7 most controversial Rick Perry moments

The Texas governor calls Ben Bernanke a traitor, the BP oil spill an "act of God," and toys with the idea of a Texas secession. And that's just the beginning

Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry
(Image credit: REUTERS/Jim Young)

Texas Gov. Rick Perry's (R) young presidential campaign is off to a colorful start. On Monday night, he accused Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke of treason, drawing criticism from even Republican stalwarts like strategist Karl Rove. But if his history of "memorable remarks" and controversial actions is any guide, says Paul J. Weber in the Associated Press, "Perry's just warming up." Here are seven moments from Perry's decade as governor that may haunt him — or help him — on the campaign trail:

1. Calls Bernanke "treasonous"

The controversy: At an Iowa campaign event Aug. 15, Perry answered a question about the Fed and Bernanke: "If this guy prints more money between now and the election, I don't know what y'all would do to him in Iowa, but we would treat him pretty ugly down in Texas. Printing more money to play politics at this particular time in American history is almost treacherous, or treasonous, in my opinion." (Watch the video)

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The reaction: "Treason is a capital offense," says Brent Budowsky in The Hill. "Is Perry suggesting the death penalty" for Bernanke, or just violence? Either way, that's "sick stuff." I dismissed the liberal "harrumphers" at first, says John Podhoretz in Commentary. But threatening Bernanke, instead of just disagreeing with his policies, is "a thoughtless blunder, an unforced error," and "a serious rookie mistake on the national stage."

2. Floats idea of Texas secession

The controversy: In 2009, as he was fending off a GOP primary challenge from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R), Perry suggested to a group of tech bloggers that Texas could secede from the United States: "When we came into the nation in 1845, we were a republic, we were a stand-alone nation. And one of the deals was, we can leave anytime we want. So we're kind of thinking about that again." (Listen to Perry's comments) A month later, Perry told reporters at a Tea Party Rally: "If Washington continues to thumb their nose at the American people, you know, who knows what might come out of that... Texas is a very unique place, and we're a pretty independent lot to boot."

The reaction: "Given Perry's fondness for secession," he's "got a lot of nerve" attacking Obama for insufficient patriotism, says Joan Walsh in Salon. Perry's spokesman says the governor was joking, and never advocated secession, says Jay Root in The Texas Tribune. But Perry's wrong, in any case: "Historians say Texas has the right to break itself into five separate states — not to form an independent country."

3. Executes possibly innocent man

The controversy: In 2004, Perry refused a stay of execution for Cameron Todd Willingham, convicted of murder for the 1991 house fire that killed his three daughters. Shortly before his execution, an arson expert sent Perry's office a report arguing that the arson evidence was flawed and unconvincing. Several other arson experts agreed. In 2009, two days before the Texas Forensic Science Commission (TFSC) was on the verge of hearings that seemed likely to uphold that view, Perry replaced the oversight board's chairman and half its members, delaying the hearing until after Perry's reelection.

The reaction: Lots of death row inmates declare their innocence, but in "Willingham's case, it may well have been true," says The Economist. If Perry executed an innocent man, "don't expect his primary rivals to bring up this old case," says Justin Elliott in Salon. In 2009, Hutchison accused Perry of the lesser crime of "trying to ramrod a covering-up." Then Perry's team blasted her for being soft on the death penalty, and Perry crushed her by 20 points.

4. Hosts prayers for rain, and the economy

The controversy: As Texas endured rampant wildfires and drought this year, Perry declared April 22-24 "Days of Prayer for Rain in the State of Texas." On Aug. 2, the governor led a national evangelical Christian fasting and prayer rally in Houston, called "The Response," in which he asked God for forgiveness for the "fear in the marketplace" and "anger in the halls of government," among other things. As many as 30,000 people attended.

The reaction: Perry's "pitch to Jesus" in Houston was "no ecumenical event," says The Toledo Blade in an editorial. And his eagerness to erase church-state boundaries and exclude non–fundamentalist Christians "should give Americans pause in considering him as a serious candidate for the White House." Actually, Perry's "public expression of faith probably seems perfectly normal to many Americans," says Jonathan Tobin in Commentary. For Perry, it's GOP primary gold.

5. Mandates HPV vaccine for girls

The controversy: In 2007, Perry signed an executive order requiring sixth-grade girls to to be vaccinated against human papillomavirus (HPV), a sexually transmitted disease tied to cervical cancer. The action drew criticism because Perry's former chief of staff was a lobbyist at Merck, the only company which made the vaccine at the time. Many social conservatives and libertarians were also angry, arguing the vaccine encouraged promiscuity or impinged on personal choice. The Texas legislature overrode the order. On Aug. 15, 2011, Perry said for the first time he "made a mistake" by mandating the vaccine.

The reaction: The HPV vaccine order was one of the "very few political missteps" the politically shrewd Perry has made as governor, says Economist correspondent Erica Grieder in her blog. His recent second-guessing of that order may appease conservative voters, says Dan Amira in New York. But it's a useful reminder that despite Perry's "enormous buzz and high expectations, he, like everyone else in the race, is bringing his baggage with him."

6. BP oil spill may be an "act of God"

The controversy: During the record 2010 BP oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, Perry warned against halting oil drilling, saying that it was unclear what had triggered the massive oil leak. "And until we know that, I hope we don't see a knee-jerk reaction across this country that says we're going to shut down drilling in the Gulf of Mexico... From time to time there are going to be things that occur that are acts of God that cannot be prevented."

The reaction: BP negligence caused the spill, not God, says Lee Fang in Think Progress. But remember, Perry was speaking at an event hosted by the BP-funded U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which "has worked aggressively to oppose regulations and fight for more offshore oil drilling." Perry's overt religiosity also makes it seem like he's arguing that the BP spill is "God taking revenge on us," says University of Texas law professor Steve Bickerstaff, quoted by PolitiFact Texas. But he's right that "the term 'act of God' has very prominent historical significance, very commonly used in contracts" and laws.

7. Proposes Predator drones patrol U.S.-Mexico border

The controversy: In New Hampshire on Aug. 13, Perry suggested beefing up U.S.-Mexico border security: "We know that there are Predator drones being flown for practice every day because we're seeing them... They're obviously unarmed, they've got the downward-looking radar, they've got the ability to do night work and through clouds. Why not be flying those missions and using (that) real-time information to help our law-enforcement? Because if we will commit to that, I will suggest to you that we will be able to drive the drug cartels away from our border."

The reaction: Perry's suggestion isn't so new, says Maggie Haberman in Politico. "The Department of Homeland Security has been flying drones along that border for the last six years." And that's been public knowledge for two years, says Nathan Pippenger in The New Republic. "If you're an average voter (and not, say, the governor of Texas), you could be forgiven for not knowing the details of our current southwest border surveillance efforts," but what's Perry's excuse?

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