Liberalism Lives!

How two young editors have injected new life into that hidebound, semi-sacred bastion of progressive politics called the Texas Observer.

Once upon a time, 35 years or so ago, I fancied being a writer for the Texas Observer. For someone exploring the craft of letters in Texas, it was the only game around. Newspapers were all about journalism and not about literary writing, and Mike Levy hadn’t thought up Texas Monthly yet. The self-styled liberal progressive biweekly stood out on the political and cultural landscape for its willingness to cover stories no one else would touch.

I felt like I knew every blow landed during the battle for the soul of the University of Texas waged by regent Frank Erwin and dean John Silber during the late sixties. I became familiar with the voices of Larry L. King, Willie Morris, Molly Ivins, Lawrence Goodwyn, and Kaye Northcott, and with the very local points of view articulated by folks like Buck Ramsey in Amarillo and Elroy Bode in El Paso. I learned about pistol-whipped farm workers in the Valley and the destruction of the Big Thicket. The writing was sophisticated and never objective: its purpose was to reform as well as inform. Passion mattered. At its peak, the magazine had 10,000 subscribers.

Eventually I did write a couple of pieces about music for the Texas Observer after I’d moved to Austin, allowing me the privilege of walking up the rickety steps of a funky old manse on Seventh and Nueces in the sweetest part of old Austin to turn in manuscripts. My words were hardly edited. I was paid a nominal fee. By then mass media was exploding in Texas and everywhere else, spawning all sorts of competition for the attention of its subscribers. In the seventies, the Observer’s circulation began a slow decline (its circulation today is barely 5,000) that reflected the shifting of the Texas political landscape. A state that had once been dominated by Democrats, when it mattered what kind of Democrat you were, yielded in the nineties to Republicans. The Texas Democratic party effectively imploded. As a species, liberals became as endangered as Texas blind salamanders, and liberalism—old-fashioned lefty-liberalism of the sort the Observer still purveyed—had a tougher time finding a voice, much less an audience. Good stories were occasionally to be found in its pages. I just wasn’t reading them anymore.

But I am now. That’s because it’s no longer my daddy’s Texas Observer. The magazine was taken over late last year by a couple of young editors—Karen Olsson and Nate Blakeslee—who are both too young to be carrying a lot of old liberal baggage and too smart to buy the line that liberalism in Texas is dead. Sitting in their cramped three-room suite on Seventh Street in downtown Austin (a few blocks closer to the city center than the old place), I noted that the environment was still Observer-funky: so perfectly disheveled, cluttered, and utilitarian, you expected to hear the clatter of typewriters

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