THE STREET WHERE NATE NANCE lives in McGregor, a town of 4,700 west of Waco, is two short blocks from Texas Highway 317; you can see cars whizzing by from his driveway. That makes it noisy enough, but the Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railroad tracks sit just outside the fence of his backyard, so you can only imagine how hard it is for him to sleep in every morning or watch the History Channel in peace. Actually, to be more accurate, the driveway and the backyard are his mother’s, not his, seeing as how he still lives with her, which explains the very un-22-year-old-male-like display of crafts on the front porch. On one side, next to an American flag, is an iron stand painted with pictures of birdhouses and butterflies. On the other is a flat stone engraved with the words “Welcome to the Nut House.”
When I visited Nate in late May, he greeted me at the door in an undershirt, khakis, and bare feet; the family dachshund, known variously as Saint Nicholas and The Jesus, jumped and yapped. The house is small and squat and made of brick, with a one-car garage recently converted into what Nate calls a family room but is really a computer room, as are most rooms in the house. Three people share the place—Nate, who works 5 p.m. to 1 a.m. as a sports clerk at a newspaper; his mom, Brenda “Candy” Lewallen, who drives a forklift at Smead Manufacturing, her employer for 32 years; and his stepfather, William Lewallen Sr., who retired as an assembly line worker in the chiller department at Trane, the air conditioner maker, in 2004—and each has a computer. “We’re computer hogs,” Nate told me as he led me into his bedroom, where, if you believe the hype, the future of the media resides.
Nate is a blogger. From a single bed that only recently replaced the futon he’d slept on since he was 13, usually clad in his pajama bottoms, on a Dell laptop he’s paying off at a rate of $50 a month, often using dial-up Internet service—yes, you techies read that last part right—he holds forth several times a day on his Web site, Common Sense (commonsenseblog.typepad.com). Typical of the form, the blog is part op-ed page and part diary. He concerns himself with the subjects that interest him the most, including sports (he’s a big Baylor fan), girls (they’re “hot”), and getting drunk (hey, he’s 22), but mainly he writes, passionately, about politics.
Over the course of three days in May, for instance, he offered his take on the stem cell debate (“Linking this to the abortion issue is just stupid”), Kinky Friedman’s campaign for governor (“I think Kinky is running a little too seriously”), Priscilla Owen’s nomination to a federal judgeship (“She’s not really going to make the 5th Circuit in New Orleans appreciatively [sic ] worse, so I’m not going to bitch about it”), and Social Security reform (“I’m pissed that any Democrat is even thinking of moving a centimeter”). These and other of Nate’s posts appeal to me not because they’re particularly profound but because they exist. He has a point of view—it may be right or wrong, but it’s his—and he’s willing to put it out there for the world to think about, damn the consequences. The traditional media, by contrast, is so big and so bloated and so afraid of offending anyone for fear of being attacked as biased that blandness and timidity rule the day and issues and ideas are often dumbed down to the point of being unrecognizable. Donald Graham, the CEO of the Washington Post Company, compares bloggers to Ben Franklin; I’d say simply that the small-d democracy of blogging is a good thing for those of us who want to see a larger conversation about things that count take place.
And so it doesn’t really matter that Nate is eighty miles from Austin. Or that he wasn’t inside the Capitol during the entire legislative session. Or that he doesn’t interview elected officials. Or that he sometimes comes off as immature (“[S]tate Rep. Al Edwards, who some might call a douche…”). Or that he’s a community college dropout who earns less than $10,000 a year and mooches gas money from his family. Or that his blog averages only 130 visitors a day—he thinks, since tracking Web traffic is an inexact science. In a postage-stamp-size room with posters of the Three Stooges and a blonde in a bikini on the walls, surrounded by piles of clothes and books and movie ticket stubs, Nate has transformed himself into a political commentator I look forward to reading (albeit for very different reasons) as much as, say, Paul Burka.
Yes, that Paul Burka, the old-media stalwart who chided bloggers for their amateurishness and lack of professional standards in the course of fretting about his obsolescence in this very column in our March issue (“That Blog Won’t Hunt”). In fairness to Texas Monthly ’s senior executive editor, whose thirty-plus years in the game can’t really be compared to the riffing of an enthusiast on the sidelines, March was four whole months ago, a lifetime in the online world. Anyway, even as recently as a few weeks into the session, it wasn’t clear that political bloggers would announce their presence on the scene so engagingly. But now Paul admits that “everybody reads them,” and by “everybody” he means some of the most powerful people at the Capitol.
I read them too. This spring I spent a lot of time tied to my desk, so I followed the goings-on at the Lege over the Internet, which meant poking around on blogs. As with print publications, after a while I knew where to go to get what I was in the mood for. Straight-ahead political reportage flavored with Vanity Fair —style bitchiness? In the Pink Texas (inthepinktexas.com). A protein-laden dose of big thinking on criminal justice reform? Grits for Breakfast (gritsforbreakfast.blogspot.com). A Houston perspective on complicated policy questions and Tom DeLay’s troubles? Off the Kuff (offthekuff.com). A Republican take on the wild and wacky governor’s race? Rick Perry vs. the World (perryvsworld.com).
I’m not sure what I expected, in that sense, from Nate’s blog, but when I stumbled onto it for the first time, I liked it enough to e-mail him a fan letter (trolling for new talent is what editors do) and invite him to lunch if he ever made it to Austin. A few missed connections later, we finally met at Las Manitas, the downtown Mexican restaurant that serves as a school cafeteria for the cool kids of the chattering class. As shy as he is, I’m not sure what he made of the schmoozing—he was light-years from his comfort zone—but he loosened up a bit midway through his Dos Equis. After hearing the story of his life, I decided I wanted to see the brave new world for myself, so I paid him a visit on his home turf.
Nate was born in Waco and briefly lived in suburban Hewitt. His parents divorced when he was seven, and he and his mom headed down the road to McGregor. Hard economic times forced them to move in with Candy’s sister and brother-in-law for six months, but then she met her second husband, and they’ve lived in their current house ever since. Nate describes himself as “not an enthusiastic student”—“I had a serious aversion to doing homework,” he says—but he managed to graduate from McGregor High School. (When I asked him how big the school was, he said, “It’s classified as 2A, if that helps you.” Sports clerk indeed.) He enrolled at McLennan Community College, in Waco, where he was vice president of student government as a freshman, but by then he had gotten a job at the paper proofreading stories and taking football scores over the phone. (He asked me not to say which paper, since his company prohibits employees from giving interviews to other publications. “I’d be fired if you did,” he said, “and I have a car payment due next week.”) During his sophomore year, just before Christmas break, he realized his job was interfering with his studies, so he dropped out. “I figured working was a better investment of my energy,” he says.
So was giving in to his political junkiedom. For a few years, dating back to his time in high school, Nate had been writing opinion columns on issues in the news and sending them unsolicited to the Waco Tribune-Herald, which would promptly reject them for publication. After quitting school, with time on his hands, he worked to find a more appropriate outlet for his passion. “A girl I met—she was going to Baylor at the time, very conservative—told me on our first date that she had a blog, and she gave me the address. I looked at it, and about two minutes later, I was like, ‘I can do that.’ I saw it as a way to publish my own opinion column, a way to syndicate myself. I thought, ‘I’ll write two columns a week and put them up on the Internet. And if nobody reads them, at least I’ve gotten this out of my system.’”
The decision to blog from his house rather than the House was an easy one, he says: “I should probably try going down there and meeting some of these people before I call them idiots—that much I realize. But at the same time, I don’t have to sit in the Capitol gallery to write a blog. I can watch streaming video on the Web. I can read online who voted for which amendment to which bills. I can do a bill text search while I’m in my pajamas. I can do that sort of thing because the Internet lets me. I don’t have to be in Austin to know what’s happening on the floor of the Senate. That’s a good thing, because more people get to see what’s going on.”
And that, in the end, is why I’m a fan of bloggers, and of Nate specifically. It’s against my self-interest competitively, but the more people covering and writing about politics and shining a light on what’s going on in that pink granite building the better. Even if only 130 people gravitate to Nate’s site, that’s 130 more who know about whatever’s on his mind that day. They might even learn something.
Nate definitely has. Although he jokes that his goal five years from now is to be the first blogger on Celebrity Poker Showdown, his maiden voyage into “journalism” has him seriously thinking about writing for pay instead of fun, as well as a move to Austin—though he promises not to become, in the cautionary words of one of my colleagues, “just another egghead schmo in line in front of me at Starbucks.” Whatever he decides, at least two of his faithful readers are rooting for him: me and his mom. “He is so excited,” Candy wrote me in an e-mail, “and I want him to find something in the line of work he likes to do…I do not want him to have to work in a factory like me all his life.”