Rick Perry’s optics
There’s a moment in season eight of the HBO comedy “Curb Your Enthusiasm” when the character Larry David (played in duly neurotic and cantankerous fashion by the real Larry David) discovers the transformative power of eyeglasses. When his friend Leon, an African American with a penchant for baggy pants and gold chains, is barred from an event being held in a snooty hotel, Larry suggests that white acceptance might be simply a matter of the right accessory.
“I’ve noticed that white people revere black people in glasses, go out of their way to do stuff with them,” Larry tells Leon. “A black man with glasses goes out for a job against a white man, glasses get the job. No glasses, no job.”
Sure enough, Leon puts on a pair of smart-looking specs and, even though the event is sold out and Larry himself is turned away, he’s immediately ushered in.
“This is better than anything the civil rights leaders have ever come up with!” Larry exclaims.
“I have overcome,” says Leon earnestly.
Is Rick Perry trying to pull off a similar trick with his glasses? Ever since the former Texas governor announced his candidacy for the Republican presidential nomination last week, there’s been much talk about whether Perry 2.0 will be discernibly smarter than the candidate we saw back in 2011. His famous “oops” moment — when he announced during a debate that he would shut down three major government agencies but couldn’t remember the third one — sealed his reputation as a something of a good-old-boy airhead.
But today, wearing darkrimmed, nerdy-cum-arty frames, Perry looks, if not exactly professorial, at least like he wouldn’t stand out at a gallery opening.
In fairness, the Jean Lafont glasses, which Perry says his wife picked out, may not be overtly part of his campaign strategy. For starters, he’s been wearing them since 2013. What’s more, it seems likely that Anita Perry chose this style simply because it’s often remarkably flattering.
Obviously this is subjective, but I’ve long noticed that when even the plainest person puts on a pair of dark, rectangular frames, he or she looks at least 60% more attractive. For instance, actor Paul Giamatti, not known for having an especially traditional Hollywood look, can thank his eyewear for kicking him up several notches in the appearance department. Perry, who was already a reasonably good-looking man, could pass for an aging male model in his glasses (the kind of guy you see in print ads for geriatric vitamins or retirement investment funds). At least if he lost that giant Aggie ring.
Perry’s frame style has its own taxonomy. The domain is Buddy Holly; the kingdom, Elvis Costello; the phylum, Tina Fey and so on. Personally, though, I like to call them Ira Glasses. Not just because they’ve always been integral to the signature look of the host of NPR’s “This American Life” but because the style seemed to gain cultural traction in the late 1990s and early aughts. That’s when the program’s edgy, alternative vibe went from being something that only cool people knew about to something that (much to the distress of the cool people) everyone was hip to.
The glasses frames had a similar trajectory. Formerly available mostly at vintage stores or highend urban boutiques, by 2001 they could be found at any Lens-Crafters. Sure, their sharp lines and dark color still qualified them as “statement eyewear.” It’s just that the statement basically amounted to “I’m different in exactly the same way everyone else is.”
Though there might be some truth to the theory that Perry’s choice of eyewear represents an attempt to look smarter — or at least less dumb — I suspect there’s an even subtler form of messaging in play. By sporting Ira Glasses, Perry may also be trying make himself more palatable to moderates and young people.
That’s because the glasses don’t say “I know perfectly well what three government agencies I’d shut down” as much as “I may support gun rights and not gay rights but that doesn’t mean I’m afraid to skew a little metrosexual” (there’s another late ’90s/early aughts term for you). They don’t say “I’m smart” as much as “I’m not a redneck.”
Which is all well and good. Though, as Larry David would point out, Perry still wouldn’t stand a chance against a bespectacled Leon.