Rick Perry has been studying oratory with a former Shakespeare actor, and it showed on Monday, when the former Texas governor paced around a small gathering in a two-stoplight-town farming village in Iowa.
Perry stretched his hands apart like a huge balloon when he talked about Texas’ job growth. He dramatically swung two fingers in a general southerly direction when he recalled his tough border policies in 2014. But it was the subtler speaker's trick that may have won Perry’s listeners over: know your audience.
“When I look at a resume and I see ‘Eagle Scout,’ I can take that out and put it in a special pile,” Perry told a crowd with plenty of Boy Scouts of America members and U.S. military veterans.
“I may be applying for a job in the future,” Perry continued, “so I want them to know I was an Eagle Scout.”
The former 14-year Texas governor and Eagle Scout has been on a multi-day tour of Iowa, speaking at town hall meetings and restaurants across the state, revving up for what is likely to be the launch of his candidacy on June 4 in Texas.
With the Republican field getting crowded, likely candidates are looking for ways to set them apart as they roam the early primary states. In his pitch Monday in Holstein, northwestern Iowa, Perry spent a full 10 minutes—one-third of his prepared remarks—talking about his military experience and the leadership skills he learned in the Boy Scouts.
For Scouts, it's a familiar sales pitch. The typical script for an Eagle Scout court of honor includes a shout-out to the presidents (John Kennedy, Gerald Ford) and members of Congress who earned Scouting's highest rank. (And lawmakers love to return the favor.)
Still, in such a crowded Republican field, Perry faces competition even on this front from Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, who prominently notes that he reached Eagle in the third sentence of his official bio and once responded to a question about sending troops into combat by citing his time in the Scouts. Even former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, who attended the kickoff for a Scouting alternative that refuses to admit gay and transgendered boys, had a Scout troop hoist the flag at his campaign launch.
Perry, who is 65, spoke of Scouting in more personal terms, arguing that the trail to Eagle was not unlike the campaign trail.
“Because I know something about that young person right off the bat: that at a young age, they started a major project, that had a long process to come to its fruition,” he said. “I know they started a major project and they followed a guide book to its conclusion. And with that discipline, that focus as a 12- to 17-year-old, they most likely have those same characteristics as a 25 or 35 or 45-year-old—or 65-year old individual."
As for his service in the Air Force as a pilot: "I don't think there's a greater way to serve your country than to wear the uniform of your country," he said to enthusiastic applause.
The Republican presidential contest is turning into a chaotic contest that is increasingly being defined by candidates’ foreign policy credentials. Former Gov. Jeb Bush stumbled last week when he was unable to clarify whether he would have chosen to invade Iraq. Scott Walker in poor taste compared defeating 100,000 union protesters in his own state to fighting the Islamic State. Sen. Rand Paul has recast himself as less of a foreign policy dove over the past year, but many conservatives are unconvinced.
Perry, meanwhile, is reminding all who will listen that he was a veteran and that he has the kind of leadership experience to be a tough foreign policy player. (Perry never saw combat during his service, as Democratic presidential hopeful Jim Webb did in Vietnam.) Perry opposes any deal with Iran on the grounds that the Islamic Republic cannot be trusted (“there ain’t going to be a good deal with Iran, because I don't think you can trust them”) and wants to increase the United States’ military capacity (the military is at its smallest since 1940, Perry reminded his audience). Earlier on Monday, he said he would not have invaded Iraq knowing what he knows now, but lambasted President Obama for pulling out of Iraq early, CNN reported.
In Holstein, Perry chose as good a place as any to talk about uniformed service. The one-commercial street town, which has at its center a large granary and is in the heart of biofuel country, is predominantly traditional and in Iowa’s conservative West. There are more than 200 Eagle Scouts in the county of 7,000 people, and when Perry thanked “the mothers and fathers” of Eagle Scouts, there was wild applause.
Eagle Scouts and Scoutmasters dressed in full garb gathered after the town hall meeting was over and praised Perry’s time in the BSA.
“It would throw some weight with me,” said Jody Fraser, a Scoutmaster, said of Perry’s Eagle Scout rank.
“I think it does mean a lot in terms of character,” said Harry Oakley, a Marine Corps veteran and Eagle Scout who wore a felt blazer and jeans. “I’m glad that isn’t lost on Governor Perry.”