On the Campaign Trail
A Southwestern graduate is getting a firsthand view of the 2012 presidential race.
1998 graduate Jason Embry is one of two reporters from the Austin American-Statesman who are covering Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s bid for the Republican nomination. Embry was in South Carolina when Gov. Perry announced his candidacy Aug. 13, and he has since traveled with him to Iowa and New Hampshire.
Embry posts breaking news from the campaign trail on Twitter as well as his “First Reading” blog for the Statesman, which won a first place award from the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors this year.
He also does regular spots on KVUE-TV and KUT radio in Austin and has been on CNN, MSNBC, the BBC, Wall Street Radio and various other radio stations around the country.
In this Q&A, Embry talks about his life as a political reporter and his first time covering a presidential campaign.
How long have you been covering Gov. Perry and how did that all come about?
I’ve worked at the Statesman since 2003. My first year there I covered local news − schools, local government, crime − in San Marcos and Hays County. I started covering state government and politics at the end of 2004, focusing mostly on the state budget and public education. In the fall of 2007, I moved to Washington, D.C., to be the paper’s Washington correspondent, but I moved back a year later when the Statesman was put up for sale and we closed down our bureau.
I returned to Austin at the end of 2008 and began covering Perry exclusively. I covered his 2010 campaigns against Kay Bailey Hutchison and Bill White, and then covered him in the 2011 session. As the paper’s Capitol Bureau Chief and lead political writer, it’s now my job to cover the Perry presidential campaign.
Have you always wanted to cover a presidential campaign?
Yes. A presidential campaign is the Super Bowl. Voters pay so much more attention to a presidential race than a gubernatorial or congressional campaign, although those certainly have their own advantages. But my earliest political memories are of watching the 1984 conventions when I was eight years old, and every presidential campaign since then has been a really big deal to me. It really started to make sense to me in 1992, and then 1996 was the first time I ever voted, right there in Georgetown while I was a student at Southwestern.
I have covered two gubernatorial campaigns, 2006 and 2010, and I loved them both. I’m already looking forward to covering the race for governor in 2014. But a presidential campaign is an entirely different level.
When did you know Gov. Perry was going to run for president?
I have long suspected it. It was pretty obvious when he set out on a national media tour to promote his book the day after his 2010 re-election that he was going to try to run in a national campaign. But then he let his 2010 campaign manager go work for Newt Gingrich in March, and he agreed to chair the Republican Governors Association − something you don’t do if you’re running for president. In the days after Mitch Daniels of Indiana announced that he wasn’t going to run, Perry’s team tweaked its answer − from “He’s not going to run” to “He has no intention of running.” At that point, I knew it was probably going to happen. That was late May. He announced Aug. 13.
What is it like on the campaign trail?
It’s exhausting. It’s a particular challenge right now because there is no Perry campaign plane. So when he’s moving across Iowa, I have to move across Iowa as well in my rent car. This leaves very little time for writing unless you start skipping events. But that’s not a good idea with Perry, because you never know what he’s going to say. Those long drives do give you a lot of time to make your calls. In some ways it’s like touring with a rock band. If you only toured in Iowa and South Carolina.
How many reporters are traveling around with Gov. Perry right now?
At any Perry event, you will have at least 50 journalists − reporters, photographers, videographers, bloggers. As we get closer to the primaries, and certainly if he becomes the Republican nominee, that number will increase significantly.
How is Gov. Perry’s media operation? Is it well organized? Do you get a lot of access to him?
The campaign media operation is still taking shape. It’s a major transition from a gubernatorial campaign to a presidential campaign. In my years covering Perry as governor, access has been less than great. He will take a few questions here and there after speeches and other events, and he does one-on-one interviews from time to time. I think the Perry presidential campaign is still trying to determine how accessible it should be. Ever since this talk of the presidential campaign has picked up, they have spent very little time talking to objective news outlets. And, of course, they are now more interested in talking to national reporters than Texas reporters.
How well have you gotten to know Gov. Perry?
It took a while before he started calling me by name, but in his job, he has to learn a lot of names. I’ve traveled with him on very small airplanes a couple of times during gubernatorial campaigns and done several one-on-one interviews with him, so we’ve had a few occasions through the years to talk about family, dogs, sports and the like. You should never be friends with the politicians you cover, and there should always be a certain distance there, and there is. But it’s certainly a professional relationship. Some politicians, once they’re alone with you, will recite every grievance they have with everything you’ve ever written about them. Perry has never done that to me, and some of my columns in the Statesman have been pretty tough on him. There are a lot of reporters in the Texas press corps who have much more of a personal relationship with him than I do because they have covered him since he was a state representative in the 1980s or the agriculture commissioner in the 1990s. I’ve only known him personally as governor.
What is Gov. Perry like as a person?
He’s a guy who grew up in a part of West Texas known as the Big Empty. And he remains, in many ways, a West Texas boy. He is at ease talking about a lot of things − airplanes, the military, sports, farming, cameras (he loves photography). In the last campaign he carried around a laptop that was filled with pictures of his family and their dogs. He is smarter than many give him credit for, and his political instincts are good. He is not someone who dives deep into the details of public policy, however, and he is a very aggressive politician. He has a killer instinct that many politicians lack. I imagine some of his previous foes would call him ruthless.