Preview: The Overcomer

An excerpt from Brian D. Sweany's forthcoming cover story on Greg Abbott, which will officially hit newsstands (and the web) on September 25.
Mon September 23, 2013 8:00 am
Photograph by LeAnn Mueller

The attorney general gazed out across the Bosque River Valley, took a deep breath, and raised his Remington 12-gauge shotgun. “Okay,” he called out. “Can I see one?” An orange clay pigeon flashed across the sky before disappearing into a field some forty yards away. He turned and laughed: “Can I see one more?”

It was a bright-blue mid-May afternoon, and Greg Abbott was relaxing with some of his old classmates from Duncanville High School, Billy and Buzzy and Randy and Rickey and Kevin and Joe. If those names sound like they come from Ward Cleaver’s America, that’s because they do. Abbott had a classic small-town upbringing; these are the friends he stayed up late with playing cards and dominoes before drifting off to sleep on backyard trampolines. The men have remained close over the years, happily recalling the times when they first tried chewing tobacco on a football trip to Corsicana or pulled an all-nighter while puzzling over the periodic table. The property, a gorgeous piece of land between Glen Rose and Hico, belongs to Rickey. Each year they try to gather here to swap stories, catch up on their families, and do a little hunting and fishing. 

While one of the men adjusted the automatic trap, the 55-year-old sat in his wheelchair on a wide wooden deck and took in the view. He wore hunting boots, casual brown pants, and a gray short-sleeved shirt. “See that ridge over there?” he asked, pointing off into the distance. “Remember when we went out there and shot birds?”

“Well, shot  at birds,” Rickey replied.

“That’s right,” Abbott said with a broad, easy smile. “A lot of birds went home happy that day.”

Soon the trap was ready, and the group grew silent. The attorney general raised his shotgun again. “Pull!” he cried.

The clay pigeon took flight at a more leisurely speed, and he squeezed the trigger.  Boom! The pigeon sailed on, undisturbed.  Boom! The target landed gracefully in the tall grass, fully intact. The group erupted with the kinds of jokes that high school buddies love to make at one another’s expense, even when one of them is the state’s highest-ranking law enforcement official. “Who gave Greg the box of blanks to shoot with?” Randy asked. Buzzy laughed. “This is where we do the Dick Cheney,” he said. “Better run!” 

Abbott brushed them off and reloaded. “Pull!” This time, the moment the clay pigeon came into view, it exploded into a shower of orange bits. “Great shot, Greg!” went up the chorus.

He missed a couple, endured some more jeers, and hit a few more. After a while he called for someone to join him, and the games of knockout began. On his first round, he hit the pigeon, and as it came apart, he fired again and hit one of the larger fragments, an impressive shot. A few friends cycled through, then they switched games and fired at ten pigeons in a row to see who could shoot the most. Thirty minutes went by, then an hour, then an hour and a half. Abbott never stopped shooting. Once his friends had all had a chance, he called me over to shoot. I acquitted myself respectably. He then asked if the assistant to the photographer, who was there to take his picture for the magazine, wanted to give it a try. She agreed reluctantly, saying she hadn’t shot since she was a kid, but once she started, she never seemed to miss. From the back, Randy called out, “He’s the attorney general—you’re supposed to let him win.” But Abbott was having none of it. He offered her a wide smile and shook her hand. “That was terrific shooting,” he said. 

The attorney general’s own shooting was, as a Boy Scout leader once told me at summer camp, “not too bad for the range, not so good if you’re under attack.” What was notable was his endurance. Everyone else took breaks; Abbott just kept blasting away.  His shoulder, I caught myself thinking,  is going to be black-and-blue tomorrow. Like many Texas politicians, Abbott has made guns central to his identity, but the intensity with which he does so seems at least in small part an attempt to balance out the fact that he is disabled. 

No one can deny his toughness, which has come to define his career. A former track star at Duncanville High, he was nearly killed at the age of 26 during a freak accident while jogging. Ever since then, he has willed himself to extraordinary heights. A lawyer by training, he became a state district judge in the early nineties, then a member of the Texas Supreme Court, and finally the attorney general, in 2002. In all that time, he has never lost an election. Now he looks almost certain to continue that streak. He declared his campaign for governor in July, and while knife fights have broken out in several down-ballot races—the battle for lieutenant governor features a three-term incumbent fighting for his political life against three current officeholders—Abbott has escaped the prospect of a bitter Republican primary, drawing only a single, poorly funded opponent, former state party chair Tom Pauken. And by mid-September, no Democrat had yet declared for the race either. Despite the fact that a recent poll showed that 51 percent of Texas voters have no opinion of him, barring an unexpected twist, Greg Abbott will be the next governor of Texas. 

That means he has already become the de facto leader of the state GOP, as Rick Perry, who will not run for reelection, rides off into the sunset. This transition comes at a critical time: the party is pushing further to the right on issues both social and economic at the same moment that sweeping demographic change and a faint heartbeat in the moribund Democratic party have made the long-term prospects for Republicans less clear. Though they control all levels of government in what is an inarguably conservative state, the

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