Praying with Rick Perry
“Would you like to pray?” That’s what Texas Governor Rick Perry asked me as the two of us stood alone in a corner of his office in the Governor’s Mansion. How did I find myself in this situation? It’s a long short story.
By Peter Jovanovich
“Would you like to pray?” That’s what Texas Governor Rick Perry asked me as the two of us stood alone in a corner of his office in the Governor’s Mansion.
How did I find myself in this situation? It’s a long short story.
For over thirty years, I worked in educational publishing. School publishing by its nature, particularly test publishing, is intensely political. Politicians care how tests are designed, written, administered, and scored because the results reflect on them. Testing provides not only a student’s scorecard; it’s also government’s scorecard.
Near the end of my career, I ran a $4 billion group that owned the largest school testing company in the U.S. That meant my calling on state testing directors, chairpersons of education committees in state legislatures, and even governors, where the biggest testing contracts were up for grabs. The largest state contract in total dollars was Texas. So, at the beginning of the last decade, as Texas was planning to put out a $100 million plus contract for bid, I worked the state.
My first port of call was visiting Governor himself, the Honorable Rick Perry. With my Texas lawyer (let’s call him Ross) guiding me, we met with the Governor in one of the conference rooms in the Mansion. Both my lawyer and Perry wore the Texas uniform: a suit and tie and cowboy boots.
At first, I thought the meeting didn’t go well. Ross asked the Governor how his wife’s diet was going, had she tried these energy bars that his wife swore by, and so on for several minutes. I found myself thinking: Why am I paying hundreds of dollars an hour for this kind of chitchat?
Eventually, it occurred to me that I must have the right representative if he felt free to discuss spousal diets with the Governor of Texas. But, we never got around to talk about testing. Perry insisted on leading the conversation elsewhere to his views on reforming higher education. He made a point of distinguishing his approach on educational reform from that of his predecessor George Bush. To give Perry credit, he did emphasize the central issue in colleges and universities, which is how to improve standards of instruction and learning while controlling the inflationary spiral in costs.
As we left the Governor’s Mansion, I asked Ross: “What did we learn from that?” He replied: “Two things. First, he’s leaving the contract up to the legislature. That’s why he didn’t talk about testing. And, second, he wants you to know he’s no Bush clone.”
So, off we went to call on the most important legislator in Texas – Lieutenant Governor David Dewhurst. In Texas the Lieutenant Governor essentially runs the Senate; there is no majority leader in that body of the legislature.
It was the summer of 2003, and Karl Rove and Tom DeLay were attempting to redistrict Texas’ congressional districts though an act of the legislature. As my lawyer and I walked into Dewhurst’s conference room, high drama was enfolding in the Capitol. I had barely begun my spiel about the testing contract when Dewhurst, after having been whispered to by an aide, stopped the meeting saying: “Gentlemen, would you mind moving into my office for a few minutes. I need to use the conference room.”
We obliged him of course, but more than 30 minutes passed. Bored at looking at pictures of the Lieutenant Governor with famous people, I asked Ross: What’s going on? He stepped though another door, and then came back saying: “You’re not going to believe this. Eleven Senate Democrats are threatening to leave the state in order to prevent a quorum. Dewhurst is meeting with his staff trying to figure out how to corral ‘em into staying.”
For the moment, both Dewhurst and I failed. The Democrats fled the state, and I never got to talk about the testing contract.
By fall of 2003, the Texas testing contract was still undecided, and I was seriously ill. An unknown lung disease was steadily robbing me of breath so that I was carrying a portable oxygen tank wherever I went – including Texas. My friend Ross had called me to say I needed to come down; it looked as if we were losing headway against our competitors. But, the trip was a bust. The Texas Capitol, even with elevators, is not designed for the handicapped; and, with little breath to make a sales pitch, and looking quite ill, I could tell the legislators weren’t listening to me.
In March of 2004, my life was saved by a double-lung transplant. The plan was for me to spend some time recuperating, and then go back to work in stages; but, as you now can guess, Ross called again saying: “We’re in trouble”. But, there was one complication – not the new lungs, they were working great – but my eyesight. It had been damaged by medication; I was legally blind and couldn’t navigate through an airport by myself.
So, my wife Robin flew with me this time; Ross met us at the airport and announced that we were going to the Governor’s Mansion first. “What for?” I inquired. “You told me the legislature was running the testing show.”
“Yes, that’s true,” said Ross, “but when I mentioned your Austin visit to a member of the Governor’s staff, the staff member called back later to say: “The Governor wants to see him.’”
The Texas Governor’s Mansion was (sadly, it was almost destroyed in a fire in 2008 and is under reconstruction) a beautiful Federal-style building with handsome woods and moldings, high ceilings, and mid-19th century furniture and paintings. We walked into the Governor’s office to find more than a dozen people gathered around talking to Perry. But, on seeing Ross and me, he beckoned us over, we chatted for a bit, and then, he said to me: “Come over here for a bit and let’s talk by ourselves.”
“I understand you’ve been through a lot. Would you like to tell me about it?” asked the Governor. So, for a few minutes I shared with him some of my health saga.
“And what have you learned from this experience?” he asked. Before I could answer, Perry interjected: “I bet you learned that our existence on this planet is a speck of time compared to God’s eternity.”
In fact, I didn’t need Rick Perry to tell me the meaning of my life; for, in truth I had undergone profound religious experiences during my illness. Prayer had become very important to me.
Speaking from the heart, I said: “Actually, Governor, I learned that there is Divine Providence; there is a plan for us – whether we live or die.”
Perry cocked his head towards me. I wondered if he was thinking: Who’s this guy with a prep school Northeast accent who talks like a Southern Baptist? And then he asked: “Would you like to pray?”
Reader, I was sorely tempted to pray for the contract. But, sensing that perhaps God had higher pleas to answer, I prayed the one that got me through it all. When we lifted our heads, I thought: Ask it now, you’ll never get another chance.
“Governor,” I asked, “do you have any advice for me regarding the testing contract?” He replied to this effect: You’ve got problems in the House.
It’s a longer story, which I won’t relate, as to what the issue was, except to say some House legislators had become enamored with a dangerously impractical approach to creating and administrating the state test. After a lot of jawboning by us and like-minded legislators, wisdom prevailed. Months later, we won the contract.
What to make of Rick Perry? He is not everything you expect. Indeed, he’s a politician, and like all successful politicians, he’s good at raising money. (The Perry for Governor campaign importuned me, and I donated.)
That he is an evangelical Christian is no surprise. I wasn’t, however, prepared for such a person to demonstrate his faith in such a personal way by expressing concern about my health.
As to the rumors of Perry’s distance from George Bush, they aren’t rumors. Particularly regarding education, Perry has a different agenda. Interestingly, he managed to get much of his agenda enacted, over the objections of some in the legislature, through the power of appointments to the various higher education boards and commissions.
As to how politically smart he is? He’s nobody’s fool.