The word today is that Rick Perry has beefed up his White House bid by adding some veteran Republican strategists to his beleaguered team. I don't envy them. Their first task is to forcibly remove the clownish pinwheel hat that Perry has affixed to his own head.

At a time when Perry needs most to appear presidential, if only to convince sane voters that he has the requisite tools for the big job, he instead has been pandering anew to the nutjobs. Witness his attempt this weekend to resurrect the presumably dead "birther" non-issue, in an online interview with Parade magazine.

In an interview with Parade magazine...now there's a phrase I never thought I'd write. Admittedly, I have long been a devotee of the celebrity factoids on page two - where readers can find out, say, how old Lindsay Lohan is, or how many times Frank Sinatra was married, or which Hollywood airhead is set to star in the latest craptastic movie - but now it turns out that Parade is profiling the presidential candidates. Which is how Perry got a fresh chance to commune with his own inner airhead.

The Parade interviewer asked, "Governor, do you believe that President Barack Obama was born in the United States?"

Perry: "I have no reason to think otherwise."

Q: "That's not a definitive 'Yes, I believe he' - "

Perry: "Well, I don't have a definitive answer, because he's never seen my birth certificate."

Q: "But you've seen his."

Perry: "I don't know. Have I?"

Q: "You don't believe what's been released?"

Perry: "I don't know. I had dinner with Donald Trump the other night."

Q: "And?"

Perry: "That came up."

Q: "And he said?"

Perry: "He doesn't think it's real."

Q: "And you said?"

Perry: "I don't have any idea. It doesn't matter. He's the president of the United States. He's elected. It's a distractive issue."

That was real cute. On the one hand, he was dog-whistling to the right-wing loons who even now refuse to believe the long-form birth certificate that Obama released last spring. (Lots of birthers are likely vote in the early Republican primaries.) On the other hand, he was purportedly taking the high road, in a bid to seem presidential, when he dismissed the whole "issue" as "distractive."

His "distractive" remark at least gave him a fig leaf. But early today, in an interview on CNBC, Perry summarily ditched the fig leaf. This time, when asked about his birther remarks, he simply replied: "It’s a good issue to keep alive. It's fun to poke at him (Obama)."

It's perversely refreshing to hear a politician talk so openly about his own cynicism. Indeed, it's a Texas tradition to knowingly float a false rumor in the hope of provoking one's opponent; there's an old story about how Lyndon Johnson claimed he had no idea whether his opponent ever had sex with farm animals, and when his aides admonished him for saying something he knew to be untrue, LBJ simply told them, "Oh, I know that. But let's make the sumbitch deny it!" Similarly, Rick Perry surely knows that this birther business is witless, that it's a distraction to the country to dredge up, yet again, a phony flap that was trumped by settled fact back in April. But, hey, "it's fun." And hey, "it's a good issue to keep alive" and "poke" the president with - even if it makes him look like a whacko who is six months behind the American mainstream.

Maybe this is just his Hail Mary pass, his desperate bid to get back in the game; according to the newly released CBS News-New York Times poll, Perry now ranks a distant fifth among the GOP contenders, drawing a mere six percent of likely Republican primary voters - having plummeted from a first-place 23 percent just one month ago. But I question whether bedding with the birthers will give him the boost he needs, or buttress his credibility on the fiscal front. (Would you buy a flat tax from a birther?)

As Karl Rove remarked on Fox News yesterday, "You associate yourself with a nutty view like that, and you damage yourself...It starts to marginalize you in the minds of some of the people whom you need." That's sensible advice from George W. Bush's political guru. But Perry won't take it, not merely because he dislikes Rove, but because he seems bent on insisting, however foolishly, that extremism is a winning strategy. As the prominent conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin laments today, "I don't think (Perry) has any idea how nutty he sounds." Clearly, his new handlers will have their hands full.

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