Dear Partners in thought,
I wanted to share with you “God Save Texas”, a new book by Lawrence Wright about “A journey into the soul of the Lone Star State”. LW is the Pulitzer-winning author of “The Looming Tower” (now also a TV series on Hulu) on the US inter- intelligence agency struggle of the FBI New York Bureau’s counter-terrorism chief John O’Neil to thwart the Al Qaeda threats that ultimately led to 9-11. LW is a liberal, cosmopolitan Texan from Austin (of course from Austin) so not part of the ultra- conservative crowd which has reshaped the state from blue to hard red since the early 1980s but nevertheless a Texan first who can go across the aisles (not too deeply admittedly) and has friends everywhere, making his book fascinating. He covers the key issues that are very dear to Texas today and have a great impact on America and, as such, the world at large.
Texas is the second largest U.S. state after California, forecast to double in population by 2050 with already three of the ten most populated cities with Dallas, Houston and San Antonio (and Austin, the capital city in 11th place). Texas is a story of contrasts, always big ones in any segment of modern society. While ultra- Republican now after having been very blue (think LBJ) the state has actually turned into a “minorities” state in 2004 which some say does not bode well for the Texan GOP’s future and may explain the very systematic and intense fight of these past years with the U.S. and within the state to roll back some of the most liberal directions taken at the Federal level. It may be a rearguard battle based on demographics assuming that minorities and the urban, cosmopolitan crowd go to the poll booth going forward. While Texas is very “red” today and always compares itself with California that is very “blue” and sees it as as the antichrist (California does not compare itself to Texas, being cool about that and other things – too much surfing to do), it was not always like that when Reagan was Governor in Sacramento and Texas was still part of the LBJ legacy. Today one of the rallying cries of the Austin GOP-dominated legislature is “Don’t Californicate my Texas!” applying that motto inter alia to abortion, birth control, gun control (or laxity), transgender toilets and immigration laws and regulations.
To me Texas was America from a very young age. My father took me to the movies when I was not even 10 to see a rerun of “The Alamo”, the 1960 movie with John Wayne (Davy Crockett), Richard Widmark (Jim Bowie) and Laurence Harvey (William Barrett Travis), a movie that embodied Texas and its indomitable spirit, known even before 1836 with its “Come and get it” slogan about an old cannon that the Mexicans wanted to take from one of its old Spanish missions as a prelude to the siege of the Alamo (Ted Cruz famously wore a “Come and get it” pin during the Senate debates on the failed repeal of Obamacare). We did not know America so well in Europe but through Hollywood and John Wayne in his many Westerns we loved those Texan cowboys with their Stetsons and palominos where the land and many things had no limits as they made us dream.
Texas is about the boots, the pickup trucks, the guns, the attitude – all part of the stereotype which are also a masquerade according to LW, serving to enforce a sense of identity, but also adding to the alienation that Non-Texans often feel about the state. He quotes the New Yorker’s John Bainbridge who wrote extensively about the state in 1961 for his book, “The Super-Americans”, and how Edna Ferber’s own “Giant” novel made into a movie at that time with Rock Hudson (the super cattle rancher), James Dean (the roughneck rising to make a fortune) and Liz Taylor (the civilised Easterner who cares for the Mexican slave laborers who don’t get the profits of their work) shows the codified archetypes still colouring the perceptions of Texans by both outsiders and themselves. Bainbridge stressed the popular disdain for Texas outside the state as a combination of “hostility born of envy” and “resentment born of nostalgia” with Texas being a mirror in which Americans see themselves reflected, not life size but, as in a distorting mirror, bigger than life adding that the condescension of non-Texans toward the state echoes the traditional Old World stance toward the New. According to Bainbridge then, the faults of Texas, as recorded by most visitors, are scarcely unfamiliar for they are the same ones that Europeans have been taxing Americans with for some three hundred years: boastfulness, cultural underdevelopment, materialism, and all the rest. LW feels that what happens in Texas tends to affect disproportionally the whole nation as “while Illinois and New Jersey may be more corrupt and Kansas and Louisiana more dysfunctional, they don’t bear the responsibility of being the future like Texas”.
LW tells us about oil and Texas and more precisely the boom and bust sagas that Texans have learned to live with for years. In many ways this boom and bust culture goes with the psyche of Texas, a larger than life state that embodies so much of America, is loved and hated by Americans (non-Texans) and admired at the same time, often for the same reasons. LW starts the book about the roots of Texas which are of course found in March 1836 at the Alamo in San Antonio, which he visits with us (you can still see there a rifle owned by Davy Crockett and the eponymous knife of Jim Bowie). The Alamo is Texas and its “never surrender” attitude forged a “persona” leading to thinking big and walking tall throughout its history. A land of big dreams, a land without limits, a land of immoderation. A (larger) Republic first, then a (smaller) state but never happy being part of a larger concern. A land of small or no government. A land of the cowboys and their individualism. A land of pioneers in all fields. A land that does not care much for those who can’t hack it and is not keen on anything welfare-like. A land of winners where losers suffer. A land where God runs high at the side of the true Texans. A land of freedom at any costs.
It is a wonderfully multifaceted book so rather than going through it, something you can do at your leisure should you wish to know the Lone Star State better, I will give you some fun facts (and some not so fun). One thing to bear in mind is that LW is a liberal Texan, the type you might meet more likely in Austin though he is also broad- minded and loves Texas so his portrayal should be fine for all as its fact-based (even if today that may not be a great argument for all).
- Singer Phil Collins, having being fascinated like me by the Alamo story as a child, became one of the most important collectors of Alamo memorabilia in the world. There are now discussions about the creation of a museum to host Collins’s collection, involving George P. Bush, former Florida Governor and Presidential candidate Jeb’s son, who is the last elected Texas Land Commissioner. As an aside, the great Texan dynasty goes on.
- Legendary Sam Houston, avenger of the Alamo and unlikely crusher of Santa Anna, the Napoleon of the West, at San Jacinto was not a forgone conclusion. A Governor of Tennessee in 1827, SH was a Jacksonian populist and a rising star with hopes for the White House. He ran into “problems” (that are still not very clear) when his wife of 19 (16 years younger than him) left him 11 weeks after their wedding, making him resign citing “sudden calamities”. He fled to live with the Cherokees (who called him “Big Drunk”), became a Cherokee citizen and took a native wife. In 1832, trying to find a way out and forward in an aimless life, he took the command of a rebel mob and headed for the Mexican colony of Texas in search for new adventures and meeting his destiny.
- Later on, after The Alamo, Goliad and the 18 minute blitzkrieg at San Jacinto (the Lone Star flag of Texas is said to have been born of a painting of Santa Anna’s surrender to SH that supposedly depicted the scene at San Jacinto), SH became the first President of the Republic of Texas (apparently, though it may be a legend, Santa Anna was too busy trying to seduce Emily Morgan, a “Texian” serving girl that he could not rise up to the other occasion). SH was twice elected President and after Texas entered the Union in December 1845, he was one of the two U.S. senators of Texas, siding with the Union as the new Governor when Texas joined the confederacy in 1861, a fact that is rarely mentioned, leading to his eviction.
- Texas was in true tradition a provider of the fiercest warriors for the Confederacy during the Civil War of 1861-65. John Bell Hood’s Texas Brigade was one of the most valiant units in Robert E. Lee’s army. Out of its 4,400 men in the brigade, only 600 were left standing after Appomattox in April 1865. Terry’s Texas Rangers, a corps that would gain fame later on and still operates, were the shock troop at the battle of Shiloh and other key engagements. Confederate monuments are found all over the state, facing an uncertain future owing to the removal pressure from activist groups, notably on campuses (like U of Texas at Austin), so history can be revisited (at my own great sorrow) with today’s lenses and values even if tragic events like in Charlottesville last summer also remind us how sadly they can be used by white supremacists and neo-nazis to advance un-American, unspeakable causes.
- John Connally, the governor of Texas who was in the car with JFK/Jackie in Dallas in November 1963 and Secretary of the Treasury under Nixon suffered a humiliating four day bankruptcy auction as a result of the savings and loans collapse throughout the Southwest. He had to dispose of luxurious possessions, including ceremonious saddles, extensive gun collection, Persian rugs…In the end, Nellie, his wife, salvaged a cardboard box so he could have a bedside table for his alarm clock.
- Stanley Marcus was the man behind retail chain Neiman Marcus in Dallas, a city so historically anticommunist that it cancelled a concert of Shostakovich because he was Russian and once ripped a bed of poppies as they were red. Stanley Marcus single-handedly desegregated the famed store by welcoming black citizen to shop and, by 1961, by serving two black couples in their top restaurant. He changed Dallas. His PA became a very successful local politician working on all the matters that Stanley Marcus had fought for at the level of his famed department store.
- Houston got its biggest cultural modernisation…by the French when Dominique de Menil, the heiress of the Schlumberger oil-field services company immigrated in 1941 following the Nazi occupation of Paris. The collected 17,000 paintings and work of art centering on cubism, surrealism and pop, bringing artists and filmmakers such as Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Roberto Rossellini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Bernardo Bertolucci and broadening the city’s relation to culture. (By the way, Texas was part of France briefly, between Spain and Mexico).
- In 1948, a decorated WWII naval aviator, Yale graduate, son of a future U.S. Senator from Connecticut and an aspiring young oilman moved his family to a little duplex on a dirt road in hot and dry Odessa, sharing a bathroom with a mother and daughter prostitutes as neighbours. This was the humble beginning of George H.W. Bush and one of the great political dynasties in U.S. history. Of note, most Texans love the Bushes regardless of their political affiliations due to their ideas of service (LW, while an avowed liberal, was close to George W and often a guest at the mansion when he was Governor in 1995-2000).
- Houston’s economy was 80-85% oil and gas in the mid-1980s as we would think. Today it is only 50%. The Houston medical center – the largest medical complex in the world – has more than 100,000 workers in 59 institutions. Houston’s port is the second-busiest in the country, adding 700,000 jobs between 2004 and 2014 or twice the number in NYC. Houston was ranked by The Washington Post as one of the top five restaurant cities in the country (knowing it was the blue collar cousin of Dallas in that respect years back). It has an excellent opera and more theatre space except (for good measure) NYC. By the way, the best museums in Texas are in Fort Worth.
- Friendliness is a sort of mandate in Texas. Friendship is the state motto. When traveling on a two lane road and seeing a vehicle coming the other way, the protocol is to raise an index finger about an inch of the rim of the steering wheel in a laconic salute. Texas is a rare state when passengers thank the bus driver when disembarking. And if I may quote the famous line from Nelly Connally: “You can’t say that Dallas doesn’t love you, Mr. President.” were the last words that JFK heard in life.
- Hollywood adored the Texas myth with John Ford, William Wyler and Howard Hawks with John Wayne embodying every Texas hero. The Kennedy assassination put an end to the era of heroic Texas movies with Hollywood, according to LW, picturing the state, somehow blamed for having killed the Camelot dream, as an asylum of rednecks, yahoos, drifters and chainsaw massacrers, starting with Slim Pickens as Major “Mad” Kong in Dr. Strangelove and his personal rodeo on the bomb that falls with him from his bomber plane.
- Lyndon Johnson – LBJ – once in a passionate moment said to reporters that his great-grandfather died at the Alamo (as LW said, in Texas it was like a Muslim saying he descended from Prophet Muhammad). The reporters knew the truth but LBJ, larger than life, said he never had said such a thing, even though he had been taped and that they still did not get it. LBJ complained he never had had the time to finish the story: his great-grandfather did not die at the Alamo; he died at the Alamo Hotel in Eagle Pass!
- Lady Bird, LBJ’s wife, (who was always worried about her less glitzy image compared to Jackie) lived a very long life and stayed very involved in the affairs of Texas notably ensuring that the state roads were brilliantly carpeted, having founded the National Wildflower Research Center in Austin in 1982 at age 70. She was known as a very self-deprecating woman whom in her nineties, then suffering from muscular degeneration, at a party in the honour of Shakespeare’s birthday was telling LW that she had been trying to strike a conversation with what turned out to be a “very unresponsive gentleman although I was being my most charming self”, only to add in good spirits that she realised she had been speaking for a couple of minutes to a bust of the Bard.
- We have a view of Texas today as a gun free state but it was not always like that. It remained illegal for Texans to carry guns outside their home or vehicle until the mid- 1990s. Gun laws were actually more restrictive than in 44 other states. Then in 1991
- George Hennard, a 35 year old, drove into Luby’s Cafeteria in Killeen where 150 people were having lunch. He shot 50 people, killing 23, most of them women whom he had especially targeted. Suzanna Hupp, one of the survivors, whose parents died during the attack, got elected in 1996 to the Texas House of Representatives and passed a law allowed for concealed weapons – to let citizens respond and save their lives in the event of another Killeen. “Open and carry” became legal in January 2016 prompted by the gun lobby and in spite of two-thirds of Texans being opposed to it like most if not all police chiefs and as the rate of homicide by guns had gone down from 16.9 per 100,000 in 1980 to 4.8 in 2015. (the book provides amazing stories about gun legislation in Texas and incredible stats on gun laws by states where we learn that there is not even a need for a permit to conceal and carry in…Vermont).
- In 2003, the Republicans took over the Texas legislature (they had controlled the Governor’s mansion since George Bush beat Democratic incumbent Anne Richards in 1995) for the first time in…130 years. Tom Craddick, the new Speaker, was a Midland Republican, who when he got elected in 1969, was part of a team of 8 elected Republicans, who could not even introduce a bill as they were Republicans and too small a group. At now 73, Tom Craddick is the longest-serving legislator in Texas history. He was key on “redistricting’ the political map to ensure that the GOP would not wait 40 years to get back on top (as an aside the Texas legislature meets for 140 days only, reflecting the state’s native aversion to government, though it should be said its budget is always balanced).
- It looks mean to mention the story but Governor Greg Abbott, the current very conservative GOP Governor, who was a great race track star in his youth had a tree falling on him in 1983 leaving him paralysed from the waist down and in a wheelchair. It is a tribute to him that he mustered the courage and will (very Texan indeed) to have a successful political career ending at the Texas top. He had won a USD 9 m judgement from the homeowner whose tree had fallen and from the tree company that had failed to recommend its removal post inspection. As a later member of the Texas Supreme Court and Attorney General, Abbott supported measures to cap pain-and-suffering damages medical malpractice cases at USD 250,000.
- Governor Rick Perry (the one before Abbott and now in the Trump Administration as Energy Secretary) vetoed a bill in 2011 that would have banned texting while driving on the grounds that it was an attempt to micromanage adult behaviour. The Texas Department of Transportation admits that 400 Texans are killed every year in crashes related to distracted driving, often when texting. There have been many substantial crashes in recent years that came back haunting Rick Perry who pushed for libertarianism over safety when in Austin. Strangely the sponsor of the bill was none other than GOP Speaker Tom Craddick who was putting it forward for the fourth time in 2017 comparing it to the “very unpopular” seat belt law that 95% of people now respected and had saved many lives. It also shows that the Texas GOP is not as uni-dimensional as one might think, bringing some hope to many.
- Texas, which has a long history with anti-abortion stances and uneasy access to birth control, has the highest rate of repeated teen pregnancy in America even if it is slowing down, costing the state USD 1 bn year in low wages and increased social services. This is one of the salient issues pitting Democrats against Republicans (I will let you read the two sides’ positions on abortion and birth control issues in the book). The funny point, if I may say without offending anyone, is the proposed House Bill 4260 “The Man’s Right to Know Act” sponsored by a female liberal Democratic legislator (mimicking the GOP’s passed legislation in relation to family planning and stressing it on purpose as being for the men’s “own good”) that required a sonogram and a rectal exam before prescribing viagra. In addition there was a section 173.010 that is focused on “Fines Related To Masturbatory Emissions” created in health or medical facilities that need to be stored for a current or future wife though making it clear that “emissions outside a woman’s vagina or created outside a health or medical facility will be fined at USD 100 and considered an act against an unborn child and failing to preserve the sanctity of life”. Only in Texas, where clearly the whole spectrum of the political landscape can be truly amazing…The bill never made it to the House floor but may have been a good topic at the bar of the legislature.
- President Trump complained about illegal voting during the 2016 election, mostly as a way to weaken the shocking (for most non-Americans for sure) near 3 million vote difference with Hillary Clinton, not being able to justify anything. In Texas they take illegal voting very seriously and Ken Paxton, the Texas Attorney general made it his pet project. Rosa Maria Ortega, a 37 year old mother of four with a sixth grade education in Fort Worth, was found to have voted illegally. She came to the U.S. as an infant and was a legal resident, able to serve in the military and paying taxes, the latter which she did. She thought she could vote and actually did not only in 2016 but also in 2012 and 2014. The local prosector decided to make an example of her and she was sentenced to eight years in prison with the prospect of being deported back to Mexico, an unknown country for her at the end. In an ironical twist she was a Republican supporter and had actually voted for Ken Paxton for Texas AG.
- Texas is the largest red state with 38 electoral votes (for the presidency), likely to go to 41 or 42 after the next census. New York has 39 electoral votes and continuously declining. If Texas went blue, Republicans would never gain the White House in any presidential election in the future. Texas is a young, urban state with a majority of minority citizens which means it should be solidly blue according to current voter preferences. Today Texas is de facto a blue state that does not fully vote. However most of its political stars are Republican with five Texans in the latest Republican primaries (Ted Cruz, Rick Perry, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul and, pushing it, Austin-born Carly Fiorina) or 25% of the pack of 20 and by far the largest state contingent.
When all is said and done, At last, perhaps the key-est point as stated by Evan Smith, the founder of Texas Monthly, who has to be on the same side of the spectrum as LW, is that “White people are poking a bear with a stick. In 2004, the Anglo population in Texas became a minority. The reality is, it’s over for the Anglos”. It sounds harsh and final. I do not want to believe that the two main parties are destined to speak for definite ethnicities and tribes, hoping that people can follow concepts and policies based on facts rather than beliefs that replace them. It would be a tragedy for Texas and America if by an infernal spiral the GOP were to become the party of white Anglo America and the Democrats the party of the minorities, racial and otherwise. I believe that there is a way forward when a less fear-driven conservatism relinquishing easy and unworkable populism of many Republicans can gradually evolve into a more sensible common political agenda across the aisles while still considering the identity and the soul of Texas – making its citizens working more together so they keep building this great state at a critical time for America. I also believe that it is possible to work on making Texas and the rest of America working in unison as during all the LBJ years. Nothing is set in stone and Texans, used to great challenges, could even lead that valiant charge. Where there is a will there is a way.
“God Save Texas” is a wonderful book (with many, many more stories that you can discover like the one about unlikely Austin resident and maker of kings Karl Rove or Texas’s key, multi-faceted relationship with Mexico – Imagine if Mexico still incorporated Texas today) that helps understanding one of the most important, if not the most important state in America. Having read it and not being supportive of many directions Texas has taken under his recent governorships, it is clear to me that if Texas is not America, America needs Texas to be. Texas provides America with this extreme existential flavor, at times asperity, that needs to be tempered often but is also the necessary ingredient that makes a great nation.
I dedicate this book note to my two favourite Texans, Anne (again I know and even if from Central Park for years now, but she deserves it for bearing so gracefully with me) and Lou, who is my real pal from El Paso and Dallas and even if he gambles a tad too much with his voting power, knowing he always means well and the divide is not that deep.
Serge Desprat- 5th September, 2018 (Prague)