End of The Road

After twenty years of political dominance by a certain father-and-son team, Texas is finally ready to move on.

June 2008By Comments

Illustration by Ian Keltie

Texans, if you’ll look in your rearview mirrors, that’s Bush Country rapidly receding behind us. We’ve dwelled there securely, at times smugly, for the past twenty years, during all but two of which someone named Bush has either led the nation or governed the nation’s second-largest state. But now we’re moving on.

We could date our time in Bush Country between two presidential inaugurations, one in 1989 and the other coming up in January. But to be more precise, we moved into Bush Country on March 8, 1988, when a then record number of us turned out to vote in a primary and decided to let favorite son George H.W. Bush (still suspect in some quarters as a Yankee transplant) lead us into the post-Reagan era. And we gave notice that we were moving on just this March 4, when we set a stunning new record for primary participation and turned our backs on so many of the things Bush Country has come to represent.

Of course, the fact that a record turnout of Democrats bested a record turnout of Republicans by more than two to one on March 4 doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re headed to Obamaland or Hillary Haven. And the possibility that John McCain will keep our state’s electoral votes in the Republican column this fall, where they’ve ended up every four years since 1980, doesn’t mean we’re going to hunker down in McCain Country either. What March 4 really told us is that Texas is the new frontier in American politics, a no-man’s-land (or woman’s) there for the taking by the political party or would-be dynasty—or even the third party—clever enough to claim it. And whoever can put his brand on what was formerly Bush Country will have the opportunity, just as the Bushes did, to reshape the entire world.

Not that putting your name on Texas is all that easy. Lyndon Johnson did it (better yet, he monogrammed us) and also got to lead the free world for a while. Yet between LBJ and the Bushes was a two-decade interregnum in which Texas voters strongly trended Republican but neither party could put the other away. It took both the Bushes to pull off the remarkable feat of rebranding this contested turf as their dynastic homeland—and whoever hopes to claim future naming rights to our state should take some notes on how a patrician New England family turned Texas into Bush Country. It wasn’t just brilliant political bean counting, chicanery, or a masterstroke of political strategy. Texas is a storytelling culture, and the Bushes told a story about Texas that was so good they got to put their name on our state.

Much like an epic in an oral tradition, the Bush story was composed of threads of history, myth, and previous narratives, and it evolved over time, which is why it held its force during two of the most transforming decades in Texas history. But at its heart was a powerful, patriarchal, almost biblical tale. It may have lacked the sheer moral drama of Exodus—that was LBJ’s Texas narrative, bringing the state out of the bondage of grinding poverty and Jim Crow racism. The story the Bushes told was more like the Book of Deuteronomy, a political covenant intended to bind a fractious, prolifically multiplying people and prepare them for the promised land.

Like the Israelites of Deuteronomy, by 1988 a lot of Texans were wanderers, migrants from the Rust Belt and Texas’s own small towns who had flooded the booming suburbs that ring Houston and Dallas. They were creating an SUV-driving, megachurch-attending culture that would transform the nation’s politics, but they already saw their way of life threatened by almost overwhelming economic and social pressures. Texas had just started to recover from the catastrophic bust of the mid-eighties, and voters of both parties grappled with the challenge of building a more diversified Texas economy, better connected to the outside world and more resistant to the historic boom-or-bust cycle of the oil industry. Yet at the same time, many Texans wanted to insulate their new neighborhoods and schools from the scorching pace of social and demographic evolution in a state where the non-Hispanic white majority would shrink from nearly 66 percent in 1980 to 53 percent just two decades later.

Many of the new Texans didn’t know they were tradition-bound to vote Democratic, and they didn’t see the Bushes as Yankee “carpetbaggers” because they were transplants too. The new suburbanites represented a burgeoning managerial and entrepreneurial class, and so did the Bushes: The patriarch had made millions in the Permian Basin oil patch and had managed no less an enterprise than the CIA; the son had dabbled in oil and finally got traction running the Texas Rangers baseball franchise. Both Bushes had elite Eastern Seaboard educations, but that was what most suburban Texans wanted (and still prefer) for their kids. Both spoke the language of talk radio and the conservative think tanks on issues like guns and abortion, but both also adopted a kinder, gentler, more compassionate tone, reassuring suburban voters who wanted a reasoned road map into the future. Suburban Texans knew change was coming—they were, in fact, part of it—and they didn’t exactly want to stop it in its tracks. They merely wanted competent men, people like “us” or perhaps a bit better, to manage a gradual transformation. And that was the simple yet enduring covenant the Bushes made with Texas: You build your businesses and your neighborhoods, and we’ll manage the change.

The founding patriarch of Bush Country famously raised taxes to whittle down Ronald Reagan’s huge federal deficit, a prudent managerial move but a political disaster that cost him his presidency in 1992. However, the Bush covenant was kept when George W. Bush was elected governor two years later and proved to be a competent, at times even inspired, manager of changing Texas. He worked with Democrats to reform public education, courted the rapidly growing Hispanic vote, and started the nation’s most ambitious wind-energy program. The governor’s landslide reelection, in 1998, only proved how completely Texas had been transformed into Bush Country, a place that allowed its inhabitants to revel in old-fashioned family values, confident that the guy at the top of their organizational chart still had his eye on the future.

The Bushes had never presented themselves as cowboys, because they weren’t and neither were their constituents. Bush Country was a frontier for peripatetic, often high-tech professionals who had either left rural Texas behind or had never had roots in Texas soil. So when George W. Bush ran for president in 2000, it was hard to know what to make of his spanking-new Crawford ranchette, which seemed to come across as the Bush dynasty’s ancestral spread—even though the ranch house, designed by University of Texas architecture professor David Heymann, was so modern and eco-friendly that the television news cameras were always redirected to the nearby sheds and hay bales.

Every Texas politician who plays the cowboy card basically taps into our state’s classic narrative: University of Texas historian Walter Prescott Webb’s 1931 book, The Great Plains, written at a time when Texas still drew its cultural identity from the defeated Confederacy and its economy was still mired in cotton and sharecropping. Webb, who later advised LBJ, relocated the Texas story to our harsh western plains, the mythic realm of cowboys, cattle kingdoms, and the Texas Rangers, allowing the state to reenvision itself as a vigorous, problem-solving, inventive frontier culture. The irony was that the very rise of the Bush dynasty seemed to prove that Webb’s six-shooter mythology had not only succeeded as a road map to modernity but had finally exceeded its shelf life.

It was only after the tragedy of  9/11 that Bush’s appropriation of Webb’s narrative suddenly seemed like the plot twist of a master storyteller. The whole world needed a Texas Ranger, and it found one in the plain-talking Texan who quickly gunned down the Taliban and wanted Osama bin Laden “dead or alive.” The buy-in to Bush’s cowboy myth by a supposedly skeptical and jaded mainstream media made the president look like a meme-managing genius who had transformed his Crawford ranch into the last redoubt of civilization itself. At the height of the enthusiasm, the world didn’t seem divided into those who are for us and those who are against us; you could pretty much cleave the entire planet into Texans—symbolic or real—and terrorists. For a brief, shining moment, freedom-loving people everywhere resided in Bush Country.

Yet this plot was plagued with ironies. Bush’s new narrative was such a hit with the voters in the 2002 midterm elections that a whole cohort of Texas Republicans who had made their careers on the Bush coattails finally completed their takeover of state government, capturing the Texas House for the first time since Reconstruction. But Bush’s reinvention as a phony retro Texan merely empowered a retro state government that has proved itself sadly unequal to—or in many cases, oblivious to—the challenges of leading Bush Country into the twenty-first century. However, the chief irony was far more tragic: The brilliant renascence of Webb’s Texas myth, which had its origins on the arid plains of  West Texas, ended on the arid plains of Iraq. But it wasn’t just Webb’s story line that got messed up in Mesopotamia. The entire, painstakingly constructed narrative of managerial competence on which the Bushes had founded their dynasty came crashing down as dramatically as a statue of Saddam Hussein.

If there were any doubts that even Texas wasn’t Bush Country anymore, March 4 should have erased them; we don’t turn out like that for primaries unless we’re ginning up for serious change. But unlike 1988, this year’s record turnout wasn’t driven by a Texan at the top of the ticket or the narrow range of issues, most of them dear to social conservatives, that has dominated our statewide political discourse in recent years. Couple that with an earlier political earthquake, Governor Rick Perry’s dismal 39 percent reelection two years ago, and Texans actually seem to still be sending an undecided or even “none of the above” message. We know we’ve left Bush Country behind, but we’re casting about for someone to reinvent our Texas epic, to put his or her name on our political wilderness. (And Governor Perry, if you’re serious about running again, you might ask yourself why, after eight years, nobody’s calling this place Perry Country.)

The bad news is that there is no Texas politician on the horizon with the eloquence, or perhaps even the understanding, to weave that complex narrative. The good news is that we’ve never had a more exciting or portentous tale to tell, and we can even pick some of it up right where Bush left off in 2000. One of the most important chapters Bush left unfinished was the one where the frontera—our thousand-mile-long border with Mexico—becomes Texas’s new frontier. Bush was kicking around ideas like linking our power grid with northern Mexico’s, and whoever wants to claim Texas will have to be at least as daring in erasing the border rather than building a wall along it. The boldest new story will have to be about how Texas and Mexico become partners in an unprecedented prosperity for both.

The transition from a brown energy state to a green energy state will also be a key plotline. The Texas suburbs and exurbs are teeming with homeowners and business operators who are at best bemused at being called tree huggers or environmentalist wackos simply because they believe in global warming or have concern for their children’s respiratory health—and if they want to become entrepreneurs in the booming green economy or just make their homes more energy efficient, they should hear about how they’ll get the same kind of government support Texas has long given wealthy, polluting industries. But to move toward a greener future, the next dynasty will also have to tell a story that addresses Texans’ antipathy to government, which dates back to the Civil War. As one of the nation’s most demographically diverse, urbanized, and needy states, we no longer have the luxury of signing over our future to the mandarins at the conservative Washington think tanks, with their peculiar fantasies of drowning government in a bathtub. Whether we like it or not, we’re a state that now requires a whole new scale of government initiatives—transportation, health care, higher education—simply to compete economically.

Most important, the new Texas narrative will have to include the nation’s most searching conversation on race and ethnic identity. Texas has always practiced identity politics—white identity. The great fault of Webb’s road map, which was characteristic of even enlightened Texas thinking at the time, was that only white men did the driving. Yet that’s the way Texas’s Republican congressional delegation still looks today: exclusively non-Hispanic white, with just two women. Non-Hispanic whites represented 46 percent of the voters in the March 4 Democratic primary, along with 32 percent Hispanic and 19 percent black. That diverse demographic turnout looks a lot more like Texas, which is only 47 percent non-Hispanic white, than the 87 percent Anglo vote in the record-setting March 4 GOP primary. What those numbers say is that power in Texas is as racially unbalanced as it has ever been, and that’s saying a lot. But the politician who can tell us a story about how majority-minority Texas secures the future for all its citizens won’t just get to put his or her monogram on our state. That’s when we’ll see yet another Texan tell a story the whole world’s going to hear.

Related Content