Has America Seen the Last of Rick Perry?

The three-term Texas governor announced he won't seek reelection, but sought to keep the presidential buzz alive.

Eric Gay/Associated Press

Rick Perry's big speech Monday had all the trappings of a campaign announcement, from the atmosphere -- a Caterpillar heavy-equipment plant in San Antonio, with Texas and U.S. flags arrayed against a backdrop of yellow bulldozers -- to the program. Perry was preceded onstage by a slick video extolling the Texas economy ("Job creation. Less spending. Fair regulation") and by his wife, Anita, who proclaimed, "I know how much Rick loves Texas."

The political world waited with bated breath; we really did not know what Perry was going to say next. Uncommonly in modern politics, the announcement's upshot had not leaked out in advance. Perry, 63, spent several minutes recounting his accomplishments in the 13-year run that made him the country's longest-serving governor, from tort reform to refusing to expand Medicaid. "We Texans are not afraid of a good fight," he said.

This could easily have been the run-up to Perry's argument that Texas needed him again. But it turned out to be the opposite: He was arguing that his work here was done. Perry will not run for reelection in 2014, he announced, saying it was time "to pass on the mantle of leadership" -- to whom, he did not specify.

Perry acted out his speech with a set of bizarrely exaggerated mannerisms. His eyebrows danced; his head waggled; he shifted on a dime from a furrowed brow of concern to a twinkle-eyed, folksy smile, as if he were an actor reading for a series of different parts -- or a pol doing a series of campaign-commercial camera takes. Throughout his career, it has never been clear whether "Governor Goodhair," as his detractors dubbed him, was a canny political mastermind or an expertly handled piece of raw political horseflesh. The case for the former: Until he ran for president, he had never lost an election in 27 years, and he exploited his enemies' underestimations to amass unprecedented power in the Lone Star chief executive. For the latter: That unforgettable "Oops," and the bungled presidential campaign that turned him into a national laughingstock.

I tend to think Perry was never as dumb as he seemed at his nadir as a presidential candidate -- but nor was he as smart as he thought he was when he decided to run. He had had back surgery a few weeks before he jumped into the national campaign, and subsequent accounts have confirmed that he was on pain medication that affected his stamina and muddled his thinking. I watched footage of Perry's gubernatorial debates, and they were nowhere near as bad as his presidential-candidate performances. But he also charged into the campaign with Texas bravado and an unearned frontrunner's arrogance. He assumed his rhetoric on immigration and his swaggering persona -- talking about stringing up the chairman of the Federal Reserve, for example -- would play as well on the national stage as his job-creation record and humble backstory. He had been so powerful in Texas for so long that he was unaccustomed to being challenged, much less outgunned.

Perry dropped out after the Iowa caucuses and returned to Texas diminished. The candidate he backed for U.S. Senate, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, lost the Republican primary to a political newcomer, Ted Cruz, despite pouring nearly $20 million into the race (Cruz spent $7 million). Perry had embarrassed Texas on the national stage, and Texas was no longer afraid to defy him.

But in his speech Monday, Perry clearly did not want to seem to be leaving with his tail between his legs. He reminded listeners that he has 18 months still to serve, including the current special session of the legislature, in which his bid for new restrictions on abortion is likely to prevail over the state's newly minted liberal heroine, state Sen. Wendy Davis. And he sought to feed the rumors he'll run for president again: "Any future considerations, I will announce in due time," he said, "and I will arrive at that decision appropriately."

Then a country song played, and his wife, daughter, son, daughter-in-law, and two-and-a-half-week-old granddaughter joined him onstage. Perry took the tiny infant and cradled her in his arms, kissed the top of her head, then showed her off to the crowd with an incredulous grin. In political animals, some instincts never die.