UNTIL AMERICA INVADED IRAQ, it was possible to go through life for long periods without falling victim to the Texas stereotype. Trips to New York could pass uneventfully, without anyone asking me why I didn't have an accent. A New England foray could elapse without anyone insisting that I "couldn't possibly be from Texas," because I was familiar with a particular novel, furniture style, or menu entrée. I could get through a week in Europe without anyone asking whether I knew J.R. But as the war launched by a Texas-raised president engendered more and more criticism around the globe, I had to admit that this halcyon period had come to an end. This realization was brought home recently when I heard a particularly jaunty message on my answering machine. It was from a man I did not know, who had the broad, cultured vowels I associate with Long Island Lockjaw. Identifying himself as a Vietnam veteran working for John Kerry, he said he'd read an article I'd written in the New York Times about President Bush's military record and was looking for more information. If I could help him with his research, he continued, he promised to help me "with any of the materials at the three great libraries of New York City."
"You know," he said, "sometimes you might need a particular book that you would want to be photocopied and FedExed to you down in Texas." Then, as if he realized he might have offended, he added, "Although I know in Austin the library facilities are superlative."
For just a few seconds, I thought I'd been sucked into some time-travel vortex and returned to that torturous year of my youth, 1968: the condescending phone call from the war protester in the East, a mention of the unpopular president from Texas, a mention of the unpopular war escalated by the unpopular president from Texas, and of course, the implicit accusation that I was guilty by association for living in the pitiable wasteland responsible for it all. But my caller wasn't referencing LBJ, Vietnam, and postJFK assassination Texas; my calendar read 2004, the president was George W. Bush, the war was in Iraq, and Texas was the second most populous state in the union, with multiplexes, airports, DSL connections, and yes, libraries. "What are you talking about?" I wanted to scream at the answering machine. "Don't you know we're big-time now?" I realized I had instantly lapsed into the defensive reflex that is part of every Texan's makeup. I realized something else too: that thanks to Bush and the Iraq meltdown, Texas bashing has returned as a global pastime. It's not just America that the critics blame: It's the state that first elected Bush to office and the values it supposedly embodies.
If you doubt me, consider a few of the clippings I've come across since Bush became president. According to the Moscow Times , for instance, "As the world knows, Texas is one of the most polluted places on earth. And which Texas town is the most polluted. Why that would be Midland—the hometown of George W. Bush." Germany's Die Zeit had this to say: "In other states, the excitement for the death penalty has cooled off significantly, after a series of wrongful convictions were turned up. In Texas, however, the fear of executing innocents is still smaller than the outrage over attorneys who hinder quick executions with legal tricks." Even our history takes it on the chin. A review of the recent Disney movie on the Web site of one Mr. Cranky goes like this: "The Alamo is considered the central battle and primary rallying cry in the fight to make Texas an independent republic and, subsequently, a state of the U.S. Like I care. All Texas has ever given the rest of the country is a whole bunch of attitude and one-term presidents with a penchant for foreign wars. It's a state where toxins are good business, Ken Lay is a civic hero, and it's legal to stone your own children to death as long as you claim that God told you to do it. F— the Alamo, and f— Texas."
Maybe if our president were wonky Houston mayor Bill White or prim Kay Bailey Hutchison, we wouldn't be having this problem. But the leader of the free world is George W. Bush, known for phrases like "Bring 'em on," "Mission accomplished," and "America will never seek a permission slip." Everyone knows that he never bothered to visit Europe until he was elected, that he hates to read anything much longer than a one-page synopsis, and that he prefers chopping wood in Crawford to just about any event requiring a proscenium. From the vantage point of the Eastern seaboard and beyond, he looks like the quintessential Texas cowboy, who rides to the rescue with both guns drawn—when no one asked him to. Four years after Al Gore tarred and feathered Texas to advance his presidential candidacy, we're being drawn into another debate, this time about the fate not just of the country but of the planet—and we're not the guys in the white hats. Last year Ted Kennedy went so far as to describe the Iraq war as a fraud "made up in Texas" to keep the Republicans in power.
Our identity, and our mythology, are on trial. For example: "Bush acts like the husband who got drunk, kicked the dog, fell off his bicycle and had an altercation with a biscuit [!] and the morning after agrees to everything his wife says, smiling broadly, trying to pretend everything is rosy. This may be okay for Western Texas. It is unacceptable for a President of the United States of America." Though something in this Pravda missive may have been lost in translation, the implication is clear: "Western Texas," "cowboy," and "George Bush" are now interchangeable terms. Google the terms "George Bush" and "cowboy" and you get around 49,000 hits, many of which have a lot in common