Authors: Gail Collins
Tags: #Political Science, #Political Process, #General
ALSO BY GAIL COLLINS
When Everything Changed:
The Amazing Journey of American Women from 1960 to the Present
Four Hundred Years of Dolls, Drudges, Helpmates, and Heroines
Scorpion Tongues: Gossip, Celebrity, and American Politics
The Millennium Book
(with Dan Collins)
William Henry Harrison
For Gary, Mary Ann, and Patricia
My fascination with Texas began rather suddenly. It was the spring of 2009—you will remember, that was the season when the political right was failing to adjust to the idea of a President Obama. And there was Governor Rick Perry at a Tea Party rally in Austin, publicly toying with the idea that his state might consider seceding.
It was quite a moment. Perry was standing behind a podium with a “Don’t Mess With Texas” banner, wearing jeans, his trademark boots, and looking pretty damned ticked off. “Texas has yet to learn submission to any oppression, come from what source it may,” he said, quoting the state’s great founding father, Sam Houston. When Houston made that remark, he was definitely attempting to break away from the country to which Texas was then attached.
like oppression then, we don’t like oppression now!” Perry roared to the cheering crowd, some of whom were waving “Secede!” signs. It did sure sound like an Alamo kind of crisis. Their backs were to the wall!
And, important point: this was just a rally about the stimulus package.
It was perhaps the first time the rest of the country had taken notice of the fact that twenty-first-century Texans did not necessarily consider the idea of breaking away to become a separate nation as, um, nuts. We non-Texans were somewhat taken aback. How long had this been going on? Was it something we said?
We’ve got a great
union,” Perry assured reporters after the rally ended. “There’s absolutely no reason to dissolve it. But if Washington continues to thumb their noses at the American people, you know, who knows what might come of that?”
Does this sound like a serious commitment to you? Try to imagine a husband telling his wife that he saw absolutely no reason to get a divorce—but if she continued to fail to live up to expectations, who knows what might come of that?
You had to pay attention. Not necessarily to Perry himself, who of course went on to become one of the worst candidates for president in all of American history. But the rally, with its combination of egomania (We’re the best!) and paranoia (Don’t mess with Texas!), was a near-perfect reflection of the Tea Party’s war cry in national politics.
That’s not an accident. The more I looked at Texas, which seemed to be having an anti-Obama rally every time a cow mooed, the more important it seemed. Without anyone much noting it, Texas had taken a starring role in the twenty-first-century national political discussion. For one thing, it had the hottest economy—which the rest of us were told we’d better emulate unless we wanted all the local employers to pack up and move to Plano. The reason Perry imagined he could be president was the way Texas had created job growth by hewing to the low-tax-low-regulation ethic that the political right believes should be the model for the entire country. (The model had certain flaws, such as the assumption that every state could scrimp on higher education and just build a large professional class by importing people who went to college in other states. We’ll get to that later.)
Then a friend sent me a headline from a Texas news report: “
Man Allegedly Beat
Woman with Frozen Armadillo.” I was totally hooked.
So I started thinking a lot about Texas. Looking back over the last quarter century or so, I was stunned by how much of the national agenda it had produced, for good or ill.
Texas banking laws set the stage for the savings and loan crisis in the 1980s. The 2008 economic meltdown was the product of a financial deregulation that was the work of many hands, but most particularly the paws of Texas senator Phil Gramm. Our energy policy is the way it is in large part because Texas politicians and Texas special interests like it that way. (If the polar ice caps melt, it’s not going to be Utah’s fault.) Schools from Portland, Oregon, to Portland, Maine, have been remade, reorganized, and sometimes totally upended under a federal law based on Texas education reform. For several generations, our kids have been reading textbooks written with an eye to Texas sensibilities. Texas presidents have led the country into every land war the United States has been involved in since Vietnam.
Why, then, is it so cranky? Is it because of its long string of well-funded but terrible presidential contenders? True, being the home state of Rick Perry, the “oops” candidate, had to be embarrassing. On the other hand, thanks to the Bushes, there’s been a Texan president or vice president for twenty of the last thirty-two years, so the lack of White House access hardly seems like an appropriate subject for sulking. Is it the weather? The state of Washington has terrible weather, and you don’t see people there threatening to secede.
The crankiness is actually a source of Texas’s political power. The state has a remarkable ability to be two contradictory things at once. As we’ll see later, it’s a fast-growing, increasingly urban place whose citizens have nevertheless managed to maintain the conviction that they’re living in the wide open spaces. And its politicians are skilled at bragging about the wonderful Texas economy and lifestyle while wailing and rending their garments over their helplessness in the hands of the federal Death Star in Washington. You need that sense of victimhood because it creates energy and unity. You can’t build a Tea Party on good news.
Another reason the Texas influence on the US is outsized is that the place is just so damned big. The country has other hugely influential large states, like California and New York, but they’re not on an upswing. California has more people, but it’s hit a bad patch and it’s struggling. New York is the media capital and it has Wall Street, but its population is flat. Texas just keeps growing, by leaps and bounds. (Think jackrabbit. It’s a good metaphor. A really, really large jackrabbit.)
The huge Texas population—up 4.3 million in a decade—has an enormous impact on the country all by itself. We’ve got a super-big state with a young citizenry and a very high birth rate. You have to figure that by 2050, the entire United States will have a distinctly Texas cast. The state’s ability to rear, educate, and prepare all the little Texans to take their place in the national economy is going to be an excellent predictor of how well the whole country will be faring down the line.
We will get into that later, but—spoiler alert—the odds of success would be better if Texas had more control of the teenage birth rate. Did I ever tell you about the time Rick Perry defended abstinence-only sex education by saying that he knew from his own personal experience that abstinence worked? No? Well, I will. Soon.
We’re not used to thinking of Texas as a driving force in American affairs, but there you are. Even when Democrats held the White House in recent decades, Texans seemed to be holding the reins—reins that were being used mainly to hog-tie the chief executive. Bill Clinton had to deal with two Texans—House majority leader Dick Armey and whip Tom DeLay—whose lasting contribution to American history was mainly the thwarting of the Clinton agenda, particularly health care reform. Barack Obama has been hamstrung by the power of the Tea Party Republicans, whose first big coming-out parties were organized by Armey and whose ideology sprang, as much as from any place coherent, from the thinking of Texas congressman Ron Paul.
In this book, I want to try to show you how Texas has driven the national agenda, and then what it means to have Texas as the Republican model for the entire American economy. But first, in the next few chapters I want to introduce you to Texas and its political history which, no matter how you slice it, is pretty amazing.
You’d imagine a place with a motto like “Don’t Mess with Texas” would be a small, scrappy state. But Texas is a
, scrappy state. What could be more unnerving? And really, there’s never a dull moment. Take the frozen armadillo situation. I couldn’t resist looking into it, and at one point in my research I ran into an officer of wildlife enforcement who assured me that it was illegal to sell a live armadillo in Texas.
Dead armadillos you can sell parts of them,” he added. “Make a curio of a little armadillo on his back drinking a bottle of beer.”
How could you not want to know more about a state like that, particularly when it appears to have been setting the entire national agenda for decades, while continually howling about how the federal government is pushing it around?
And the people are great. I can attest that I had a wonderful time with everyone I met while I was wandering around, trying to figure out how Texas inspired a national education law which the politicians in Texas now denounce on an almost hourly basis, or why a state that would get more economic benefit than anybody from the health care reform law is so determined to repeal the health care reform law.
Anyhow, that’s how I became obsessed with Texas. To paraphrase the old saw about elections and Maine, it really does seem as if these days, as Texas goes, so goes the nation. Whether we like it or not.
GETTING TO KNOW YOU
Remember the Alamo
“Sort of a cultural identity thing”
his is the Republic of Texas seal. On every elevator you can find that seal, and every original doorknob,” says the tour guide in the state capitol in Austin. It’s a sweaty summer weekday, and the place is crawling with families—a multicultural mix of somber little kids, parents, and seniors, all wielding their cameras at the lofty dome, which rises precisely 14.64 feet higher than the one in Washington DC. At this moment, we are peering from the third floor down into the rotunda, where the big symbol of the Republic of Texas (1836–45) is celebrated in the terrazzo floor.
“There are a couple of other states that have been republics,” the guide continues. He is a young man with amazingly long sideburns and a habit of saying “pretty cool.” “Vermont was a republic—for like
Actually, fourteen years, although Vermont doesn’t dwell on it.
Our little group is mulling the design on the rotunda floor, and someone on the tour wants to know about the five smaller seals surrounding the big symbol of the long-gone republic.
“This is the famous six flags—sort of a cultural identity thing,” says the guide.
Besides its nine glorious years of independence, Texas brags that it has been, in its history, a part of France, Spain, Mexico, and the Confederacy, not to mention the United States of America. There is a famous amusement park in Arlington, Texas, that celebrates this six-flags concept. France is sort of a stretch (we are talking about one deeply unsuccessful settlement somewhere near Louisiana), but it’s the small, off-center placement of the American flag in the design on the rotunda floor that’s seriously unsettling. It’s as if Texas’s nine years of independence was the center of its story, while its role as part of the United States is a colorful afterthought, like the brief flirtation with the French.
If we want to understand what Texas means to the rest of the country, first we have to understand a little about what Texas means to Texans. The memory that it was once an independent country, and the conviction that it could be again, any time it wants to, weighs heavily in the state mentality. “
We are very
proud of our Texas history,” Rick Perry said in the wake of the secession dustup. “People discuss and debate the issues of can we break ourselves into five states, can we secede, a lot of interesting things that I’m sure Oklahoma and Pennsylvania would love to be able to say about their states, but the fact is, they can’t. Because they’re not Texas.”
The governor’s certainty that the rest of us are mooning around wishing we could have secession discussions is sort of touching, in a terrifying kind of way. But he is right that Texans do enjoy having lively exchanges about their state’s history. I was once at a dinner party in Austin where I listened to an intense debate about whether Davy Crockett had died fighting at the Alamo, or had been captured and executed later, and I must say I enjoyed that conversation very much. Texas cannot, however, secede. They tried it once, and Abraham Lincoln did not have a positive reaction.
It is true that when the state was annexed the door was left open to dividing itself into five pieces. (If you want to be paranoid, just imagine a Congress with ten senators from Texas.)
The idea that Texans actually want to secede from the union is, no matter what Perry has said, another myth. A
in 2009 found that only 18 percent of the respondents said they favored breaking away. That’s still a tidy number—when you’re talking 18 percent in Texas you’re talking way over 4 million people. But there is virtually nothing, no matter how crazy, that you can’t get about 18 percent of Americans to support if they’re in a bad enough mood. In the spring of 2011, 17 percent of likely Republican primary voters said they thought it would be a good idea
to nominate Donald Trump
The secession talk is actually just another way of complaining about the federal government. But people in Texas do have a self-consciousness about being
that you don’t generally find elsewhere. “
Texans, more so
than any other state’s citizens, feel something special about their state,” Governor Bill Clements once claimed in a letter begging novelist James Michener to write a book about the state’s “powerful leaders and rugged individuals whose foresight knew no boundaries.” (Remarkably, Michener complied, and brought forth an appropriately mammoth 1,000-plus-page tome of historical fiction, inventively titled
From an early age, Texas children learn that being Texan makes them special. They study their state’s history as part of their fourth- and seventh-grade curriculum. In most public schools, they pledge allegiance to the Texas flag at the start of every day. So does the state legislature. Texas Independence Day, which celebrates the adoption of the declaration of independence from Mexico, is an official state holiday. “Texas! Texas! Texas!” Governor Perry used to yell at his rallies, before they briefly took on a presidential tone. You do not often hear governors yelling “Nebraska! Nebraska! Nebraska!” or “North Dakota! North Dakota!”
I come from Ohio, a fine state which once prided itself on being an incubator of presidents. In fact, when I was in high school I won a patriotic speech contest and was rewarded with the high honor of reciting my composition in front of the tomb of William Henry Harrison. But the speech was about how great it was to be an American, not an Ohioan. And at the time I only had a dim notion that Harrison was the ninth president, since we didn’t study Ohio history in school. We certainly didn’t pledge allegiance to the Ohio flag—Ohio didn’t have a pledge back then, and we wouldn’t have recognized the state flag if you’d dropped it on our heads. And try envisioning a bunch of Cincinnatians or Clevelanders running around in “Don’t Mess with Ohio” sweatshirts.
“So there’s going to be a crisis boiling point”
Pictures of the presidents of the republic and former governors of the state wind around rotunda walls in the state capitol—the newest at the bottom, so that every time there’s a replacement, the whole passel has to move. When Rick Perry leaves office, he’ll be the fifty-second picture, and all the others will scoot over to make room. Everybody is there: Sam Houston, who’s all over the place, actually, and Anson Jones, the final president of the republic, who was so upset at not being given a Senate seat when Texas joined the Union that he went batty and shot himself in the head. And there’s the deeply obscure Governor George Wood (1847–49), who is best remembered for never wearing socks.
Farther along, there’s Jim Hogg (1891–95), the sometimes-populist who is remembered today mainly for naming his daughter Ima, and James “Pa” Ferguson, whose second term began in 1917 and was somewhat marred by his impeachment. Ferguson’s wife, Miriam, universally known to the public as “Ma,” is on the wall twice, having taken up the family banner and gotten elected to two nonconsecutive terms, 1925–27 and 1933–35. She’s also got a bust down in the rotunda. Following in her husband’s footsteps, Ma made a habit of pardoning prisoners at a clip of about 100 a month. Whether you believe this was in return for bribes or to relieve jail overcrowding is an excellent test of the natural optimism of your character.
Then there’s W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel (1939–41), a flour salesman turned politician who won the hearts of the voters with renditions of songs of his own composition, such as “The Boy Who Never Gets Too Big to Comb His Mother’s Hair.” And, of course, there are late arrivals like Ann Richards (1991–95), the second woman and last Democrat to serve as governor, and her successor, George W. Bush.
“There are only seven spaces left,” says the guide, looking down at the portraits. “So there’s going to be a crisis boiling point.”
For some reason, this reminded me of the legend of St. Malachy and the 112 popes. Back in the Dark Ages, Malachy allegedly wrote a list of all the future popes, each of them described by a phrase that captured his special identity. If you believe that he actually did this, and that the list was not the work of a forger from a later era, you would also believe that we are down to the last pope before “Peter the Roman,” during whose reign the world will come to an end. (Believing this also requires that you believe Malachy had some good reason for tagging the current pope, Benedict XVI, with the phrase “glory of the olive.”)
Despite our guide’s pessimism, authorities at the state capitol seem confident they can make room for a lot more governors. But sooner or later the last slot in the dome will be filled—and will that mean the end is near for Texas? That it’ll break into five average-sized states? That the Last Governor will take the oath, then cackle wildly and announce he doesn’t really believe in God, thus undermining the state constitution, which contains a
clause prohibiting atheists
from holding elective office? There are a lot of ways for the world as we know it to come to an end, but in Texas’s case whatever happened would undoubtedly be action-packed.
“Shaping the history of North America
and the world”
Even if Texas were not powerful enough to set the country’s course on everything from energy to education, and to create the terms of our public debate on everything from jobs to prayers before football games, the rest of the country would still give it way more attention than one-fiftieth of the union deserves. American movies and television shows are set in locales all over the nation, but the ones about Texas clearly had to be there and only there—
The Last Picture Show,
and on TV everything from the beloved and recently departed
Friday Night Lights
to that thing about people from Texas who bid on abandoned storage lockers. (In the penultimate scene of
Friday Night Lights,
some of the main characters sit drinking beer under the sky and toasting “Texas forever.” It’s been quite a while, but I do not remember Mary Tyler Moore going off the air with a salute to Minnesota.) In the 1980s we obsessed over the first series of
, when 350 million people around the world tuned in to see who shot J. R. and everyone had very specific images of what it would be like to go to the Oil Barons Ball. Going even further back to the early days of television, the networks had a ton of adventure series featuring Texas heroes, including
Tales of the Texas Rangers
The Adventures of Jim Bowie
, and a show about Judge Roy Bean, “the law west of the Pecos.” It’s been more than fifty years since Judge Roy Bean was a television feature, but people still come to Pecos, Texas, looking for his courthouse, which in reality was a long distance away in Langtry. Pecos, which has fallen on hard times since the wells dried up, accommodates them anyway, with a replica.
Above all there was David Crockett—who I am going to call Davy, since that’s the way all non-historians have known him since Walt Disney rechristened him for his miniseries. Davy was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee, but died in Texas at the battle of the Alamo. (Or as a prisoner of war after the battle of the Alamo; let’s not take sides in that fight.) The Alamo sits right at the center of the Texas imagination, as well as in the center of the city of San Antonio, where it attracts more than 2.5 million visitors a year. It’s hard to find a Texan who didn’t make the pilgrimage before puberty. Even on the hottest days, the place is packed with families examining Sam Houston’s shaving mug or sitting in the courtyard listening to a short talk on the creation of the Republic of Texas. (“It’s important to understand these events,” a young lecturer urged the small but attentive audience on the day I visited. “They’re not only important in shaping the history of Texas, but in shaping the history of North America and the world.”)
The turnout is particularly impressive because, to be brutally honest, there isn’t all that much to see at the Alamo. Part of the old mission church and a small segment of the barracks have been preserved, but the only fully realized section is the gift shop. Those seeking more information are invited to a little room where a History Channel version of the story is constantly replayed on a large and elderly TV set, flanked by a painting of the Death of Travis on one side and Clara Driscoll, a leader of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas preservation movement, on the other.
“We had a terrible black sheep”
“The Alamo is not a museum. It is a shrine to the 189 men who died here. The Alamo
is a shrine,
” says Karen Thompson, the president general of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas. She has large, wide eyes, grey hair, and a forceful voice. We are sitting in a small collection of offices where the DRT engages in the business of preserving the shrine for the edification of the world. The Daughters have been running the Alamo since the beginning of the twentieth century, but lately there have been several dustups over their performance, and proposals that the state should take control of the shrine-keeping duties. Which drives Thompson completely crazy, given all the trouble her organization has gone to over the years. “In 1910 there was no money. You didn’t have a lot of tourists,” she says, recounting the way the original DRT guardians of the Alamo made hand-drawn postcards and sold them to help support the place. “They had their gardeners come to tend the grounds.”
To become a member of the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, you have to prove conclusively that one of your ancestors lived in Texas before statehood, in 1846. Being able to trace your family back that far is the equivalent of having a relative who came over on the
—or possibly better, since the Texas settlers were far more colorful. A number of them, in fact, appear to have been flat-out deranged. “We had a terrible black sheep involved in the war of 1836. We don’t talk about him,” said Frank Cahoon, a Midland realtor and former Republican state representative. He is a thin, chipper man with wispy grey hair, sitting in a downtown office that’s decorated with African artifacts and the skull of a Texas woman who lived about 2,000 years ago, and whose bones were blown back onto the surface of the shifting west Texas sand.