Notes on a Grand Old Party
What it looks like to celebrate a “new day.”
On Tuesday, January 20, beaming from the Capitol steps, Dan Patrick—our newly coronated lieutenant governor—grandly declared that it was the start of “a new day in Texas.” There was certainly some evidence of newness that unseasonable warm day. Texas was celebrating the inauguration of both Greg Abbott, the state’s first new governor in fourteen years, and Patrick, who won a hard-fought battle for lite guv, dethroning David Dewhurst, who held the position since 2003.
On this new day, Patrick engaged in what is a relatively new phenomenon: as he approached the stage microphone, he took a crowd selfie. Two, actually.
“I want to get those green signs in the back,” he said, changing angles at the podium.
Watching a prominent Texas politician so publicly acknowledge the presence of anti-death penalty protesters at what was meant to be framed as a joyous occasion was, to me, a new and welcome form of political outreach. The inadvertent gesture of goodwill, however, appeared to be lost on the protestors. When I asked the group if they’d heard Patrick “give you a shout out,” they looked at me solemnly, shook their heads no, then proceeded to explain who Rodney Reed was and how his was wrongly convicted by an all white jury in 1996.
This was a downer, especially compared to the rest of the crowd at the inauguration. In its own way, the crowd was new, at least compared to the scene typical to downtown Austin. Normally one sees hip, young, loud, tattooed residents zip-zipping through the streets on with their fixed gear bikes and Cars2Go. But this crowd was different.
They were happy and upbeat, the look of people no longer beaten down, ever again, by the rigors of work or school or young children. They wore their mid-morning Tuesday best, the theme of which was safari. There was leopard print everywhere. Leopard-print blouses; leopard-print dresses; leopard- print jackets. I even spied a leopard and zebra-print jacket; a glittery leopard-print purse; and a leopard print iPhone case. Often, the leopard print served as a base from which coiffed and colored hair wisped delicately in the breeze like cotton floss. Considering the all the exotic animal youth that normally roam Austin, this seemed like a nice bit of congruity. New, but not too new.
But for all the newness, there was one old trope on display: what some might call political apathy. The few thousand spectators in attendance was far less than the 10,000 people organizers had expected. Maybe it was indifference, but I prefer to think of it as a political rally distilled to its purest essence. After a three-day weekend, only the die-hard lovers of pomp and ceremony were still partying.
The event’s directors can’t be blamed for this. The inauguration was on a Tuesday after a three-day weekend. A lot of people had to work. The things, however, the Inauguration Committee could control went off without a hitch—except, said the committee’s chairman, John Wittman, the F-16 flyover. He’d hoped it would happen at the exact moment “America’s Tenor” Steve Amerson belted out “and the home of the brave” during the National Anthem. Instead it came about thirty seconds afterwards. It was still an impressive show, and, as an elated woman later said to me, the fortuitous timing couldn’t have been better: “Did you see the eagle flying under the airplanes, like it was trailing them?” she asked.
Well, no, I didn’t. And Wittman clearly didn’t plan it that way. He also had no hand in the weather, which nearly everyone commented on. “Whoever was in charge of organizing the weather sure did a great job,” said a voice in the crowd. A variation on this Dad joke would be overheard four or five times during the course of that very beautiful, 60-degree morning. There was also a lot of talk of food among the early birds who showed up close to 9 a.m. for the 11 a.m. ceremonies. By 10:30 a.m., one factoid was being passed around eagerly and repeatedly: “It’s four tons of barbecue.”
Though the private conversations I overheard were focused primarily on food and weather and other such decidedly not-new subjects, when the media turned to them, the crowd performed admirably. The mood was jovial and respectful. When the TV crews began roaming the line from the other side of the fence, the crowd was sincere and gracious and didn’t try to jump into the various shots or stick their tongue out at the camera like a bunch of young hooligans. This was a special event, after all.
What does this mean for you? asked a newsman to a group that included one leopard-print lover.
“This is history,” said one woman. “This is history in the making.”
She almost made the tired old refrain feel new again.
If the start of this new day in Texas seemed rather traditional, the following barbecue and parade was downright nostalgic. An ideal of the pleasant old days of Main Street Texas. In 1939, newly elected Governor Pappy O’Daniel held what is considered the first inaugural barbecue. “News accounts remarked that 19,000 pounds of meat (including buffalo the governor claimed to have shot himself) were cooked in massive pits dug into the mansion grounds,” writes Houston Chronicle’s Lauren McGaughy in a little history of past inaugurations. Though far less barbecue was served at this inauguration, this afternoon supper felt like a throwback to simpler times. It felt, like Governor Pappy himself, rather populist.
After the official inauguration, the crowd in front of the Capitol quickly formed a line that stretched nearly the entire lawn and ended at Congress Avenue. Wittman would later tell me that pretty much all the expected bellies—17,000—were filled. The line’s progression started off slowly and politely until a barker near the front began beckoning people to swarm the gates.
“The lines are shorter and the food is just as good,” yelled the barker, as the herd of people began positioning themselves before at least 29 rows of barbecue set-ups. As the Texas Tribune noted, there was—along with the four tons of beef brisket everyone kept mentioning—one ton of chicken; two-and-a-quarter tons of potato salad; one-and-a-quarter ton of coleslaw; 340 gallons of spicy pinto beans; and 17,000 handmade rolls. In the week leading up to the event, much had been made of Eddie Deen, barbecue master to the statesmen. He’s been the man behind the inaugural grill (both here and in D.C. for George W. Bush) for the past twenty years and is proud that he can serve “14,000 guests in 45 minutes.”
Eddie Deen did not disappoint. It seemed as if it only took ten minutes for the tent seating—rows and rows of long plastic tables with enough room for chairs and little else—to hit capacity. Fresh attendees sat happily on the surrounding slopes. The whole scene had the vibe of a community festival circa 1944, devoid of irony but with plenty of polite conversation and even better manners. A children’s choir could be heard singing Texas songs and the University of Texas band herded together on the north end, careful not to let their plates drip on their uniforms. In line for food, I heard a young boy with a tie say “yes ma’am” as his equally young sister, unwatched, ran her palms all over the smooth, gleaming tops of the handmade rolls. A troop of Boy Scouts darted and dogged around the legs of adults. Even the homeless were invited in. Or, as a cynic might put it, no one at the turnstile was checking for the $10.00 ticket.
Before setting out to report on this new day, I had wanted to know more about the old days. Specifically, how this new inauguration compared to past ones. The Legislative Reference Library has an online collection of scanned documents from inaugurations dating back to Governor James Hogg in 1891, but colorful details are limited.
One notable factoid is that the Inaugural Committee, which today has about seventy staff members, hasn’t really bloated in size over the years—something that can’t be said of many other governmentally inspired groups—despite increases in both attendance and the state’s population. Sam Houston’s inauguration had about 41 “managers” and the 1961 committee for Governor Daniel’s had more than fifty. Governor Mark White’s committee in 1983 had about seventy members.
But I wanted to know how it felt to be at past inaugurations. I imagined Governor Ann Richard’s inauguration being a rambunctious, wild affair, seeing as she was the first real female elected to that office. Instead, the description of her events sounded a bit like Red Army propaganda, what with “The People’s March to the Capitol” where supporters would “reclaim our Capitol,” as well as the “Victory Dinner,” a seemingly popular function when a Democrat took office.
I’d been told that legislative veterans Senator John Whitmire and Secretary of the Senate Patsy Spaw might have some great institutional knowledge when it came to past inaugurations. Unfortunately, Spaw couldn’t be reached and Whitmire was, in the words of press officers everywhere, unavailable for comment. Determined to get a sense of previous festivities, I set about asking attendees about past inaugurations. I quickly faced two obstacles. First, I was surrounded by people with mouths already occupied, making interviews rather difficult. Even then, however, few people seemed to have actually attended a Texas inauguration before.
Perhaps part of the reason is history. Texas hadn’t had a proper Inauguration in ten years. When Governor Rick Perry was re-elected in 2011, he had forgone the hoopla because of the economy, said Wittman. In 2007, there was a multi-state-wide ice storm that killed forty-one people. There was still a barbecue, thanks to some heat lamps, but the parade was canceled and the inauguration itself was held indoors. Several people, when I asked them about past inaugurations, said they went to George W. Bush’s presidential event in 2000. Only one woman I spoke with had been to a previous Texas inauguration: Bush’s 1995 event. I asked her what it was like, what she remembered.
“There were no trees,” she replied.
Bellies full, it was time for the parade. In the following days, slight criticism of the parade was posted online—both on Instagram and on this website—concerning crowd size, but this seems unnecessarily picky. Even during the inauguration, about three or four people fainted because of the direct sunlight. And as said before, it was a workday for many, but for us packed in into the first two blocks nearest the Capitol, the parade was a marvelous throwback to small-town life.
The number of young children had multiplied by this point, their cheers and waves cresting as the floats went by. The floats themselves were beautifully crafted homages to the classic Texas life. There was one with a farm motif, featuring a glittery mache tractor. There was a NASA related float. And there was the oil-themed float complete with a scene of oil drums, a well, a pumpjack, and, inexplicably, a massive black crow perched on a power line.
A marching band heartily bleating out “Deep in the Heart of Texas” rang down Congress Avenue. As a recently arrived Texan, it’s difficult to express the curious and foreign excitement of seeing rows and rows of young people marching in unison while wearing frilly, colorful outfits topped with silly, cartoonish cowboy hats. It’s so cool. Like suddenly stepping out of a time machine and realizing those old black and white photos didn’t accurately portray the pizzazz and sparkle of a community parade.
As Abbott floated by with his family on the back of a car, young men in nice blazers yelled “Give ’em hell, Governor!” as they stabbed the air with Hook ’Em Horns. They erupted in cheers when Abbott returned the sign. Following behind was Patrick, waving with one hand and gripping tight to his phone, full of selfies, in the other.
Disappointing as it might have been to the jaded, the parade was a far cry from the 1903 march, “the shortest and most select parade in Inauguration Day history,” according to a program from the 1963 inaugural events. “The parade consisted of only seven people—the first family of Texas.” No, this one was a beautiful scene. Even the construction workers had stopped their banging and cement cutting to watch. They enjoyed the little break, one told me.
And then it abruptly ended.
“That’s it!” yelled someone from the crowd as a member of the poop brigade scooped up some horse droppings. They had been the final group in the parade and with the jarring clank! of the shovel, the crowd dispersed in all directions. It was if Main Street Texas had been paused and some force had suddenly hit play on normal, downtown life. The construction workers went back to their smashing, a loading truck grunted at a corner, and the tattooed bike messengers began zipping through the streets.
It would business as usual until the Inaugural Ball later that night.
The future. That was the theme of the inaugural events. It started on Monday with the Young Texans Celebration, where Dan Patrick played a little guitar alongside the Josh Abbott Band (Greg Abbott was there, too). Then there was Tuesday’s rallying cry about a “new day in Texas.” It all culminated that evening with the “Future of Texas Ball,” which was pretty classy as far as futures go—black-tie and a $75 entrance fee.
The Inauguration Committee had spent $4 million on all the festivities, including bringing in Lady Antebellum to play at the ball. It was a smart move on Team Abbott’s part, seeing as the far less bland Ted Nugent had caused a bit of a stir during the 2007 ball. The Nuge had appeared on stage with AK-47 props, wore a confederate flag was “shouting offensive remarks about non-English speakers.” Lady Antebellum’s songs include such hits as “Dancin’ Away With My Heart” and “American Honey.”
Food and drink were well stocked, too. Although a forty-person line had formed in front of the “Farmer’s Market Table,” people seemed to be in a genuinely festive mood. And, despite the literal tons of barbecue served earlier, they were hungry. The finger food included about 8,000 servings of crudites; 2,000 servings of white cedar-smoked tenderloin of beef on a chive crostini with caramelized onion cream; baked brie cups with apricot chile and toasted pine nuts; and boursin cheese and Pasilla raspberry coupelles, among many fine items. It was a far cry from Governor Pendleton Murrah’s 1863 inauguration dinner. That year, he was “faced with a nearly bare larder,” thanks to the Civil War, and served corn cakes at the state banquet. The group in charge of catering wouldn’t disclose to me what the partiers were drinking apart from that the younger crowd watching the concert were primarily beer drinkers. One bartender did say, rather sardonically, they were selling “a lot of white wine.”
Incidentally, I had bee-lined it for one of the numerous bars the moment I arrived. There were at least seven bartenders per station and lines had politely formed in front of each corresponding cash register. Older men in tuxedos were pulling out wads of cash, even though cards were accepted and the wait was longer than most hip bars on a hectic weekend night. Was this the future of Texas?
For a time, I just wandered the cavernous, blue-lit interior divided into quadrants with both lounge seats and tables in strategically placed spots. I spoke at length with a husband and wife by the bar. The man was in the air conditioning business and our conversation was a breeze until he asked if I’d ever been to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where his air conditioner factory was located. It’s near my hometown and I made some disparaging remarks, out of habit of a local rivalry. The conversation soon ended. One of the few young people I talked to worked in the legislature. He had been working on the Texas Enterprise and Emerging Technology Funds initiative. I made a face that said “ouch, sorry, bro,” before trying to cover it up with another gulp of whiskey. He assured me his new day in Texas meant a transfer to a different department.
Finally, about two hours in, Greg Abbott and Dan Patrick came out, to much fanfare, onto the T-shaped stage opposite of the concert area. The group of us who crowded around were of middling age. The much older crowd seemed to stay back, sitting at the tables, the much younger crowded still at the concert area. We were, after all, the ones Abbott was thanking. The newly elected leaders kept their speeches mercifully short. Abbott referred to Lady Antebellum as “she,” perhaps thinking the group was a more countrified version of Lady Gaga, which, admittedly, sounds like a lot of fun. Crowded beside Abbott, Patrick took a selfie.
As the night wore on, I had hoped to start asking people, as they got liquored up, what “the future of Texas” and “a new day in Texas” meant to them. It did not go well. The younger partiers, the ones reasonably suspected of being the true future of Texas, were hanging out near the stage dancing and taking selfies. Lady Antebellum was playing too loud for any kind of conversation.
Feeling unfilled and on a hot tip from one of the bus drivers outside, I headed to the Four Seasons, where many of the out-of-towners were supposedly staying. The bar was full of handsome forty-something men in tuxedos and beautiful women of indeterminate age in gowns, all lounging and chatting like Gatsby’s gang. Desperate, I asked one woman and her friend what the “future of Texas” meant to them. They ended up listing some of the rich and influential people they knew. Feeling out of place, I left them for the W shortly after, the last stop, it appeared, on this new day in Texas.
At the W, the hotel and bar where many of the up-and-coming hotshots of Austin drink and converse, young, beautiful people milled about in the outdoor patio section. The women were moving a bit more freely than earlier and the men were talking a little bit louder. But there was a line to get in, maybe fifteen people deep. It was around then that I decided to hang up the notebook. The time was 1:00 a.m. It was now a new new day in Texas.