Why do real and potential first ladies so often seem much more likable than their husbands? Laura Bush was a Dostoevsky-loving librarian. Judith Steinberg Dean was a quiet, glamor-shunning doctor. Michelle Obama’s popularity is still at 65%, compared to her husband’s 42%. Now we can add Texas first lady Anita Perry to that list of political wives more appealing than their husbands.
The New York Times profiles Rick Perry’s wife today, introducing her as a former nurse who now devotes herself full-time to her role as first lady of Texas, a position she has filled for 11 years now. Physically, she looks the part, with a trim figure and a big head of blond hair. Yesterday, she spoke at the official grand opening of her husband’s headquarters in Iowa.
But Anita Perry, 59, is more than just a campaign aide with a pretty face. Though she’s retired from nursing, her interest in women’s health has remained constant. She holds a master’s degree from the University of Texas Health Science Center, and Texas Tech’s nursing school was named for her in 2008. The Times suggests that Mrs. Perry’s advocacy for the HPV vaccine wielded real influence over her husband, who made a sudden turnaround on the issue of whether the state should require girls to be vaccinated back in 2007. Two years before that controversial decision, the first lady made a speech in which she said, “There is no reason why knowledge about HPV and cervical cancer cannot be as common as information about childhood immunizations and mammograms.”
She has been a long-time advocate for victims of sexual assault, working with the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault for many years. “She is a nurse first, first lady second,” Michele Mosbacher, a prominent Republican donor who is close with the Perrys, told the Times. “She uses her role as a platform to heal.” In fact, her work for that organization has come under fire from critics who point out that most of its major donors have connections to state government, implying that backers are able to access the governor by donating to his wife’s pet cause.
That’s not to say Anita Perry is likely to reveal herself as an undercover crusading feminist anytime soon. Shortly before her husband assumed the governorship, she said her priorities were “healthy, happy children, and a healthy, happy husband.” The Perrys were high school sweethearts and they’ve been married since 1982. She has said her guilty pleasures include cream cheese frosting and People magazine.
We’ll be hearing a lot more from Anita Perry as the presidential campaign rolls on. Her appeal doesn’t mean she can convince voters that her husband would be a good president for women. But it’s a good sign for her his campaign that the glimpses of her so far only make us want to know more – for better or for worse.