I Had a Ball
The night before George W. Bush’s inauguration, dutiful Texans whooped it up all over Washington.
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That things were going to get a little out of hand when I saw George W. Bush make his formal good-bye to Texas at a celebration in Midland, where he had lived for a while as a boy and then later when he worked in the oil business. Bush came out onstage wearing cowboy boots and a white-felt cowboy hat.”Wait a second,” I said to Charlie Younger, his longtime Midland buddy. “Did you ever see Bush wear a cowboy hat when he lived in Midland?”
“Well, um, no.”
“And as I recall, you once told me that Bush never wore cowboy boots. You said his shoe of choice during his Midland days was a pair of flimsy black slippers that he got in China.”
“That’s not quite true,” said Younger. “He also wore a pair of loafers that his uncle gave him that were a size and a half too big. He wore them because he was too cheap back then to buy himself a pair of nice shoes or boots.”
But here was Bush, waving his cowboy hat in the air as if he’d been living on his Crawford ranch his whole life, doing that pinch-assed walk that you have to do when you’re wearing boots that aren’t completely broken in and telling us that Washington needs a good dose of Texas spirit. Apparently, thousands of us were so moved by Bush’s example that we decided that we too needed to show the Beltway insiders what Texas was all about. So off we headed to D.C. for inauguration weekend.
Almost from the day Bush had been certified as the president-elect, Washington pundits had been in a snit about what might happen inside their beloved Beltway with the upcoming Lone Star occupation. They could not complain enough about our big hair and our love of barbecue and our need to call everyone “y’all.” “Those ignorant rat bastards,” I said to whomever would listen. “They don’t have a clue how much we’ve changed.”
But on my Southwest Airlines flight to the Washington area, I began to hear the sound of chanting coming from the back. A group of fellow Texas passengers were doing a political wave—one row standing up and shouting “Bush,” then another row, then another. “Oh, no,” I murmured. I found myself repeating those words just a few hours later as I walked by Cafe Milano, one of Georgetown’s trendiest restaurants. Sitting at a table by the window were Rob Allyn, the fortysomething Dallas political consultant, his wife, Monica, and a group of other politicos. Rob and Monica are the kind of chic, couture-draped couple who symbolize the new urbane Texas. Not this weekend, however. “You’ll never believe where I went right before I flew up here,” a slightly sheepish Allyn told me. “I was at Western Warehouse buying a pair of black cowboy boots. And two other Bush supporters were there buying boots too.”
The reason they needed boots was because they wanted to fit in at the Black Tie and Boots Ball, a gala held the night before the presidential inauguration. The organizers had hired such Texas-born entertainers as Lyle Lovett, Mark Chesnutt, Clint Black, and Tanya Tucker and promised that such Texas celebrities as Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman and Walker, Texas Ranger star Chuck Norris would be mingling with the crowd. Even though the ball wasn’t one of the official inaugural galas, it had become the hottest party of the weekend for the arriving Texans, with tickets reportedly being scalped on eBay for $3,000 each. The usually elegant Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison was so excited that she appeared on CNN holding the red-and-gold ostrich boots she was going to wear. They were the kind of garish, horrible things that I hadn’t seen since the days of the Urban Cowboy craze.
The Eastern news media, of course, were eating it up. They seemed to spend as much time detailing just how big the ball was going to be—12,000 cases of beer, truckloads of ham and beef, enough chili and guacamole to feed a Third World nation—as they did detailing what Bush planned to do once he got in office. And how could they not? A banner at the entrance to the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, the site of the party, contained the infamous Davy Crockett quote: “You all can go to hell. I’m going to Texas!” The nearly 10,000 partygoers were greeted either by members of the Texas A&M honor guard, who held out their sabers as if they were welcoming war heroes, or by the members of a Dallas high school country and western dance troupe, who said “Howdy!” so many times that a sponsor had to bring some of them bottled water.
In every one of the hotel’s ballrooms, conference rooms, and exhibit halls was either a Texas music act, a Texas celebrity signing autographs, or some species of Texas animal. The main lobby contained a twenty-foot-high imitation oil derrick. At the bottom of the stairs was a huge windmill shipped in from Lubbock. In the exhibit hall were bootmakers, chilimakers, jewelry designers, and hatmakers (including some guy who makes hats out of wood). Even the executives from Lockheed Martin got into the act. They encouraged guests to sit in a simulated cockpit of an F-16 jet, which is made in Fort Worth. Bevo, the University of Texas’ mascot, was there, zoned out as always, while Reveille, the Aggie dog, trotted around. In the middle of the room was a live armadillo that kept trying to get out of its box, and nearby was a fake one with water coming out its mouth that was being touted by a Denton company as “the Official 2001 Presidential Inauguration Commemorative Fountain.”
Then there were the guests themselves, almost all of whom were acting like they were extras still hanging on from the television show Dallas. Diane Scovell, one of the sharpest and most admired civic leaders in Dallas, was wearing a gold-lamé-fringe rodeo queen dress and white cowboy boots, and Tom Phillips, the bookish chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court, had stuck his tuxedo pants into his brown cowboy boots as if he were about to go outside and shovel manure. For his brief appearance, Bush arrived with boots that had the presidential seal stamped on them; Rick Perry’s boots had the word “Governor” stitched on his. And Congressman Tom DeLay showed up in a tux jacket, tux shirt, bow tie, blue jeans, and black boots—a getup normally worn by boys at their high school prom.
Meanwhile, there were a number of faux Texans—people who had gotten tickets to the party who weren’t from Texas—who showed up wearing silver-tipped bolo ties or those awful tiger-striped couture cowboy hats that European designers are now putting on runway models. Former world champion all-around cowboy Dave Appleton, one of the handful of people there who had ever seen a working ranch, was astounded at how many people were wearing their hats with the buckle on the right side instead of the left. “Damn, I should have set up a booth and charged five bucks to show people how to dress,” he told me.
Yet what Appleton could not deny was the joy with which everyone embraced Texas excess. Indeed, as the night wore on and more drinks were consumed, just about everyone began to shout “Yeehaw!” whenever one of the performers made the obligatory proclamation, “Texas, I Luv Yew.” (Even the immensely formal Van Cliburn, there to play “America, the Beautiful,” gave a long-winded speech about “how proud I am of Texas, that nation-state.”) By midnight, as more people began to call each other “honey” and “darlin’,” I went over to stare at those partygoers waiting to have their picture taken while sitting on top of a Longhorn named Redneck. I assumed that most of the people in line would be a bunch of non-Texans who had never come close to such an animal. But there, to my amazement, was Louis Mogas, the president of Houston’s Mogas Industries. “You know what’s too bad?” he asked. “We don’t have these kinds of parties in Texas anymore. You have to come to Washington to get your picture taken on a bull.”
For a while, watching the madness around me, I wondered if there was going to be a revival of the old gaudy Texas, last seen when John Connally was throwing those black-tie Western art and cattle auctions. Appleton, for his part, believed the Bush administration meant that Western wear would be returning in a big way. No way, I thought. Did he really believe that guys of my generation were going to sport Western shirts with those shiny buttons and embroidery around the shoulders? But then, as the party began to wind down, I saw Rob Allyn. He gave me another sheepish look and told me, “This Washington woman came up to me and said in this awestruck voice, ‘You Texas men really do wear black-tie and boots.’”
“How did it make you feel?” I asked. “A little embarrassed?”
He paused. “Well, actually, I felt sort of proud.”
At that moment, a drunken socialite began squealing with delight as Kevin Fitzpatrick, the trick roper from Texas, twirled a lasso around her plump, sequined body. “Ooh, I feel the rope!” she hollered.
“You know, this is a pretty great party,” I said.
“I agree,” said Allyn. “To hell with all those people who don’t like us.”