What Rick Perry's Footwear Tells Us

Just days before Rick Perry announced he was running for president, he said he'd retired the orthopedic shoes he needed for his back pain and said triumphantly, "I'm back in the boots!"

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Just days before Rick Perry announced he was running for president, he said he'd retired the orthopedic shoes he needed for his back pain and said triumphantly, "I'm back in the boots!" Perry had had spinal fusion surgery for back pain in July, and was spotted wearing orthopedic-ish black sneakers at a bill signing ceremony that month. But the cowboy boots' return was short-lived. Beauty is pain, and vanity comes before comfort, but the french cuff-loving Texas governor is only willing to take his vanity so far. By the time Perry participated in his first Republican debate a month later, the comfy shoes had returned. In September, the Houston Chronicle's Peggy Fikac asked his campaign if the footwear choice was made due to back pain -- and whether Perry's shaky debate performances and slurring speeches were too. The campaign responded that Perry simple "chose to wear comfortable shoes."

But that didn't stop speculation that Perry's stumbles on the campaign trail have something to do with his back. Vanity Fair's Bryan Burrough reports that the whispers around Austin are that the after effects of Perry's surgery must still be bothering him. Burrough writes:

“Ever since, and you saw this at the very first debate, he just seemed to be very uncomfortable, you know, twisting his torso,” observes the dean of Texas political writers, Paul Burka of Texas Monthly. “I think he’s got back pain and may be taking medication for it. He is not on his game. He stopped wearing [his trademark black cowboy] boots and started wearing orthopedic shoes and a back brace. Of course, the campaign denies there is any problem. But he doesn’t seem to have any energy. He just does not look like the same man to me. It’s shocking.”

Is there a correlation between Perry's worst moments in the campaign and his back pain? We investigated, using his footwear as a guide.

When Perry entered the race August 13, he strode confidently before a South Carolina crowd wearing his signature footwear. CBS News called him "Stylistically reminiscent of his predecessor as Texas governor who won the presidency" and said he "displayed some rhetorical swagger." (Photos via Associated Press unless otherwise noted.)

He impressed reporters in Iowa in the following days, though he was already back in some suspiciously comfortable-looking shoes August 15. But maybe that's to be expected if you're going to be walking around all day at the Iowa State Fair.
Perry was back in his boots September 1, at a ceremony for a Vietnam veteran. But he didn't wear them long.
Less than a week later, for his first presidential debate September 7, he started out the day in his boots. He arrived looking snazzy in California hours before the debate. But by the time he got his picture taken with Nancy Reagan -- Nancy Reagan! -- he was back in sneakers (below). He wore those for the debate. The soft shoes have been mostly what Perry's worn ever since.

It's clear he's worn comfy shoes to almost every debate -- his performances at which are credited for his quick drop from frontrunner to fourth place in polls -- except two. First, at the October 11 debate, it's hard to tell -- they're hidden behind a big table. (Here's a blurry closeup.) Perry was seated, which would take strain off his back. The second debate where he wore cowboy shoes was by far his worst (more on that below).

 Another time Perry was clearly wearing his comfort shoes was October 28, the day he gave his giddy speech that has become a viral video (photo at left via Getty). Organizers at the New Hampshire event felt compelled to say Perry had not been drinking. Several people speculated whether Perry had taken pain medication.

Perhaps his back had stopped hurting him, and he was feeling cocky. At his famous "Oops" debate, on November 9, Perry wore his boots.
These days, Perry deploys his less-comfortable shoes only when the situation is calls for manliness or is particularly high-def. On his post-"Oops" TV tour November 10, Perry wore some snakesskin-looking books for The Late Show with David Letterman.

And for the Columbia, South Carolina Veteran's Day parade, Perry wore these rubber-soled shoes that if you squint a little could almost pass for rugged boots.

On November 16, in Nashua New Hampshire, speaking to Veterans of Foreign Wars in thick-soled shoes.

He was back in boots on November 19, at The Family Leader's Thanksgiving Family Forum -- a debate where the candidates were seated. 

And here at the November 22 debate, his posture shows he's served in the military but his footwear shows his back might be hurting him.

At a town hall in Derry, New Hampshire November 29, he was wearing his rubber soles -- and again had a stool to sit on.

Critics have said Perry's worst moments in the debates always come in the second half, when he seems to get tired. That was definitely true at the November 9 debate, when he couldn't remember which federal agencies he wanted to abolish after standing for more than an hour in heels. The next day, on Letterman, he was funny despite his boots -- but that didn't come after a long period of standing. So, while only Perry knows how his back feels, after reviewing the evidence, we're going to say that it seems like cowboy boots have not been good for his campaign. He seems to like to wear them when he's his most confident, but if he's standing in them too long, that all fades. 

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.