for an exacting ophthalmological discussion, making repeat visits to Iowa, or offering self-deprecating jokes about his 2012 belly flop, Perry wants everyone to know that he is ready—gung ho, even—for the nitpicking and hoop-jumping and all-around hard work that a serious White House campaign entails.

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Michelle Cottle

Michelle Cottle is a senior writer for National Journal.

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