Which Department Should Rick Perry Head? The Answer Will Come to You.

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I have a soft spot for Rick Perry, finding his aw-shucks demeanor more natural-seeming than most politicians’. I can even remember the time, in the summer and fall of 2011, when Perry seemed the strongest Republican challenger to Barack Obama for the 2012 race. The reasoning back then: like George W. Bush before him, Perry was an affable-seeming, popular incumbent governor of an important state. Also like Bush, he was unusual among Republicans in maintaining broad Latino support without alienating immigration-hardliners in his own party.

Then came the Republican-primary debate of November 9, 2011, when Perry had his extended “Ooops!” brain-freeze. If you’ve forgotten the episode, Perry had promised to eliminate three whole federal cabinet departments. But when he tried to name them, he got through two (the Departments of Commerce and Education) but couldn’t come up with the third, not even after checking his notes and thinking about it.

If you haven’t gone back to see this moment in a while, it’s worth another look, in the clip below. Perry actually takes his on-stage embarrassment with good humor. Still, it is as agonizing a 60-second stretch as you’re likely ever to see in a live debate. And, as I remarked during the Time Capsule series, it was the sort of gaffe that back in the pre-Trump age could de-rail an otherwise promising candidacy, as it appeared to do to Perry’s.

Again, I find Perry more appealing as a person than some of the other characters now coming onto the national stage. But it is somehow an appropriate metaphor of our era that, if he is nominated and confirmed, this could be the sequence of U.S. Secretaries of Energy:

  • 2009-2013, Steven Chu, winner of the Nobel prize in physics, professor of physics at UC Berkeley, director of Lawrence Berkeley National Lab;
  • 2013-2017, Ernest Moniz, professor of nuclear physics at MIT, former under secretary of Energy;
  • 2017- , Rick Perry, the man who couldn’t remember the department’s name.

Because many people don’t know this, it’s worth pointing out that the Energy Department officially runs most nuclear-energy and nuclear-weaponry programs for the United States, plus 17 of the famous advanced-research National Labs — Oak Ridge, Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore and Lawrence Berkeley, Fermi, and so on. That’s why the background in physics that Chu and Moniz shared was so relevant. Moniz also played a leading technical and diplomatic role in the Iran-nuclear deal.

Academic or research excellence doesn’t automatically translate into administrative success. The metaphor-for-a-moment point is simply that, if Perry becomes secretary, we’ll go from two leaders whose life work was part of the mission of the agency, to someone who couldn’t remember its existence.