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As it began to appear that Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry’s “Ponzi scheme” position on Social Security was not going to hurt his front-runner status, I began to fear that Jon Stewart is right: “Oh, my god! Rick Perry is going to be our next president!” Then, yesterday, when a Dallas journalist, who claimed to have followed Perry’s political career for 20 years, began to detail how Perry’s political hitches and glitches – his switch from Democrat to Republican, for example – hadn’t hurt him, the journalist used a term I hadn’t heard in a while: Teflon. He said it appeared that Perry was coated with Teflon.
Remember who the original  “Teflon president” was? That’s right. Ronald Reagan. No matter what stupid, sleazy or downright criminal behavior turned up in Reagan’s administration, it never stuck to him. He could make promises that weren’t fulfilled, but we knew he wasn’t to blame. He even avoided the splatter when his USDA reclassified ketchup as a vegetable for purposes of the school lunch program.  While nutritionists and Democrats spluttered over the duplicity and wrong-headedness of this last, most of us just chuckled over the foolishness of attacking Good Old Ronnie for such a trivial thing.  Why, he clearly loved school children!
So how did he get that Teflon coating? Not from being “The Great Communicator” (his more exalted sobriquet), which he wasn’t, unless we perceive communication as merely reflecting what your audience is feeling, a not inconsiderable talent in itself, but not the same sort of thing as the transmission of the speaker’s unique ideas to the minds of his listeners. No, the Teflon was a part of who he was, like the hair, the slow speech, the confident smirk.
And, people, Perry has it, too. Including the hair, the slow speech and the confident smirk. Like Reagan, Perry doesn’t have to show us that he knows the answers; his presence, his bearing, his persona tell us that, if the answers become important, he will have them. Watch him on stage with The Seven Dwarves (not my image). He moves less, gestures less, controls the range of his voice more, looks bemused rather than angry when attacked. He even has, like Reagan, the manly, driven-by-his-persona witticisms, always lobbed from his elevated status, always reliant on the presumed good will of his audience, never too mean or too cute.
All eight candidates during the Reagan Library “debate” tried to grab the Reagan mantle: “I’m more like Reagan. No, I am. No, me.” But like-Reagan isn’t something you achieve; it’s something you are. Or are not, in the cases of The Seven. You pretty much have to be male (Sorry, Michele.), white (Sorry, Herman.), tall and rugged-looking (Sorry, Newt, Jon, Mitt and the other Rick.), and unflappable (Sorry, Ron.). You don’t have to be wise or even particularly intelligent, and you can’t be introspective or even deliberative. It is not mere coincidence, nor is it only a rhetorical device to drive my argument, that Ronald Wilson Reagan was, by training, an actor. Like-Reagan is a role you play, and, as with “James Bond”, you have to look, and sound, the part. Perry does, the others don’t.
Perry’s immediate rise to the top of the GOP charts cannot be explained by ideology or policy positions. Sure, he loves Jesus, but not more than Bachmann or Santorum, and sure, he hates Washington, but they all do. No, what he brings to the contest is the powerful male to whom we can abandon our ethical responsibilities, the Strict Father (in George Lakoff’s terminology), the tribal chieftain who makes the rules, a guy who would absolutely understand Nixon’s “When the president does it, that means it is not illegal.”  Perry came stumbling out of the gate, flaunting his ignorance of the world, doing his own thing, into the lead. Neither mandated Gardasil injections for sub-teen girls nor in-state tuition for “illegal aliens” will turn the GOP faithful away. They will forgive him because, man, he’s like-Reagan.
For all of the incessant chatter about “freedom”, most of us seem terrified of it. We yearn to step back from that yawning chasm of moral choice. We don’t want to grow up. We want to be children again. That’s the obvious attraction of our national religion: the welcoming haven in which we can kneel in supplication, lower our eyes and heads, murmur that we are not worthy, ask something bigger than we are, someone more powerful, anyone who can convincingly play that part, to tell us what to do. And we’ll promise just about anything, believe just about anything and do just about anything, to be able to shuck off that burden of freedom.
This is what we seek in our religion. And, it turns out, also in our politics. We found it in Reagan. I fear that we’ll find it in Perry, too.
ARC – 9/16/11
 Former Rep. Patricia Schroeder takes credit for this bon mot. See http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/editorials/2004-06-06-schroeder_x.htm
 Query: Did the Teflon transfer? Is this a reason why “Reaganomics” continues to have such a large and devoted following in the absence of any evidence that it works? Perhaps Mike can respond to this.
 Interview with David Frost, May 20, 1977.
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